ARTICLE BY JACOB AUSUBEL
As you probably know already, George Lucas’ Star Wars saga is one of the most popular movie franchises of all time. The six main films in the saga, as well as the much-maligned Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated film, have earned just under $4.5 billion worldwide. This number will undoubtedly skyrocket when The Force Awakens premieres in theaters on December 18, 2015. In short, this franchise has a dedicated fan following but also has mass appeal to general audiences.
The general consensus of the Star Wars saga is that it is fun, geeky, and mindless entertainment. The series is known most for its battle scenes, catchphrases, and iconic characters. One common misunderstanding of Star Wars is that the saga lacks relevance in the real world. This assumption is flawed. In fact, these films provide commentary on several conflicts, including World War II.
The rise of the Galactic Empire closely parallels the story of the Third Reich in Germany. In Germany, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party initially gained power through legal means. In the legislative elections of November 1929, the Nazi Party won the votes of nearly 40 percent of the electorate. As Hitler was the head of the Nazi Power, this electoral success led to him being an influential politician. Despite winning only 33 percent of the vote in 1932, the Nazis remained a powerful political force. The Nazis were so powerful, in fact, that the president of Germany, Paul von Hindenburg, appointed Hitler the chancellor of Germany. Two years later, Hitler had become the president of Germany and, by all intents and purposes, a dictator.
In the Star Wars films, Chancellor Palpatine uses similarly legal, but morally ambiguous, methods to rise to power. At the beginning of the saga, he is a senator from the planet of Naboo. Unsatisfied with his job as a senator, he manipulates his colleagues into electing him chancellor of the Galactic Republic. During his turbulent term in office, a coalition of planetary governments, known as the Confederation of Independent Systems, secedes from the Republic. Palpatine takes advantage of this conflict and assumes emergency war powers. He claims that he will give up these powers once the Separatist crisis has passed but never in fact relinquishes them.
Likewise, the Reichstag and Reichsrat (the two branches of the German legislature) granted Hitler special powers by passing the Enabling Act. This act essentially gave the chancellor “the power to enact laws” without needing anyone else’s approval. The passage of the act reinforced Hitler’s role as the most powerful man in Germany.
By the time of A New Hope, the Galactic Republic has become an empire, with Palpatine as its leader. Palpatine dissolves the Imperial Senate, consolidating even more power in the process. Similarly, Hitler disbanded the Reichsrat, the legislative body that represented the German states. Like Palpatine, he faced virtually no political opposition. As Historian Ian Kershaw observed:
“No politburo, war council, cabinet, military junta, senate, or gathering of ministers existed to mediate or check his rule.”
Hitler used fear tactics to govern the Third Reich and to prevent insurrections. Historian John Keegan noted:
“Throughout Hitler’s empire, coercion, repression, punishment, reprisal, terror, extermination – the chain of measure by which Nazi Germany exercised its power over occupied Europe.”
Likewise, Palpatine uses fear tactics to prevent local governments from revolting against the Galactic Empire. Grand Moff Tarkin, one of Palpatine’s most loyal followers, proclaims in A New Hope:
“Fear will keep the local systems in line.”
The connections between Star Wars and Nazi Germany are not simply fan theories. George Lucas, the visionary who created the Star Wars saga, has confirmed that the similarities are not coincidental. As Lucas explained after the release of Revenge of the Sith, one underlying idea in the third prequel film is how democracy can be “turned over to a tyrant with applause.” Lucas claimed that this was the story of not just Chancellor Palpatine but also of great dictators, such as Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler.
It is no mistake that Nazi uniforms and imperial officer outfits look similar. In his commentary of The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas even referred to imperial officers as “Nazis.” He remarked:
“The Nazis are basically the same costume as we used in the first film and they are designed to be very authoritarian, very empire-like.”
In summary, the rise of Nazi Germany was a major influence on the first six Star Wars films. Looking forward, it is unclear how much World War II will factor into the sequel trilogy. We will find out more when The Force Awakens is released in theaters on December 18th.