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What J.K. Rowling tells her readers about Ideology and Class Conflict

Julia Struck
19 min readMar 19, 2018


That J.K. Rowling’s Death Eaters in the Harry Potter novels display similarities with the fascist regime of the National Socialists in Germany during the first half of the twentieth century is a well-known fact. However, how this fascist ideology became suitable for the masses, that is, how it was possible to spread certain ideas and convictions and gain the support of the common people, is a question that has yet to be examined and is therefore the topic I want to pursue in this paper. Furthermore, I want to elaborate how the Harry Potter novels teach young readers how to recognise problematic issues in their own society and what they can do to defy them.

As Suman Gupta already stated in Re-reading Harry Potter, “it is generally recognized that a work of literary fiction does have some sort of social and political effect.” (27) Although Rowling herself claims that the similarities between her creation Lord Voldemort and Adolf Hitler are to some degree coincidence, she must have had a certain message to her readers in mind when she created this highly political content. The final battle against Voldemort and the Death Eaters takes place only in the seventh and last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but his supporters were there since Philosopher’s Stone. The first time we (the readers) get in touch with the Death Eater’s ideology is when Harry first meets Draco Malfoy at Madam Malkin’s, when the boys talk about their parents:

“‘But they were our kind, weren’t they?’ (original emphasis)

‘They were a witch and a wizard, if that’s what you mean.’

‘I really don’t think they should let the other sort in, do you? They’re just not the same’” (Stone 84)

What happens in this scene is the demonstration of an ideology that is so ingrained into society that an eleven-year old boy lets it slip in a normal conversation as if it was the most usual thing to say, and for him it certainly is. The Death Eaters support a world view that is strictly dichotomous, that is, they advocate a racial distinction between wizards and Muggles (or what Draco calls ‘the other sort’). The problem here is the racial part: when people start talking about different human races it gets complicated; the human race is just that, namely, an entire race, without any further distinctions. Magical and non-magical people certainly do not belong to different races; they just have different abilities. Of course the fact that “the wizards simply have magic, and Muggles don’t” (Gupta 108) does create a certain difference, but that difference is not due to any racial component. What the Death Eaters try to maintain is an ideology that is constructed upon the supposed crucial differences of the two races, and the disadvantages that the relations between them bring along. They prop themselves on the claim that “the unsurmountable ‘disability’ of Muggles compared to Magic people” (Gupta 107) is a threat to the wizarding society because their inferiority allegedly negatively influences their magical ability when it comes to procreation. Children from Muggle-parents are disparagingly called Mudbloods, a term that denotes them for having ‘dirty blood’ because of their non-magical ancestry, as Ron tells us in Chamber of Secrets after Draco uses it to insult Hermione (“It’s a disgusting thing to call someone […] Dirty blood, see. Common blood. It’s mad.” 122) People like Draco and his parents, who themselves claim to be of the purest magical blood, support this agenda and do not shy away from expressing their opinion freely, as can be seen when Draco tells Harry that he thinks “they should keep it in the old wizarding families.” (Stone 84)

The fact that the Malfoys can say things like that in public show that they are not the only ones who hold those beliefs. As Reagin writes in Harry Potter and History, “Sirius Black’s parents and other traditionalist purebloods considered wizards to be an entirely separate race from humans (“the wizarding race”).” (130) The Blacks, as Sirius tells Harry in Order of the Phoenix, held this attitude without being signed Death Eaters, even before Voldemort gained power for the first time, and were hostile toward Muggles and Muggle-born wizards (“they thought Voldemort had the right idea, they were all for the purification of the wizarding race, getting rid of Muggle-borns and having pure-bloods in charge. They weren’t alone, either, there were quite a few people […]” 103). Families like the Blacks pride themselves with the purity of their blood, as can be seen by reference to the Black family tree wearing the title The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black ‘Toujours Pur’ (Order 102), or by the example of “the magical social registry, Nature’s Nobility: A Wizarding Genealogy, which lists all of the pureblood families” (Reagin 175), so naturally, ancestry plays a crucial role in their lives. Everyone who falls out of line will likely be shunned or disowned, like Sirius’s cousin Andromeda, whose portrait was burned off the family tree after she had married a Muggle-born (Order 104). That is to say, the Wizarding Genealogy only lists twenty-eight families, the so-called ‘Sacred Twenty-Eight’ (Pottermore), and this is a fairly small number for a community that wants to consist of pure-bloods only. It is hardly surprising, then, that in order to marry exclusively pure-blooded wizards with each other, they would have to marry their relatives, which Sirius confirms when he says “The pure-blood families are all interrelated […] If you’re only going to let your sons and daughters marry pure-bloods your choice is very limited.” (Order 104)

What could be vilified as inbreeding can indeed have negative effects on magical abilities: when thinking back to the Gaunt family (Voldemort’s relatives), the case of Merope Gaunt, who was Voldemort’s mother, comes to mind. Merope was said to be a Squib, that is, a child of magical parents that has no or just very weak magical abilities. The Gaunts were an ancient pure-blood family and the last descendants of Salazar Slytherin, about whom I will talk later. They had a long history of inbreeding to sustain their blood-purity, which could possibly have led to Merope’s ‘disability.’ Other Squibs, or likewise weak wizards, mentioned in the series are Argus Filch, Arabella Figg, and Dolores Umbridge, the latter being known for priding herself on being related to most ancient pure-blood families at once (though there is no evidence anywhere that this is true). Neville Longbottom, who is also a child from a well-known pure-blood family, displays equally weak magical powers and even mentions himself at one point that his relatives first had thought that he was a Squib. Crabbe and Goyle, Draco’s sidekicks throughout the series, “who are also purebloods, are at the bottom of their class” (Walters 6) and are furthermore depicted to be of low intelligence. Rowling herself wrote that “where families adhered consistently to the practice of marrying within a very small group of fellow witches and wizards, mental and physical instability and weakness seems to result.” (Pottermore) On the other hand, Hermione, who is Muggle-born, is rightfully said to be the brightest witch of her age, and surely we never see any student at Hogwarts who is as smart and successful as she is. Clearly, “parentage is no guarantee of wizarding ability” (Barratt 64) and having Muggle-relatives does not pose any threat to the wizarding society, so why do many pure-blood families entertain the idea of purity being the most desirable thing the world has to offer? Of course, the problem is of political nature.

“The expressions “pure-blood,” “half-blood” and “Muggle-born” have been coined by people to whom these distinctions matter,” Reagin writes in Harry Potter and History (128), and this is exactly the point. People like the Malfoys and the Blacks are elitists; they are part of a supposedly ‘natural’ hierarchy, and their place is at the top, has been for centuries. Now, the Weasleys are pure-bloods as well, though anyone who has read the series can affirm that they certainly do not belong to any elite, let alone to the top of the social pyramid. How is that? If pure-bloodedness is the most prestigious feature one can possess, how come the Weasleys are not among the most respected wizarding families? They are part of the ‘Sacred Twenty-Eight,’ after all. Truth be told, the phenomenon of ‘pure blood’ is a myth.

Let us go back to the International Statute of Secrecy, which was enacted in 1692 and separated magical and non-magical people by law. Centuries ago from now, “[…] wizards and witches lived side by side with Muggles in villages and towns across Europe, often intermarrying and socializing.” (Reagin 2) The pure-blood doctrine was not popular at that time, although already introduced by Salazar Slytherin at the founding of Hogwarts in 990 A.D. However, in the fifteenth century, the persecution and hunting of wizards by Muggles increased rapidly, as Dumbledore writes in The Tales of Beedle the Bard (12), reaching its climax with the infamous Salem Witchcraft Trials in 1692, which led the wizarding society to withdraw from Muggles entirely (to the wizards’ protection, since “witchcraft was now defined and prosecuted as a crime on its own,” Reagin 108). The Ministry of Magic was founded and the magical community has been in a “government-proclaimed state of emergency” since then, with the Ministry as the main institution of control “over all aspects of magical life” (Reagin 273). The persecution and execution of witches and wizards is, of course, a gruesome aspect of history and a valid reason for wizards to harbour prejudices toward non-magical people at that time. In The Tales of Beedle the Bard there is a tale called The Wizard and the Hopping Pot, which tells the story of a wizard and his anti-Muggle son, who then has a change of mind and helps his Muggle-neighbours out of their misery. Dumbledore states in his commentary on the tale that, after the Statute was enacted, the tale was altered to a version that depicted the Muggle-neighbours as the villains who wanted to drive the innocent wizards out of town, and the Hopping Pot swallowed the Muggles in order to teach them a lesson and let the wizards live in peace (Beedle 14). “To this day, some Wizarding children are only told the revised version of the story by their (generally anti-Muggle) parents” (Beedle 14) is what Dumbledore tells us next, and the fact that a far relative of Draco Malfoy, Brutus Malfoy, published an anti-Muggle periodical that denounced the relationships between wizards and Muggles, writing “Nothing is a surer sign of weak magic than a weakness for non-magical company,” (Beedle 16) shows that the segregation that followed the witch hunts offered fertile ground for prejudices and disregard. In the years to come, “to call oneself a pure-blood was more accurately a declaration of political or social intent […] than a statement of biological fact,” Rowling writes on Pottermore. Knowing that wizards and Muggles once lived together peacefully, it does not take much to find out that the wizards who could call themselves pure-bloods were rather rare when the Statute was enacted, and are even more rare today, as Ron tells us in Chamber of Secrets: “Most wizards these days are half-blood anyway. If we hadn’t married Muggles we’d’ve died out.” (122). Unfortunately, the belief that any relations to non-magical people are shameful and to be avoided has remained, and although not everyone shares this view, many have unconsciously adopted it without actively supporting it. A popular example of everyday prejudice is Professor Horace Slughorn, Harry’s Potions teacher in Half-Blood Prince. Professor Slughorn is famous for his Slug Club, a circle of students which he finds interesting and of extraordinary ability. When Harry first talks to him, Slughorn tells him about Harry’s mother Lily, a particularly gifted young witch who was part of the Slug Club, and who ‘happened’ to be Muggle-born. Slughorn expresses his surprise to Harry that a Muggle-born could be as good as a pure-blood when he says “Your mother was Muggle-born, of course. Couldn’t believe it when I found out. Thought she must have been pure-blood, she was so good. […] Funny how that sometimes happens, isn’t it?” (Prince 59), before he goes on to show Harry his photo collection of all the extraordinary students the Slug Club had to offer. In Prejudice in Harry Potter’s World, Brown describes this as ‘racial tokenism’ (160). Slughorn obviously believes in the inferiority of Muggle-born wizards and he does not have to explicitly say it to show it; the fact that he sees Harry’s mother as a ‘funny’ thing to happen, and assuring Harry that she was one of his favourite students, is a clear indication that she served as a token for him, as well as many others. Pure-bloods are the ‘naturally’ gifted, and when a half-blood or Muggle-born person shows abilities that equate or even exceed those of pure-bloods, it must be a funny natural phenomenon! Those people certainly do well in a collection of extraordinary wizards. People like Slughorn are not necessarily aware of their prejudices; they adopt certain views and stereotypes that are considered ‘normal’ in their society, and possibly have been for many years. “As Slughorn’s example demonstrates, stereotypes have a way of “normalizing” harmful untruths and half-truths until they have become so tightly woven into the fabric of society that they are nearly impossible to cut out.” (Brown 65) You might recognise this phenomenon from scenarios that happen in everyday life, for example when looking at parents who do not want their children to enter relationships with ‘foreign’ people, that is, people of a different nationality or maybe just a different look. There are employers who do not want to occupy people wearing hijabs, for instance, or people with foreign names, because they think it is natural for them to perform poorer in their jobs than people with a national background. “[…] in our world, we wrongfully associate certain types of people with certain types of jobs, lifestyles, morality and so forth,” (Brown 214) and we act as if these associations were built upon natural facts. Who has not heard the phrase “You are good for a girl/boy/person of colour/etc.” before?

The wizards who believe in their superiority over Muggles and Muggle-born do so because they still support the old prejudices that originated in the segregation in the seventeenth century. Their position on the hierarchical ladder is on top because of that exact prejudice, and of course they want to maintain it. People like the Weasleys do not conform to the ‘wizarding ways’ and, according to Draco, “Arthur Weasley loves Muggles so much he should snap his wand in half and go and join them. […] You’d never know the Weasleys were pure-bloods, the way they behave.” (Chamber 235). “[…] what wizarding culture holds forth as “natural” and thus not subject to change […] is actually a cultural formation, one that the adults themselves play a role in maintaining,” Horne writes in Harry and the Other (87). That cultural formation is the reason that a hierarchical ladder exists in the first place, because (as I have already elaborated) there is no biological evidence for a reasonable distinction between wizards of varying magical ancestry. To cite Gupta: “[…] the symptoms of class standing […] are dislocated from the concept of class and turned into endemic or inborn characteristics” (my emphasis, 122–123), that is, class structure is disguised as a natural order. Therefore, the race conflict actually is a class conflict. “Class conflict is fueled by unjust treatment of various groups in any society based […] on external factors such as wealth or family connections.” (Reagin 274) Looking at the Weasleys, their family connections are surely questionable in the eyes of elitist families like the Malfoys; Arthur Weasley works in the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office, and therefore has contact to Muggles every day (more or less), while he also harbours an enthusiastic interest for Muggle devices and a sympathy for people in general, regardless of their ancestry (the Malfoys look down on him for entertaining a friendly relationship with the Granger family). He and his family are often scorned in public and sadly, Mr Weasley forfeits financial stability due to his attitude toward supposedly ‘inferior’ people, “rather than to compromise moral principles” (Deavel 61): “Dear me, what’s the use of being a disgrace to the name of wizard if they don’t even pay you well for it?” (Lucius to Arthur, Chamber 65).

Not everyone is as brave as Mr Weasley is, though; some people help maintain the hierarchy out of fear, just as Ernie Macmillan, a fellow Hogwarts student who becomes increasingly frightened of Harry in Chamber of Secrets when ‘the heir of Slytherin’ is going around petrifying people whose blood supposedly is not pure enough: “I might tell you that you can trace my family back through nine generations of witches and warlocks and my blood’s as pure as anyone’s, so –” (Chamber 209–210). Instead of speaking up for Half-bloods and Muggle-born, Ernie wants to ensure his supposed attacker that he is not part of the target group and therefore not deserving of such harsh treatment. In times of war and social conflict, people tend to do the same to ensure their safety. “Contributing to those race ideologies in order to obtain the protection and comfort of a higher societal position helps maintain the pureblood/halfblood/Muggle-born hierarchy” (Walters 12) and does nothing to change the circumstances for those who really are in need of protection. Those people often do not mean to be supportive of an oppressive regime; “they were ordinary people concerned mainly with advancing their careers, supporting their families, and fitting in with the majority” (Lyubansky 6). Fear and pressure are often valid reasons to conform to rules that one would normally resent, even despise; one does not have to be what Lyubansky calls a ‘true believer’ (8) to be a follower.

On financial terms, the old pure-blood families are often in touch with “the elite and most prestigious organizations such as Hogwarts, Gringotts” or the Ministry of Magic itself (Brown 41), which becomes clear when Lucius Malfoy quietly talks to the Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge in Order of the Phoenix in a dark corner of the Ministry; although Harry has told Fudge before that Lucius was a Death Eater he is still taking advice from him, and Mr Weasley explains to Harry that Lucius is well connected because of the generous gifts he donates to the Ministry (Order 142–143) or other institutions (e.g. providing the Slytherin Quidditch team with new broomsticks in Chamber 116). Wealth and a certain reputation allegedly ensure a particular amount of influence. Furthermore, Lucius happens to be beyond the reach of the Ministry in some cases, for instance when he removes Dumbledore from his position as headmaster of Hogwarts in Chamber of Secrets, despite Fudge’s objections (278).

In a society in which an old prejudice from a century that is long gone is the cornerstone of an elitist class system, and in which a single institution has control over the majority of the social world, how easy is it to establish a movement that thrashes out the governing class system to the extreme by giving prominence to said old prejudice? As Reagin rightly states, “Voldemort’s beliefs are not revolutionary or unprecedented. They are grounded in the simple politics of elitism that rich purebloods such as the Malfoys might well find attractive” (my emphasis, 173). By taking advice from Lucius Malfoy, a known Death Eater, Fudge enables The Daily Prophet to publish “a campaign of disinformation sponsored by the Ministry of Magic, to discredit Harry’s story of Voldemort’s return” (Chevalier 399–400) and at the same time questioning Dumbledore’s credibility by ridiculing him and playing jokes on his sanity, which leads to uncertainty and fear in Harry’s social environment and destroys the resistant solidarity against Voldemort from the inside out. Installing Dolores Umbridge, Fudge’s undersecretary, as Defence against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts in Order of the Phoenix, is another step to achieve total state control. Umbridge is not a trained teacher, but an official straight from the Ministry, and she instructs her students to rely on theoretical knowledge only, rendering it unnecessary to acquire any practical skills. She is also able to remove Hogwarts teachers from their position when she thinks they are not fit by the standards of the Ministry. Apparently Fudge is scared that Dumbledore could take his position as Minister of Magic by training an army of students to overthrow him; needless to say, this paranoid idea likely comes from Lucius Malfoy himself, considering that the one who truly benefits from people who cannot defend themselves is Voldemort. When Fudge finally realises that the supposed ‘rumours’ about Voldemort’s return are true, he stands down and is replaced by former Head of the Auror Office Rufus Scrimgeour in Half-Blood Prince, but at this point Voldemort’s influence is already too widespread to be stopped. The Dark Lord puts Pius Thicknesse, as well as several other high-ranking Ministry officials, under the Imperius Curse, and appoints him as Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, which is the largest Ministry department and is in contact with all the other Ministry departments (“[…] as Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Thicknesse has regular contact not only with the Minister himself, but also with the Heads of all the other Ministry departments,” Yaxley in Deathly Hallows 5), allowing Thicknesse (and with him Voldemort) to undermine the entire Ministry from within. After a short tenure, Scrimgeour is murdered (officially resigned) in Deathly Hallows during a coup on the Ministry and is replaced by Thicknesse, resulting in the Ministry now being in the hands of Death Eaters completely.

Now, why did Voldemort not just place himself on top of the Ministry as Minister? He surely had enough loyal followers in important positions to render it possible. The answer comes from Remus Lupin in Deathly Hallows: “Effectively he is the Minister, but why should he sit behind a desk at the Ministry? His puppet, Thicknesse, is taking care of everyday business, leaving Voldemort free to extend his power beyond the Ministry. […] Yes, Voldemort is playing a very clever game. Declaring himself might have provoked open rebellion: remaining masked has created confusion, uncertainty and fear.” (Hallows 167–168) This very clever game is what Barratt calls Authority, or “power with legitimacy” (9). “By operating within the bounds of what is apparently the “law,” bureaucratic process, and the regular means of choosing a leader” (Reagin 136), Voldemort manages to overthrow the structures of the Ministry to an unknown extent, making it seem as if everything that happens does in fact happen under the law, and the funny thing is: it does. There is a Minister in charge, a Minister that succeeded the former after he ‘resigned’, and that must mean that everything is going the way it is supposed to go. Or is it? “[…] the traditions of wizarding government allow Voldemort’s supporters to take over the wizarding government relatively easily and quickly,” Reagin writes (170). Since the (rather frightening) changes are allegedly happening with regard to the law, many people do not know what to think or do and stick to their gut instinct that “those in charge know better and that, in any case, they (i.e., the government officials) are responsible” that everything goes right (Lyubansky 4). Looking at our own society, this might sound familiar; many people think that those in charge should know what they are doing and either way, they (ordinary citizens) could not make a difference anyway. It is this attitude that makes it possible for Voldemort to change the wizarding society according to his own views: the Muggle-born Registration Commission is called to life (Hallows 168–169), forcing all Muggle-born wizards to register at the Ministry (similar to the Kinship Research Office of the Nazis in Germany (Reagin 139)) to “label and identify all of these citizens, in order to use these categories as a foundation for persecution” (Reagin 135), and to endure trials where they are accused of stealing their magical powers from ‘proper’ wizards (Hallows 210–211); students have to confirm their blood status at Hogwarts (Hallows 169) and the attendance of Muggle Studies at Hogwarts becomes mandatory (Hallows 169), which is similar to the Department of Racial Studies at German universities. Students are “subjected to a compulsory mis-education” (Brown 150) when Muggles are compared to animals during school lessons (Hallows 467) and even reduced to animal-like beings when they “are stripped of their wands, dismissed from their Ministry jobs and reduced to a class of beggars” (Brown 157), because we know: “No non-human creature is permitted to carry or use a wand.” (Goblet 113) Voldemort is “using the mechanisms of the state to make an entire society believe in the permanent inferiority or difference of a particular group” (Reagin 239), publishing pamphlets with titles like “Mudbloods and The Dangers They Pose” (Hallows 201) and erecting a statue that shows a witch and a wizard sitting on “mounds of carved humans,” engraved with the words “Magic Is Might” (Hallows 195–196).

The Harry Potter novels do not only tell how to defeat a villain with love and friendship; they tell the story of how a fascist regime was able to weave its way into the minds of the masses, enabling especially young readers to experience “the situation of others through the imaginative power of story [which] will lead the listener to a greater awareness of the oppression in the world.” (Horne 97) Harry’s own story is a story in which the hero has to challenge the social order that is “established by, and embodied in, authoritarian structures” (Chevalier 400) in order to defeat the true evil in the end, reflecting the problems of our own society, especially in times in which people like Donald Trump can become President of the United States. People are often not aware of how their behaviour influences the structures through which their society is regulated; J.K. Rowling tells her readers that we do, in fact, have a choice, regardless of our abilities. When Harry finds out that Dumbledore, together with Grindelwald, had been plotting the takeover of wizards over Muggles “for the greater good” because of the wizards’ greater power (Hallows 291), he is devastated. As Gupta says: “This position is, of course, racist too in the same way that Kiplingesque ideas like ‘the white man’s burden’ or the ‘imperial mission’, used to justify European colonialism in the nineteenth century, were racist” (109), but the important aspect is that Dumbledore changed his mind and realised that he had a choice. People have to make choices every day; we do not have to treat people a certain way because they are different from us, or just because we can. Mr Weasley surely has superior abilities compared to Muggles; he possesses magical powers, after all. Nonetheless, he does not treat them in an inferior way, nor does he see himself above them. A great part of Voldemort’s takeover of the Ministry was made possible by the wizarding society that so willingly took over his doctrine, sometimes without noticing it. We have to be aware of the things happening around us, and, most importantly: “It is our choices […] that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” (Chamber 352)

Written and published by: Julia Struck, University of Siegen. Siegen, September 2017.


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Julia Struck

🇩🇪 31 🇲🇪 Content Manager at A. Stein'sche Mediengruppe 📚 Librarian at The StoryGraph 📚