Nazi Aesthetics Signify Generic Villains
Audiences’ Contrasting Engagement with the Good and Evil Sides in George Lucas’ „Star Wars“
Von Silke Zoller
Nazi symbology was a convenient shorthand to represent villains in the 1977 movie Star Wars and its subsequent franchise. The evil entity of the story, the galactic empire, had a specific visual aesthetic that warned viewers immediately of its nefarious purpose and actions. But the movie included no context or further explanation. In Star Wars, Nazi symbology signified evil, but evil actors were not openly identified as Nazis. This lack of correlation enabled public audiences as well as right-wing radicals, particularly in the United States, to project their own ideas onto Star Wars without worry about historical pitfalls. Mainstream audiences and right-wing extremists alike have accepted the Nazi symbology in Star Wars as signifying evil without further reflection. Instead, the main controversies concerning Star Wars were about who got to identify with the heroes.
Star Wars was designed by filmmaker George Lucas as a negative statement about the Vietnam War and its era in the United States. The film’s central message was a pushback against U.S. foreign policy since World War II, criticizing the projection of U.S. hegemony around the world. This American power was visible in the U.S. nuclear arms program, modernization techniques, and frequent political and military interventions in the Global South to prevent the spread of communism and uphold U.S. allies. The Vietnam War was one of these conflicts. High-tech U.S. troops sought to suppress indigenous communist insurgents who managed to survive and even thrive with low-tech responses. For example, Vietnamese insurgents resupplied themselves by manually carrying supplies over the Ho Chi Mihn trail and other mountain paths. The U.S. government also relied on sophisticated nuclear weaponry as deterrents against the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
The villainous side in Star Wars was also a large, mechanized empire that heavily relied on sophisticated technology to conduct a reign of terror. George Lucas meant to show a correlation between this empire and U.S. foreign policy,especially during the Vietnam War. The galactic empire deployed sleek, large starships and heavily armored troops. Its military sophistication stood in direct contrast to the insurgent rebellion, which relied on old ships and jungle hideaways. The pinnacle of the empire’s power was the Death Star space station, which could destroy a planet in a single shot. This weapon was comparable to a nuclear bomb in its power, and contemporaries drew such analogies. For example, when U.S. President Ronald Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) missile shield technology in the 1980s, detractors quickly nicknamed this weapons system the Star Wars program. Star Wars’ galactic empire was thus meant to portray a villainous analogy to the United States of the 1970s.
To showcase that this empire was evil, Lucas turned to Nazi imagery – as a shorthand for evil in general. The galactic empire was styled after Nazi aesthetics. Its uniforms evoked World War II Germany, from Darth Vader’s helmet to the outfits of its officers and elite stormtroopers (another name drawn from German troops, called Sturmtruppen). The empire sent captured prisoners to the planet Kessel, suggesting the idea of a Kesselschlacht, a prevalent German tactic of the time. In the architecture of its buildings and starships, the galactic empire’s high ceilings, monochrome color schemes, and brutalist simplicity referenced fascist designs as well. Nazi aesthetics provided an easily recognizable analogy for evil.
Indeed, the people viewing Star Wars identified the galactic empire as evil, equating Nazi aesthetics with villainy. However, they did not always identify the empire with Nazis per se – just rather subconsciously with evil in general. Star Wars was meant to be an archetypical story, with very clear good and evil and no real shades of gray. In the United States and Germany, initial reactions to the movie focused on its similarity to fairy tales and old Westerns. Star Wars contained, in particular, a prevalent dosage of Kitsch. Its simplistic narrative had a clear separation of good and evil that audiences appreciated. Within this interpretation, the galactic empire had no real-life historical precedent. It was just evil, a standard fairy tale villain.
Neo-Nazi right-wing extremists also seem to have adopted, without question, the preconception that Star Wars’ imagery signified evil in general and was not a specific reference to Nazism. Sources from the 1970s do not indicate that right-wingers identified with the galactic empire. Instead, right-wing audiences in the United States and Germany also associated themselves with the heroic good Star Wars characters. These were the farm boy protagonist, the captured princess, the wise mentor, associated sidekicks, and the insurgent rebellion against the galactic empire. These characters were also archetypal and easy for audiences to support.
Neo-Nazi and other right-wing extremists found many factors to celebrate in the heroic good side of Star Wars. The heroic protagonists yearned for a simpler time and did not rely on modernization or urbanization. Yet at the same time, the good Star Wars characters saw themselves as bulwarks of civilization. The old Jedi and mentor of Luke Skywalker, Obi Wan Kenobi, referenced the swords used by himself and his order, for example, as weapons of a more civilized era. Such ideals matched fascist concepts of an organic, traditional nation. Taken further, these ideas could support the supremacy of Western, white civilization. Star Wars contained many aliens, but very few non-white actors or women. Viewers saw themselves in a world of white, masculine protagonists.
Star Wars also seemed at times to celebrate a benign monarchy. The heroes mourned the loss of the galactic republic, which the empire had overtaken. However, the main female protagonist, Princess Leia, was clearly labeled and addressed as royalty throughout the movie. The implication was that the galactic empire usurped her throne by using sheer violence (through the Death Star and its destruction of Leia’s home planet Alderaan). And a key plot point of the franchise was that there was a bloodline, the Skywalker family, that was crucial to shaping the future of the galaxy. Thus, in many ways, Star Wars still supported the monarchy, or single-person rule. These ideas all fit neatly into right-wing worldviews.
Because Nazi imagery universally connotated evil in Star Wars instead of calling out specific historical analogies, right-wingers were able to easily identify with the heroes instead of the galactic empire. In the United States, a particular right-wing movement was spreading centered around militia participation, anti-government positions, extremist Christian ideology, and white supremacist ideals. A central novel inspiring this movement were The Turner Diaries by William Luther Pierce. Published in 1978, the novel envisioned a small group of white supremacists who were conducting an insurgency against the massive U.S. state, as well as the non-whites and Jewish people who ostensibly controlled the government. The novel ended with the white supremacist protagonist piloting a dust cropper plane with a nuclear warhead into the Pentagon, the central U.S. military headquarters. This finale was reminiscent of the massive final action sequence in Star Wars, during which the farm boy protagonist piloted his tiny spaceship into a trench on the massive Death Star and fired a shot that destroyed the entire space station. Right-wing Americans thus embraced similar narratives as the one in Star Wars, rebelling against a heterogenous U.S. state as well as the galactic empire based on said state.
The galactic empire also fit entities that mainstream audiences as well as right-wing extremists opposed at the time. The Soviet Union, the United States’ Cold War rival, was the key example. The popular totalitarianism theory emphasized the similarity between the Nazi and the Soviet systems. It allowed citizens of the Cold War “West” to easily conflate both states as villainous. The Soviet Union was also a formally atheist state which relied on technology and participation in the nuclear arms race to increase its global power. These factors aligned neatly with the galactic empire. They contrasted Star Wars’ good side, which eschewed high technology and embraced a religion centered around a mythical entity known as the Force.
This adoption of the simple narratives in Star Wars by regular audiences and right-wing extremists continued over time. Two sequel movies appeared in the early 1980s. A prequel trilogy was made in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These prequel movies included a clear analogy of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. In the movies, Senator Palpatine manipulated the sclerotic galactic republic to become chancellor and eventually declared himself emperor, transforming the government into the evil galactic empire. And yet, once again right-wing audiences did not engage with these more overt historical analogies.
In fact, the disconnect between the Nazi imagery in Star Wars and actual fascism soon enabled public audiences and right-wingers in the United States to identify with the galactic empire. U.S. mainstream conservatives invoked Star Wars’ galactic empire after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Days after these attacks, U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney emphasized that the United States would use the “dark side” in response. In Star Wars lore, the dark side of the mythical Force was only ever utilized by the villains, including the galactic empire. The U.S. government under the Bush administration then resorted to torture, labeled “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and imprisoned enemies without trial at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The fictional galactic empire pursued similar practices. U.S. audiences in general adopted this cross-correlation. Even though Lucas had denounced similar U.S. actions in the 1970s in the original Star Wars by portraying the galactic empire as evil with Nazi imagery, after 9/11, many Americans celebrated these very factors about U.S. global power, branding them as positives instead of negatives. They commended a reliance on sophisticated technology and criticized radical religious extremists and insurgents. Despite the Nazi imagery, U.S. audiences embraced the ideas of the galactic empire because it represented law and order in a chaotic world and again they did not make any direct historical correlation to Nazi Germany.
Neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists only broke with Star Wars, and their identification with it, in the 2010s. Five new movies in the Star Wars franchise kept the visual similarities to Nazism, emphasizing the evilness of the galactic empire’s successors. However, the new movies contained significant changes to the good heroic side of Star Wars. These changes alienated right-wing viewers. On the good side, central characters such as Finn and Rose Tico were played by non-white actors. This casting broke with a predominantly white configuration of Star Wars heroes. In addition, the new movies contained more women in leadership positions. Meanwhile, older male heroes from the original 1977 movie such as Luke (the farm boy) and Han (the smuggler) actively questioned their prior decisions and acknowledged that they failed in significant parts of their lives. White supremacists and other right-wing extremists, particularly in the United States, reacted very negatively to these changes in the Star Wars universe. For them, emphasizing the role of women and people of color was a threat to the domination of white men in society. American right-wing extremists could not stomach this degradation of white masculine culture and prominence.
These changes, it should be emphasized, occurred mainly on the heroic side of Star Wars. The evil characters were still principally white, and maintained Nazi aesthetics in their buildings, uniforms, starships, and terminology. The main evil characters of the new movies resembled American right-wing extremists more closely than ever as well, and were depicted as younger, easily angered men. Characters such as Kylo Ren, Princess Leia’s son, were angry that the galaxy had not given them their birthright. Though the term was not in broad common use yet, the reactions of both the Star Wars villainous characters and real-life right-wing critics foreshadowed the Incel movement – young men who claimed anger at being denied what they considered their birthright status in society. Despite the clearer than ever analogies to Nazi aesthetics, right-wing extremists did not broadly engage with this faction of Star Wars. Right-wing extremists turned against Star Wars not because of the villains, who were reflecting them more and more, but because of the heroes. These heroes no longer look like what right-wing extremists envision themselves and their society to be.
Overall, the Star Wars franchise is replete with Nazi imagery. However, right-wing extremists, particularly in the United States, did not engage with these obvious correlations. The Nazi aesthetics in Star Wars were seen by general audiences and right-wingers as a shorthand for evil, without further analysis. Nazi symbology identified the bad guys but did not mean that the bad guys were perceived as actual Nazis. In the overly simple fairy tale of Star Wars, these aesthetics instead performed a shorthand function to identify the generic villains of the story. Thus, audiences could celebrate the Nazi-signified galactic empire after 2001 without engaging in serious historical reflection. And overall, it was the good heroes of Star Wars, and changes to the narrative about these heroes, that generated consideration and debate from right-wing movements in the United States and elsewhere.