Star Wars, Nazis, and the Politics of Nonconformity in American Pop Culture
Force Awakens Spoilers Ahead!
Darth Vader is #3 on the AFI (American Film Institute) list of top film villains right after Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates. What is it about the fictional masked figure which strikes fear and awe into the hearts of fans for generations? Is it the haunting breathing? The force choking grip or the fact that the audience doesn’t see his face for most of his tenure as Star Wars villain? It is most likely a combination of all of these plus the fact that he represents an evil Empire which is not only ruthless, but encompasses a deeply seeded American fear: conformity, the death of the individual.
The minions of the Empire wear uniforms; in the case of the Stormtroopers and Darth Vader, faces are not seen. The individual is erased as the Stromtroopers stand in perfect formations to the sound of marching music, reminiscent of the Third Reich.
Now, in this other well crafted article, the Star Wars universe of Episodes IV, V, and VI is likened to Vietnam era America. In this world, the Empire represents America, and the fears that Americans had of becoming the villains that they feared. However, the Second World War was the largest and most traumatic event of the 20th Century for much of the world including America. Even in the 21st Century Americans still react strongly to information or themes regarding this topic. This was true even in the 1970s when George Lucas first made his films, and Lucas uses WWII aesthetics to communicate his negative thoughts on the direction of his contemporary America.
Star Wars is not the only film that does this. The echoes of WWII are present in many aspects of American popular culture either explicitly or non-explicitly because of the way in which the lines of good and evil were very clearly defined during that time. WWII was so monumental that it redefined what it meant to be “American” and fighting extremism became a part of the new American identity while the Nazis became the ultimate bad guy.
Thus, the purpose of this article is not to argue that Star Wars is “about” WWII, but to define core American values, the way in which WWII re-defined them, and the way in which pieces of popular culture like Star Wars use the lessons, themes, aesthetics, and/or figures from WWII to make contemporary statements on the dangers of conformity. This will provide better context for Star Wars episodes IV, V, and VI, as well as the new Force Awakens, which uses these themes as well.
One might ask “where exactly in American history does ‘nonconformity’ enter the list of core American values?” Nonconformity, defined by Mirriam-Webster as “failure or refusal to conform to a prevailing rule or practice” is inherently connected to the idea of independence and practicing nonconformity is a way of enacting independence and individualism.
It might not be surprising to the reader that many core American values can be traced to America’s founding. After all, Americans venerate the words “All men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence, and hold “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as dogma. These principles which Americans hold near and dear, and have been used to justify every civil rights movement, have also trickled down into everything from government policy to cultural mannerisms which foreigners might find arrogant.
For example, the American belief in equality leads many members of this culture to be very casual, even with those in a position of authority. Americans call their presidents “Mr. President” instead of “Your Excellency,” for example, and can even be on a first name basis with bosses. These practices came from an early need to distance America from the formal culture of the European “old world” which was rooted in Medieval and ancient hierarchies such as feudalism or Catholicism. An emphasis on “liberty” creates the value for free thought, free speech, and many other freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights.
Nonconformity is an American value embraced by both sides of the political and/or cultural spectrum. From a more social conservative/religious point of view, nonconformity has Biblical origins. The phrase comes from Romans 12:2 which says, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” In other words, this world is seen as corrupted and the faithful must cast off their connection to the main tides of this world. This idea was applied to the Protestant Reformation as well when “Reformed Christian” denominations such as Presbyterians, Methodists, Puritans, and Baptists separated from the Church of England (believed to be too culturally “Catholic”) in the 16th Century; some groups eventually moving to the American continent to practice their non-conformity. Throughout the twentieth century, this conservative nonconformity principle was often applied to morality and the idea that popular morality (as opposed to Christian morality) was sinful and that the faithful must have the courage to practice things like chastity in the face of changing times from the 1960s to MTV culture. Many social conservatives would argue that they are the ones who are “counter-cultural” nonconformists today.
More socially liberal movements embrace nonconformity as a rejection of bourgeois principles which are believed to oppress others. Social liberals, while embracing a collective good, might be more likely to oppose collective nationalism, racism, or corporatism. Traditionally, foreigners have also been associated with the left, caught in a constant struggle to assimilate into American culture for their own safety while still retaining aspects of their own culture.
Both sides may claim that they are the minority, and this article does not wish to side with either as there are certain situations where one might be right. However, both sides, in fighting for their right to nonconform can be equally assertive in the protection of this right. As the next section outlines, winning Independence from the British was just the beginning of Americans fighting for their right to nonconform and just the beginning of the fear that this right will be taken away.
The Return of the “Overlords”
Ever since Americans gained their freedom from the British Empire, there seems to be one large fear ingrained in American culture: that freedom will somehow be taken away. This fear is mostly embodied by an idea that somehow, the “overlords” will return and we will go back to the dark days. The “overlords” which Americans fear so much, are not necessarily the return of the British Empire, although one may notice how many movie villains (especially some associated with Nazi Germany) speak with British accents like Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars Episode IV. The hypothetical “overlords” represent anyone who is seen to want to re-establish the old hierarchies and/or remove the liberties which Americans value, even if this means the United States’ own government.
There were times throughout American history where certain areas of the country saw the United States Government as “overlords.” The most notable period would be the Civil War when one half of the country enacted their nonconformity from the government by seceding from the Union.
The next large-scale “threat” to American liberty in the eyes of the Americans of the late nineteenth century was the spread of Communism: a political/economic philosophy, based on the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, which called for forced economic equality through violent revolution. 1 This potential forced cooperation was seen as a violation of liberty and the pursuit of happiness (read: property) which are both core American values. The forceful acquisition of private property alluded to in the Communist Manifesto would be a direct violation of several constitutional amendments which were put in place by the founding fathers because they saw private property as a part of what it meant to be independent. Therefore, with the rise of Communism, even one’s own neighbors can be seen as potential “overlords” who must be feared.
Meanwhile, in an example of both left and right sides of the political spectrum embracing nonconformity as an action of Liberty, many leftists who embraced Marxism at this time saw the bourgeois as current “overlords” and saw their participation in Communism as nonconformity against that culture. They saw themselves, just as the Confederacy did, as successors of George Washington and the American Revolution. However, with the Second World War on the horizon, both the left and right of American idealism would unite in fear of a new “overlord.”
WWII and the Rise of the Nazi Villain
While fears of Communism never really disappeared before WWII, The Second World War gave a new name and face to the hypothetical “overlords” which America fears so much: Nazis. Politically fascism embodies everything that both sides of the American spectrum seem to abhor. National Socialism, as a socially conservative form of Socialism, which is close to Marxism in its control over private property, represents an attack on Liberty from all angles. Even before the horrors of the Holocaust were known, the Nazis were still real-life villains who took away their citizen’s liberties and encouraged oppressive conformity. Even their marching was completely unified. If fascism came to America, the American way of life would disappear. As the Nazi threat became more real for Americans, in the events leading up to American entry in the war, Hollywood began to voice American anxieties over this particularly nasty new brand of “overlord.”
As I’ve highlighted in my article on X-Men and the Holocaust, Americans were widely unaware of the full extent of Nazi atrocities until much later in the twentieth century. Films that were made in Hollywood before and after America’s entry in WWII did not mention Nazi treatment of the Jews, but tried a different strategy for hitting the American nerve: Hitler’s destruction of Liberty. One of the ways films did this was by an emphasis on the forced conformity in Hitler’s regime.
Warner Brothers was a studio which condemned fascism even before America entered the war. The Warners’ film Black Legion (1937) featured home-grown fascists and associated them with both the Nazis and the American Ku Klux Klan. In this way, the Warner Brothers were making a statement about white supremacist “overlords” at home who fear people who are different and don’t allow free thought within their ranks. This would have been considered a leftist call for nonconformity against the pervading culture of racism in America and Nazi Germany, and the thugs who perpetrate hate crimes. The trailer sells the film as “The story of a man, a woman, and a Mob,” implying that racism and hate crimes are the result of conformity to a mob mentality and highlights the two individual characters who do not conform to the status quo.
Another Hollywood film which was released before WWII, but spoke to American fears of “overlords” was MGM’s The Mortal Storm (1940) which explicitly dealt with the rise of Hitler. In a scene where it is announced that Hitler has won the Chancellery, the matriarch of the film’s protagonist family worries, “What about those who think differently? Freely? Those who are non-Aryan?” 2 This film speaks directly to the treatment of Jews and other nonconformists within Nazi Rule. One of the most poignant visual moments, seen in the screen capture below, shows the protagonists refusing to heil in a room full of Nazis; something that was very dangerous, but encouraged nonconformity.
A more conservative studio like the Walt Disney Company focused on the loss of individual freedoms in Nazi Germany in their wartime cartoons. In the cartoon short Der Fuehrer’s Face (1942), Donald Duck finds himself in a swastika-laden Nazi-land where he is forced to conform to Nazi ideals and work in a factory making shells. He is forced at the end of a bayonet to read Mein Kampf. In Reason and Emotion (1942) the studio shows audiences how Nazi ideology uses emotions to create mob-rule and those who use reason to question this ideology are put in concentration camps. Finally, in Education for Death (1943) the studio takes its audience through the life of a Nazi child named Hans as he is controlled from birth to be a robot-minded drone for the Nazi Party. The end of this cartoon short shows Hans as an adult marching in perfect conformity alongside his fellow Nazis while the narrator proclaims, “He sees no more than the party wants him to. Says nothing but what the Party wants him to say. And he does nothing but what the Party wants him to do.”
These heavy and dark themes may surprise those who think of the Walt Disney Company as mindless children’s entertainment. However, as this article will reveal, as events move closer to the present, Disney has been very ideological for a long time. WWII was the largest event of the 20th Century. It affected almost everyone in the country and was present in all forms of entertainment for children including comic books. Superman fought Nazis, and a new hero called Captain America was born to fight Nazis and famously punch Hitler in the face. Now that Disney owns Captain America and Star Wars, understanding these roots is key to placing The Force Awakens into its proper context further down the line.
What happens, then, when your own country becomes, or starts to become the one thing Americans fear: their own version of “overlord?” This was something that a young George Lucas feared during the Nixon administration. When talking about the Emperor, Lucas said in 1981, “He was a politician. Richard M. Nixon was his name. He subverted the senate and finally took over and became an imperial guy and he was really evil. But he pretended to be a really nice guy.” 3 In 2005, Lucas explains that “It [Star Wars] was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away.” If the Empire is supposed to represent America or a dangerous future for America, the use of Nazi aesthetics, such as the use of the name “Storm Trooper,” make a clear statement to the audience of the kind of black-and-white totalitarianism that could potentially lie in store. Understanding the meanings behind these Nazi associations and symbols helps to place Star Wars and other pieces of pop culture into context.
The Nazi Archetype in Popular Culture
What are some of the common attributes of Nazi or Nazi-like characters in American popular culture? The most common traits are as follows: Violently Authoritarian/Intimidation/ Power Hungry/ German (speaking with either a German or British accent)/ Narrow Minded/ Intolerant/ One Dimensional/ Unthinking/Mindless Drones.
Think about the villains we love to hate. How many of them have at least one of these attributes? How many have more or all of them? Here are a couple examples:
Whenever a villain is authoritarian there is a strong likelihood that a Nazi parallel will be drawn. The dictator Adam Sutler in the graphic novel V for Vendetta is a good example as are other “overlords” from other dystopian futuristic fiction such as President Snow from The Hunger Games. Both of these stories and their eventual movies use Nazi aesthetics such as color scheme (red, white, and black), symbols, and ritual to denote the connection. This article from The Artifice articulates the politics of The Hunger Games very well. In both these situations, a society slipped into this horror through politics or war, much like the Empire rose to power in Star Wars.
V for Vendetta was originally written as a critique of Margaret Thatcher and the film has removed a lot of the British nuances and was used as a metaphor for the Bush administration. However, in the wake of the Obama administration, many conservatives, especially libertarians, have embraced the story as their own proving the political transcendence of anti-fascism and the politics of resistance and nonconformity. Once again, both sides can potentially see themselves as victims or underdog heroes because both sides fear an authoritarian world so much. Things like surveillance, censorship, paternalism, or secret police forces are common threads used to maintain order and repress individual freedoms in stories with authoritarian “overlords.” 4 One of the more potent aspects of V for Vendetta in popular culture is the fact that the political activist/hacktivist group Anonymous has adopted the Guy Fawkes mask from the lead resister of the story as their symbol. This proves the emotional effectiveness of using the Nazi imagery in a film to encourage resistance.
Some of the more interesting uses of Nazi imagery is when a piece of popular culture traces the rise of extremism and how totalitarian regimes emerge. V for Vendetta does this, but so does The Lion King, which traces Scar’s rise to power through the exploitation of the hyena’s hunger. This was a tactic that Hitler famously used: taking advantage of financial woes in the Weimar Republic and combined them with fear and frustration. What do the hyenas fear? Mufasa. Who does Scar promise to get rid of? Mufasa. The hyenas are frustrated that the lions have superiority and Scar gives the hyenas authority over them in the same way that Hitler promised to rid Germany of Jews and give Germans authority over the other countries and people they believed to be inferior.
Given Disney’s anti-Nazi history, it is not surprising that these themes would make their way into modern Disney films. For those who claim that Walt, himself, was a Nazi proponent or anti-Semite, this article would like to point to the fact that Walt was always anti-authority and pro-individualism. This was reflected in his propaganda films. With regard to his alleged Antisemitism, it is also important to remember that the heads of the Company during the Disney Renaissance were mostly Jewish. Michael Eisner (C.E.O.), Jeffrey Katzenberg (head of film division), Peter Schneider (head of animation, Alan Menken (composer), and Howard Ashman (producer and lyricist) are Jewish. Like the Warner Brothers, these men used Nazism to speak out against intolerance in our world. Movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame feature this theme of racial intolerance explicitly and feature the gypsies as victims as they were also victims of Hitler. Other Disney films of this time which make these connections are Beauty and the Beast in which the mob song is reminiscent of Nazis marching with torches and singing about killing Jews (even reminiscent of the mob from Disney’s Education for Death).
Disney is not the only company which, like the Warner Brothers during WWII used the Nazis as an example of extreme intolerance which should be avoided. Dream Works, for instance produced Chicken Run which parallels WWII, especially the Holocaust, in a world where chickens in a chicken farm face certain extermination at the hands of a chicken-pie making machine. The aesthetics of the farm are similar to a prisoner of war camp or concentration camp. How many chicken farms have you seen which have guard towers? Also, the older rooster. who served in the Royal Air Force, compares the owners of the farm to the “Jerries” a term used by British soldiers during WWII to describe the Nazis. In the film, the British chickens are saved by an American rooster who teaches them how to question and rebel against their given circumstances.
Perhaps one of the most present of these examples in popular culture in recent years is the Harry Potter series in which the villain Voldemort seeks to wipe out or enslave wizards who aren’t pure-blooded. These books, adapted by Warner Brother’s Studio, follow in a long tradition of creating totalitarian villains, but this case is special because it explicitly deals with a man who calls for genocide against several groups. This, along with Disney creates an education process for children in America and around the world. Children learn that racial intolerance is wrong and that people who march like the hyenas and carry torches singing about killing others are the bad guys.
The choice to cast Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort is also important because he had been so well known as the Nazi commandant Amon Goeth in the Holocaust film Schindler’s List. His portrayal of the sadistic war criminal points to another aspect of Nazi portrayal and Nazi-like villains which is important to understand: they are often portrayed as one-dimensional or even stereotypical. German accents, one liners (like “Ve have vays of making you talk”), senseless violence, or dismissal as being simply “insane” are some of the ways in which these villains are portrayed. While this is not always the case, when it is, it is because the “overlord” is not to be sympathized or humanized in any way. It is important to remember that real-life Nazis who committed atrocities were complex and sane individuals who made choices.
Often, there is a temptation to gloss over these facts, or even laugh at Nazis. TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes and Allo Allo, or even more serious films like The Great
Escape or hilarious musicals like The Producers portray Nazis as mindless oafs. There is a potent political message in making fun of extremists because it deflates much of the power that they hold in their image. It shows them to be vulnerable and it embarrasses them. This is one of the reasons that Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator was so impactful in the 1940s. Portraying Nazis or Nazi-like characters as mindless, though, has a deeper meaning which is tied to conformity: the idea that conformists do not think for themselves. This idea is present in Star Wars in the fact that Storm Troopers are seen as so “weak minded” that they are susceptible to Jedi mind tricks. This idea is also represented in the Nazi Zombie phenomenon when one thinks of a “zombie” as something that is “mindless.” By this logic a Nazi Zombie can be read as: Nazi = Zombie.
There are many other examples in different mediums. Hydra from Captain America, Nazi villains in Indiana Jones, etc. The evil German doctor trope alone could fill many more paragraphs, but one thing is certain. Nazis represent the ultimate threat to American values even though their regime was defeated. In a way, it is the fact that they were defeated which makes them an ideal “overlord” because Americans know they they can be defeated.
The Force Awakens
For a company like the Walt Disney Company which encourages imagination and celebrates difference, conformity is a scary concept. Since Walt founded the company, Mickey has been battling authoritarian, power hungry, or mindless villains in his cartoon shorts. Even before Disney bought the rights to Star Wars, 1930s-’40s nostalgia was already a huge part of the culture of one of Walt Disney World’s theme parks: MGM (Hollywood Studios). This was an entire park which celebrated the power of film in teaching Americans how to think “outside the box” and imagine worlds past the confines of everyday monotony. A large part of the aesthetic and focus of the park is the Golden Age of Hollywood and the films from this era (many of which pertain to WWII). Animatronic versions of Humphrey Bogart give speeches about why we have to keep fighting (a la Casa Blanca) on the Great Movie Ride. Meanwhile, although not a Golden Age film, Indiana Jones fights Nazis from Raiders of the Lost Ark live about fifty feet away. Then about twenty feet over, guests can help fight the Evil Empire, themselves on the Star Tours, Star Wars attraction. There also used to be an exhibit on the Back-lot Tour dedicated to “Villains We Love to Hate” including Darth Vader and Amon Goeth. Why would the Happiest Place on Earth have an exhibit dedicated to villains? The answer is simple: because villains, especially Nazi-like villains, give Americans a clear sense of what we stand for by presenting them which what humans are supposed to stand against. This park gives the chance to witness these values in action whether it is Indy punching a Nazi in Cairo or a star-ship passenger vehicle somehow managing to out-fly and foil an Imperial plot.
This is one of the reasons that it is so appropriate for Disney to own Star Wars. These values were seen in the new film The Force Awakens, particularly in the character Fin and the fact that he makes the choice to escape the First Order. The moment that he begins to think for himself, he is threatened with re-education and this superiors wonder when he first “started showing signs of nonconformity.” This would be an interesting discourse on nonconformity as it is, but the fact that the First Order is visually compared to the Third Reich through similar aesthetics to those listed above, raises the stakes of Fin’s newly found individuality.
Why make the Nazi connection to the First Order so explicit with a huge rally and Nazi-like banner before committing mass-genocide by wiping out an entire system? What is it about this new film which speaks to the world we live in, American values, and the new villains one must face? If the original Star Wars trilogy was about the optimism and self-righteousness of the Baby-boomer generation, The Force Awakens, reflects the ways in which Luke, Leia, and Han’s generation failed. Just as the young heroes of The Return of the Jedi were unable to completely wipe out the “overlord” ideology of The Empire, the hippies of the 1960s and ’70s turned into the yuppies of the 1980s and ’90s. In a post-9/11 world, there are many, especially young people, who grew to distrust the government and their seemingly authoritarian methods in the name of “safety.” In The Force Awakens, there are also allusions to the dangers of “regime changes” which echo the way in which the War in Iraq is believed to have created ISIS, a newer, more powerful villain like the First Order.
However, these negative reflections on the Baby-boomer generation as having become the creators of the modern “overlords” is not a rejection of the optimism and ideology present in the original Star Wars trilogy. Rather it is a reminder, in this time of shifting national identity, of those American values which were once held near and dear and are needed again now: individualism, innovation, nonconformity, and bravery. It reminds Americans that even larger, better equipped versions of our past enemies can be defeated. When Rey desperately holds out Luke’s lightsaber to an older, sadder, tired Luke, she is speaking on behalf of the younger generation saying “We still need you.” We need your courage, your optimism, your uniqueness, and even your recklessness. The force is awake. Will you take the call?
- The Communist Manifesto written by Marx and Engels calls for a violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat (the working classes) and the acquisition of all private property to come under control of a centralized proletariat state. “In depicting the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat.” (Marx, 20). While subsequent pamphlets and writings by these men say that a non-violent acquisition of private property would be ideal, they justify the eventual violence of the proletariat on the grounds that the proletariat has been the victim of bourgeois violence for centuries. “It would be desirable if this could happen, and the communists would certainly be the last to oppose it… But they also see that the development of the proletariat in nearly all civilized countries has been violently suppressed, and that in this way the opponents of communism have been working toward a revolution with all their strength. If the oppressed proletariat is finally driven to revolution, then we communists will defend the interests of the proletarians with deeds as we now defend them with words.” (The Principles of Communism, Engles, 48) While there are many modern day men and women who consider themselves “Marxists” who claim that the violence of Communism was never intended, it is undeniable that violence has always been a key component of Marxism. The purpose of the inclusion of this fact is not to refute Marxism, but to explain why many Americans felt threatened by Communism long before the Soviet Union existed. ↩
- The reference to this film and Black Legion comes from the documentary Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust (2004) ↩
- Rinzler, J.W.. “The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.” New York: Del Rey Publishing. 2013. ↩
- Jenkins, Lee. “How Both Left & Right Claim V For Vendetta As Their Own.” The Backbencher. Oct 31, 2013. Web. Jan 7, 2016. ↩
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