On Friday, Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar publisher Games Workshop posted on its official community page an unusual note titled The Imperium is Driven by Hate. Warhammer is Not. The post is a strong statement from one of the largest gaming companies in the world and reads, in part: “If you come to a Games Workshop event or store and behave to the contrary, including wearing the symbols of real-world hate groups, you will be asked to leave. We won’t let you participate. We don’t want your money. We don’t want you in the Warhammer community.”
The statement comes after fans attending a Warhammer 40,000 tournament in Spain noticed a player wearing Nazi iconography who entered under the name Austrian Painter. GT Talavera tournament organizers gave comment to tabletop wargaming site Spikey Bits stating “that the club repudiates the Nazi mentality in all its aspects [...] Nazi ideas have no place in our group, because they are contrary to everything we stand for.” The organizers said that the player said he would not leave unless they involved the police. As displaying Nazi imagery is not illegal in Spain, the organizers hesitated lest this bring legal trouble upon their club.
Warhammer 40,000 is a dystopian sci-fi setting on a massive scale, where billions die every day in the middle of a massive free-for-all between several terrifying factions, from the ravenous alien hive known as the Tyranids to the stoic and immortal Eldar. The Imperium of Man is the closet thing we have to a faction that looks like us. It is a monotheistic, actively fascist, heavily armed race that is ruled by, as the blog post notes, “the living corpse of a God-Emperor whose commandments are at best only half-remembered, twisted by time and the fallibility of Humanity.” It is unapologetically xenophobic, and its history is riddled with more than 10,000 years of repeated, brutal genocide.
It’s a setting so bleak that it’s often called “grimdark” — there are no good guys, and the heroes can only scrape out the barest wins again an uncaring, actively hostile universe. However, the imagery of the Imperium of Man has attracted a devoted following among real world hate groups, becoming a staple of the modern meme economy of online hate. In 2019, that flashed over into the real world when a float in an Italian parade showcased former President Trump encased in the golden armor of the God-Emperor.
The artist, Fabrizio Galli, later explained that the float was “a joke” commenting on the fact that “he’s trying to destroy nations with the economy instead of nuclear missiles. This is one of the strongest actions, let’s say, that powerful people like Trump can use.”
These kinds of artistic interpretations make sense, and can happen in good faith. After all, Warhammer 40K is a setting heavily based in satire and black comedy. Developer Games Workshop acknowledges this in the blog post (emphasis Games Workshop’s).
The Imperium of Man stands as a cautionary tale of what could happen should the very worst of Humanity’s lust for power and extreme, unyielding xenophobia set in. Like so many aspects of Warhammer 40,000, the Imperium of Man is satirical.
For clarity: satire is the use of humour, irony, or exaggeration, displaying people’s vices or a system’s flaws for scorn, derision, and ridicule. Something doesn’t have to be wacky or laugh-out-loud funny to be satire. The derision is in the setting’s amplification of a tyrannical, genocidal regime, turned up to 11. The Imperium is not an aspirational state, outside of the in-universe perspectives of those who are slaves to its systems. It’s a monstrous civilisation, and its monstrousness is plain for all to see.
That said, certain real-world hate groups – and adherents of historical ideologies better left in the past – sometimes seek to claim intellectual properties for their own enjoyment, and to co-opt them for their own agendas.
Despite this, far-right groups continue to use Warhammer 40K as part of their branding. A faction of fans have infamously co-opted the Imperium’s iconography in their own movements. Games Workshop has taken action before; in 2020, a YouTuber removed the Warhammer from his title at Games Workshop’s request after racist rhetoric on his stream and leaked images of his Discord revealed more racist comments.
This is not the first time that Games Workshop has stepped out to make its own position on hate clear. It made a similar statement via Twitter in June 2020 that read “Warhammer is for everyone.”
Games Workshop has become increasingly strict with enforcing its IP in recent years. Fans and creators now argue that it is too strict when it comes to fan animations and other projects online, a decision that many see as hostile and defensive given its new online streaming service. However, it does seem like the developer is using all of the resources at its disposal to deal with the culture problem within its community of fans — and encouraging local organizers to do the same at their events.