Secret Hitler: Making a Game of Hitler’s Rise to Power

The Holocaust did not begin with the gas chambers of Auschwitz, nor did it begin with Kristallnacht in 1938. Instead, it began with rhetoric and hate speech. It began with words that desensitized and dehumanized. Words that belittled, insulted, and finally threatened.

Today, people are called “Hitler” because we disagree with their politics; “Nazis” because they propose or vote for laws we don’t like. They are called “fascists” by people who don’t even understand what that means. Hitler, and in truth many antisemites, were successful because they begin not as raving lunatics, but as seemingly normal people who supposedly wanted a better world, or at least a better Germany.

Hitler came to power with words. He desensitized civilized people to evil ideas. It began by segregating, dividing and justifying violence and deceit.

Hitler is remembered by some Germans as the one who built the roads; in India, I was told by the bookstore owner that Hitler was a “strong leader” and Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf was a bestseller. And, if that upsets you, consider the idea of making a game about Hitler’s rise to power. Yes, a game.

Consider a game and the people who play it. Relaxed. Just having fun. A board game where 7 – 10 players gather together in a simulated conflict over whether or not to re-elect Hitler as chancellor of Germany.

We are not to be offended, apparently, because the game’s “action” takes place in 1932 and doesn’t bother mentioning such concepts as Mein Kampf, which was written in 1925, after Hitler’s failed coup in 1923. I learned of a game that has been in the top 100 best-selling list since 2017. In 2019, it was #28 out of 100.  the other day. The manufacturer recommends that players be “17 years and up”. When shipped, the game weighs a mere 2.35 pounds and on Amazon, it has received 4.9 out of 5 stars.

As I read the reviews, I could feel both anger and horror. The ratings of this game are quite positive. “I was a fascist twice, liberal once, and hitler [sic] once,” writes one users. “The pure adrenaline of trying to keep it together while trying to make the right alliances is my favorite part.”

Perhaps this is the time to mention that this bestseller game is called Secret Hitler and has been around for many years. The creators started a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 to cover various costs involved in launching it. The campaign raised over $1,470,000. If you pledged $30 or more, you’d get “one copy of Secret Hitler, plus the Cards Against Humanity ‘Fascism Pack”.

The Secret Hitler game is sold on Amazon and, of course, it has its own website. On the front page, there are some frequently asked questions and one asks, “I don’t think there’s anything funny or cool about fascism. Who can I complain to?” I guess they think it’s a joke because they then list something like 250 US Senators and Representatives with their contact information.

In fact, according to Wikipedia, makers of the game shipped free copies to 100 members of the US Senate. Proving the point that abusing such terms as Nazis, Hitler and fascists, the creators of this came also created “The Trump Pack” which “replaces the fascists cards with Donald Trump and prominent members of this administration.”

According to the rules, the game takes place in 1932. It pits “Liberals” against “Fascists” and one player is designated as “Hitler”. The liberals can in win by enacting five liberal policies or assassinating Hitler. The Nazis…I mean the Fascists win if they elect six fascist policies or if Hitler gets elected Chancellor.

Of course, no mention is made of Jews, of the Holocaust, of Auschwitz where my great-grandmother was murdered and my mother-in-law put in a gas chamber. No mention is made of Maidanek, where I stood in a gas chamber for the first time some 20 years ago. There is no reason to worry about the context or the significance of Hitler’s coming to power when you can sit and have fun, right? You can even get free shipping to Israel. Isn’t that lovely?

Their site made me angry. The reviews on Amazon made me want to cry.

”Some folks are at first apprehensive to play because of the name-it’s just a name,” writes Carey who writes that the game is “so much fun.” I guess her husband didn’t lose all of his grandparents in Auschwitz.

Sargon writes that playing Hitler in the game got him a date to his senior prom and explains how his very first time playing, he got the Hitler card, “After about five minutes of people begging the president to give me the chancellorship, we finally voted on me and I jumped up yelling “DEUTSCHLAND”. And so he actually celebrated Hitler becoming the chancellor of Germany. I guess he never saw his grandfather cry when he spoke of the loss of his mother and two sisters who were rounded up and murdered in Poland.

JRR writes, “If you enjoy screaming “FASCIST” at your friends and family, buy this game…If you have a mother-in-law you’ve ever wanted to call “HITLER” to their face, buy this game.”

C. doesn’t really understand why people would be offended by this game, “Are people just triggered by the word ‘Hitler?’ Is our society so gone that feeling uncomfortable is mistaken as an offense? This game is not a re-enactment of the Holocaust.” Good to know. The review continues with the hope that “this game can be used as a teaching lesson of preventing ‘another Hitler’”. Sure, by half the people hoping Hitler gets elected? I’m kind of missing the logic there.

Mark seeks to comfort us by writing, “I have been told by friends who have never played that they were concerned that the game involved sensitive topics, but after playing they can see that the game is generic and does not have any of the atrocities of fascism.”

But you see, these reviews show the problem. One of the atrocities of fascism is that it dehumanized my people. It sought to erase them not only physically from their Aryan society, but from the world. That is what this game does by ignoring the very core of fascism. Hatred, torture, systemic antisemitism and murder. It’s not a game. Fascism isn’t about intrigue and trying to outsmart the other side. It wasn’t about calling people names and it wasn’t about making alliances.

Perhaps, this review sheds even more light on what the game-players really think. Along the lines of the best defense is a strong offense, one reviewer wrote “Yes, the game is a little inappropriate but what great game isn’t? If you have a problem with it being about nazi Germany and Hitler, then don’t buy it. It’s clear that this is the theme of the game, so don’t buy it and complain about it. If you don’t have a good sense of humor, don’t buy it and don’t play; just stick to your boring over done monopoly games.” The same review ends with, “Go buy this game!! As long as you’re not a stick in the mud without a sense of humor.” 

So there you have it. I’m just a “stick in the mud without a sense of humor” wondering why it was called Secret Hitler and not Secret Napoleon or Secret Stalin?

Perhaps one of our greatest challenges is making the misguided manufacturers of this game understand why Secret Hitler is not only an insult, but a dangerous act that serves to desensitize players in a world that is already desensitized to violence and hatred.

Were there no other barbarians that could have been used in the making of this game?


Paula R. Stern

Paula R. Stern is the CEO of WritePoint Ltd, a leading technical writing company in Israel. She is also a popular blogger with her work appearing on her own sites, A Soldier's Mother and PaulaSays, as well as IsraellyCool and a number of other Jewish and Israeli sites.

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