Yes, Star Wars was inspired by the Nazis. The Empire itself is modeled off the Third Reich and other fascist dictatorships, with the Emperor standing in for the Führer. The Empire’s troops are referred to as Stormtroopers, the name of German Shock Troopers in both World Wars. The Imperial Officers are adorned in similar outfits worn by that of Nazi officers and gee golly do they love to gather in a nice symmetrical formation which in no way looks like a Nazi rally. The inspiration is very night and day; but there are a lot of subtle allusions as well, notably to Nazi propaganda.
Arguably the most famous piece of propaganda ever filmed is Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Much in the vein of Birth of a Nation, the film is often cited today as an important yet horrendous picture. I would like to point out however there is hardly anything revolutionary about it. Riefenstahl’s camerawork and editing have been praised, but she didn’t invent any of the techniques utilized. The only thing special about the film in particular is the budget and access to equipment Riefenstahl had at her disposal. Riefenstahl was given total control to perfectly execute every single shot, and had 30,000 extras at her disposal to create her horrific epic. Almost no film in history has had the same resources available to them, and it’s noticeable. So it gets heaped praise upon for it’s artistry, often trying to downplay the whole Nazi thing… you know, that thing it’s actually about. For all it’s majestic artistry, you can’t write off what the goal of the movie is, and that is to promote Nazis. Triumph of the Will is so important to the Nazi image that when you say words “Hitler” or “Nazi”, the images that come to mind are probably from this movie. That’s an actual problem, as this is how the Nazi’s wanted to be seen, and when you get down to it, it’s a bit of an issue that we still refer to it when we think of them.
But the idea of Triumph’s importance to the medium held steadfast in film schools for most of the 20th Century. One of those schools that openly taught it was the University of souther California, were a young George Lucas must have become quite taken by it, because it’s everywhere in Star Wars.
The most obvious signifier is the way Lucas frames the stormtroopers, with many shots of them replicating the Nazi marches, shot in a grand scale to emphasize their size and dominance. What’s rather striking however is the Rebel’s award ceremony at the end of A New Hope is taken directly from Triumph of the Will. It’s a rather bizarre decision to use Nazi imagery to represent both sides of the battle, at least in A New Hope. While other Star Wars films and Expanded Universe material has dug deeper into the complexities of both sides fo the battle, A New Hope presents itself as a fairly blunt good vs. evil tale. Characters may have shades of grey, but there is a clearly defined dark and light side of the force. Lucas may be insinuating the Rebels themselves are not entirely free of sin, but this is not supported by the film’s own text. What is worrisome is Lucas may have just used the images because they looked good, an attempt to remove the images from their context.
Like I said, the visuals of Triumph of the Will cannot be removed from the context of the Nazis themselves. By utilizing their style, you ostensibly deem it worthy of imitation. You can claim you just want to use their techniques, but that doesn’t remove the Nazi overtones. Sure it looks great, but some visuals are ruined forever by association. The thing is if you were to stage a scene similar today like the ceremony at the end of A New Hope, it would be compared to Star Wars and not Triumph of the Will. We have taken Nazi symbols and ostensibly covered up the history. Is this a good thing, or do actions such as these lead to an erasure of history? We can talk all day about the ethics of using Nazi iconography for your villains when we ostensibly “like” movie villains regardless of knowing they’re evil, but it’s the subtle stuff I worry about.
Hey, I said it was inspired by Triumph fo the Will, I never claimed it was a good thing.