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The German National Character

May 8th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 15 Comments · Feature:Nations, History

What this is about, including full list.

What most gamers know about German history fits into a spasm of madness between 1933 and 1945. Though it goes too far to call this decade-plus a fluke (Nazism and the revanchism it embraced had a strong cultural and historical background, not unique to Germany), the horrible excesses and crimes of the period are not a great place to look for portrayals of the German character. For a long time, wargames perpetuated the myth of the German super soldier (especially SS units) and many games set in World War II gave Germany production bonuses to capture the idea of Nazi efficiency (another long exploded myth about the war; German economy and industry was a corrupt and chaotic mess most of the time.)

But this idea of amazing German production capacity in the war, its rapid industrialization in the late 19th century and Germany’s quick recovery from the devastation of WW2 has given strategy game developers something to work with, a national characteristic that casts Germany as a super producer. Efficient, disciplined, with a strong work ethic.

Or, as Rise of Nations dubs it, The Power of Industry. In that game, Germany is given a huge resource advantage – extra goods when they complete building, cheaper and more easily available industrial bonus structures (smelter, lumber mill, granary) and a small bonus to resource gathering per city that, over the course of a game, will have Germany churning out their superior infantry and tanks. And they get to build aircraft faster, too. Germany is an assembly line nation, even for those ancient and medieval periods when Germans were known mostly for resisting Roman rule and then resisting religious rule from Rome. Where we see ancient traits carried forward for Egypt and Greece, modern Germany imposes its reputation on the heroes of Teutoberger Wald and the Holy Roman Emperors that had a nation, but not a country.

Like many so-called national powers, this is a trait that has to go to some nation if you insist on distinguishing races and factions by the powers they have in a game. Someone has to be the ant, working hard and making things faster or accumulating resources faster than anyone else. Since Germany’s Golden Ages (Unification to World War I and the post-war recovery) are both based strongly on turning non-productive areas of a nation into modern factories, this is a trait that comfortably carries through many nation based game systems.

In Civilization 4, both German leaders have important traits for economic and industrial management (Frederick’s Organized trait keeps the cost of expansion down with faster factory construction and Bismarck’s Industrious trait means faster wonders and faster forge construction; those hammers add up.) In Age of Empires 3, the German settler wagon is a stronger and more efficient resource gatherer. In Empires: Dawn of the Modern World, buildings go up faster and food and wood are collected more quickly. While you can sometimes find these sorts of bonuses present to other nations as well, few of them are as consistently portrayed as economic/industrial juggernauts.

Germany is, therefore, the quintessentially modern European nation, which makes sense given its relatively late and quickly stable unification. And the modern Germany we know, as I said at the top, is Nazi Germany. If there is an option to move your in-game Germany into modernity, you will have a special tank. The Panzer has become as synonymous with German military history as the legionnaire is to Roman. One is just another tank, and the other is just another swordsman, but the way they were used and their central role in expanding an empire (if shortlived in the German case) makes it difficult to think of the Nazi German Army as anything less than a vast superstructure to support their armored divisions.

Wargames have a lot of fun with trying to represent German tank abilities. There is always the math of armor and penetration and speed. Then you have the limited numbers of the really awesome Tigers, though one of those in Combat Mission was enough to ruin your day assuming it didn’t break down.

The tank has become emblematic of the whole blitzkrieg strategy, even though that strategy also relied on air power and fast moving infantry, not to mention all that legendary German efficiency in keeping the supply lines stable. It’s not that German tanks were necessarily the best tanks, nor that their tankmen were necessarily the best at that. The tank is the default German weapon because the German Army of that period is given a lot of credit for “discovering” the tank’s potential. (We can do back and forth over how smart Guderian really was; well someone can, I know just enough to know that I don’t know enough.)

And it’s here, in the modern industrial Germany, that we lose sight of how there was a time that France was the militaristic bully of Europe that needed to be contained and Germany the fractured romantic nation of Schiller and Goethe and Beethoven. As it should be clear to readers by now, I don’t believe that any of this national culture stuff is real or innate, but game designers who want to differentiate their nations will fall into common understandings of who a people are. We have decided that the Germans are modern builders with great tanks – that is the Germany that players know and that designers can easily translate.

Next up, a decidedly not modern nation (in game terms), the founders of democracy, the Greeks.


15 Comments so far ↓

  • The French National Character

    […] Comments The German National Character on National Charactersspelk on Three Moves Ahead Episode 115 – Bolshy BalderdashRW117 on […]

  • tsurap

    eRepublik is a massively multiplayer online strategy game which is set in a mirror world where players have the power to make a difference and fulfill their economic, political or military dreams. Go Play –

  • Shaun

    The National Character series is one of the best things on the web. I think it’s a shame that German history is so consumed by WWII. If you need evidence, visit your local bookstore and check out the German history section. You wont find much that doesn’t involve Hitler, the SS, or the Holocaust.

    As for discovering the potential of the tank? On a tactical level I think the credit would go to a WWI German tanker named Ernst Volckheim. Operationally? Guderian. Strategically? Maybe Seekt? That one is tough.

    Looking forward to Greece. :D

  • Wolfox

    Great article. That last paragraph (well, second to last, in fact) is particularly insightful. So you’d say that, deep down, national characters in games are pretty much just stereotypes, applied on a game design perspective?

  • Troy

    Pretty much, Wolfox. I make no claims that any of this is real history – hence it is on a game blog.

    But, there is more to it than simply stereotypes, as discussed in the Babylonian article. I will save more of that for the conclusion.

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    Great post. It’s fascinating how you can pretty much read the entire history of Europe from the beginning of the 19th century to today as a story about German unification — first among the Germans as to how to achieve it, and then among the rest of Europe as to how to contain it and, eventually, live with it.

  • Ganesh

    Thanks for a great article!

    Especially the aspect of industrial power seems interesting to me. In 2005 we had a disgusting promotional campaign ‘Du bist Deutschland’ (You are Germany) which promoted the industrial leaders of the 20th century like Krupp and Porsche and ‘forgot’ to mention their involvement with the Nazis.

    BTW: “Teutoburger Wald” ;)

  • Michael A.


    I’d say that the idea of German militarization and efficiency has as much root in the Prussia of Frederik the Great and empire of Bismarck, as it has in the history of Nazi Germany.

    Alte Friedrich (and his two predecessors) started the “revolution” with liberal policies that protected industries, minimized internal tariffs, carried out extensive agricultural (potatoes and turnips) and communication reforms (Vistula and Oder canals), etc., etc. And of course, he completed the militarization of the state and fought the wars that would make Napoleon consider him the greatest tactical genius of all time.

    The “Iron Chancellor” represents the other distinctive historical period of Prussia/Germany, associated as it is with the dynamic industrialization of the era, the unification of Germany, and the crushingly superior German war machine of the time.

    I think that – other than Panzers – both of these earlier periods exert more influence over the “national character” view of Germany than the Nazi and post-war period; not least because the latter myth was built on the earlier history.

    Not sure about American vernacular, but in Scandinavia one still talks of “Prussian Discipline”, “Prussian Efficiency” and the “Prussians of the North” (Sweden) – indicating fairly obviously where these charicatures originate.

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    Thanks for another enjoyable post!

    Troy, now I’m curious — for those games that did strive to be about historical accuracy (including but not limited to wargames – Paradox games count; Civ/RoN/AoE don’t), how long did it take them to overcome the myths that you mention, and what did this process look like?

  • Troy


    You are probably right about the efficiency component, but the industrial side of things is certainly modern. It’s a particular type of efficiency, fusing concerns about time and careful use of money with a modern idea about how a nation gets powerful.

  • Yann Best

    Aye, Germany do get a rough time of it; outside of strategy games they’re still portrayed as an people defined by being extremely efficient, and possessing a poor sense of humour, at least here in the UK and France. The former a combination of WWII (as you say), and from their status as a current-day economic powerhouse; the latter… possibly a hangover from them having a slew of famously dour philosphers, perhaps? Though that would presumably lead to a reputation for having no sense of humour at all, rather than a reputation for making poor jokes. Hmm.

    Anyway, very much looking forward to the Greeks. If only because it’ll give me an excuse to wheel out my good old moan about how everybody knows about Homer and plays and Democracy and Hoplites, but nobody ever mentions that the ancient buggers also invented the novel. And yes, I specifically mean the form of long prose narrative, regularly described as being invented in medieval Europe. Ancient Greece (under Rome) woz robbed :(

    But yes, I’ll save the full rant for the next article in the series. I bet you can’t /wait/ ;)

  • Michael A.

    I guess “modern” depends on what era you define it as; I’d call the efficiency component pre-Modern, as it definitely originates in the Bismarckian era (the Konzerne system, Bayer, Krupp, Benz, etc). Germany was one of the first countries in the world to have professional management employees.

    Oh yeah – and excellent blog post as always. Glad that you still have time for this.

  • Strangeblades

    I enjoy reading these articles and learning about history. It has been my exposure through the 3MA podcast (thanks Julian!) and this website that I am coming to appreciate this deep well of lore, facts, myths and what-nots. Keep up the awesome work. Like someone said before the Internet and the gaming community need a site like this.

  • Fast Eddie

    Michael: There tends to be a lot of overlap between these stereotypes. For example, one reason why Prussia no longer exists as a political subdivision of Germany is that the Allies in 1945 considered ‘Prussian militarism’ to be a key element in the rise of the Nazi empire. Which is far too simplistic an explanation, but it is true that the two worlds (Wilhelmite and Nazi) did have much in common.

    Ironically, ‘Prussian efficiency’ was not a huge driver of Germany’s industrialisation. The key industrial areas were in the Rhineland and Saxony, while most of Prussia itself remained an agricultural backwater. Similarly, the Nazi contribution to the German economy is often overstated. But then its these popular histories and stereotypes, as Troy acutely notes, that game designers draw from.

  • maroule

    Nice series, thanks for that.

    A few random musings;

    Indeed the Nazi shadow makes it difficult for strategy games to treat Germany, as exemplified by the few tastless mods on Hitler, available for Civ. Obviously the Kaiser is also a pretty poor choice, not only detestable as a person but also a mediocre leader.

    On the other hand, Frederick the II (barberousse) is a fantastic germanic leader to use, and probably the first “modern ruler”.

    On considering SS as an example of crack infantery/unique unit; while always better equiped and supplied than other troops, there were not that impressive compared to run of the mill wehrmarcht. The German propaganda served them well, but military historians tend to be underwhelmed.

    The lansquenet makes for a great unique unit, really groundbreaking, and clearly german.

    To loop back on the French article; as you stated, during Monarchy / Napoleonic times, France was the bully, and Germany constantly beaten and invaded (the major rallying point behind the later unification)

    On the French stereotypes, it was always a surprise to me how the tag of “surrendering” stuck so much specifically to France, when pretty much every army meeting the Germans between 39-42 was steamrolled (this is especially true of England and the US – and consider Kasselrine happened despite blitzkrieg being very old hat by that time!). On the fall of France, considering 200.000 French soldiers were incapacitated in just a few weeks (90k dead), and up to 160.000 germans, it’s not as if it had been a hand bag tussle either.

    A more exact stereotype would be the “gallic fury”; most neighbours of France feared this blind rage of the franks/french, visible from the gauls to the republican / napoleonic armies.

    While culture is not a bad angle for a unique civ trait, France is more accurately describded as a very war centric country, not only externally, but also internally (the French have always excelled at killing each other). Louis the XIV, remembered for the fun at Versailles, spent his time and money on disastrous (and fairly useless) wars throughout his reign…