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Star Wars’ Barely-Hidden World War II References

And where the franchise should go next

Ben Freeland
Jun 12, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

As somebody who enjoyed the original Star Wars trilogy as a young child, completely soured on the franchise as a young adult when the prequels came out, and has rekindled his love for the films in recent years with the sequels and “anthology” films Rogue One and Solo, it’s been intriguing to read predictions about where the Star Wars universe will go next.

A Boba Fett anthology film now appears to be in the works, and there’s been much discussion of an Obi-Wan Kenobi spinoff, which would allow Ewan McGregor (whose dead-on Sir Alec Guinness impression was one of the few redeeming features of the prequels) to reprise the role of Luke Skywalker’s original mentor.

However, few today remember that the original Star Wars trilogy was, in so many ways, an allegory for World War II. I’ve never met a fellow historian who wasn’t fascinated by this, and fond of uncovering the franchise’s many nods to both ancient and modern human history. World War II references abound throughout the original films, as well as the prequels and sequels. Virtually everything about the Galactic Empire appears to be lifted from the rise and fall of the Third Reich — from Emperor Palpatine’s rise to power through a weak democratic system to the Albert Speer-eque architecture of the Death Star and the Waffen SS-style uniforms of the imperial officers. Other elements are more reminiscent of Imperial Japan, notably the near-invisibility of the Emperor contrasted by the ubiquity of the samurai-helmeted General Tojo-esque personage of Darth Vader. (Like Vader, Tojo was well known for his adherence to an “ancient religion,” Pure-Land Buddhism, and for his bullying and abusive manner towards subordinates.)

Other World War II references are less obvious to those who aren’t well-versed in military history, but are quite striking to people like me who are total geeks about the stuff. The Millennium Falcon’s cockpit is practically identical to the that of the B-29 Superfortress, and the rebel X-Wing fighters bear a striking resemblance to the RAF Spitfires. The improvised forest ambushes that the Ewoks use to great success in Return of the Jedi are not unlike those employed by the Nepali Gurkha soldiers in the jungles of Burma and Imphal-Kohima. The jowly, warbly-voiced Admiral Ackbar introduced in ROTJ answers the seldom-asked question of what the offspring of Winston Churchill and a squid would look and sound like. And as for the largely unseen but oft-mentioned genocide committed against the Jedi, the reference is obvious.

A further — and arguably the most beautiful — World War II allegory in the Star Wars films is to be found in the character of Yoda, whose facial features and personality were largely modelled on the 20th century’s most famous scientist and public intellectual, Albert Einstein. The parallels between these two personages are heartbreakingly obvious. Both were eccentric polymaths known for their dry wit and pithy quotability. Both were leaders among their respective universes’ persecuted peoples who were forced into exile by totalitarian regimes. And both were, above all, champions of peace who nonetheless acceded — very reluctantly — to applying their great minds in the service of warfare for a greater good. Unlike the immovably pacifistic Gandhi, undoubtedly Yoda’s other mid-20th century inspiration, Einstein acknowledged what had to be done to defeat forces of evil, much as Yoda did — all the while chastising Luke with quips like “wars don’t make one great.”

So what Star Wars movie would I love to see? After the original trilogy, it only makes sense to me that after having defeated the Galactic Empire, the victorious Rebel Alliance would have convened a tribunal comparable to the Nuremberg and Tokyo War Crimes Trials. And that, in my humble opinion, would make for a fascinating film.

See, here’s the thing. Within the lifetime of the original trilogy’s main protagonists, the defeated imperial forces clearly regroup as the so-called New Order, clearly putting an end to the Star Wars/World War II parallels. The speed with which the reformed empire gains traction in the New Republic universe makes one wonder if the postwar re-calibrations that took place between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens were more 1919 than 1945. Was there a Nuremberg-type trial of the surviving Imperial officers and their fellow travelers, followed by a galactic Marshall Plan, or did something more along the lines of the Treaty of Versailles take place? Would this explain the bitterness and determination of the unreconstructed fascists in the original Galactic Empire? Nerdy historians want to know.

My challenge to whoever takes the reins of the next Star Wars anthology is this: fill in the gap. What happened to the surviving officers from the Battle of Endor — assuming there were any? What happened to all the regional governors still exercising unchecked power across the vastness of the Star Wars galaxy? Was there an equivalent to Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison on the Imperial (turned New Republic) home world of Coruscant where these characters were held while awaiting trial? How did the trials accommodate the (presumably) different justice systems observed by the humans, the Wookiees, the Bothans, the Twi’leks, and the other races with their own sets of grievances? How was any of this managed?

You might think this would make for a boring film, but it needn’t. After all, who doesn’t love a good legal drama? From the 1961 drama Justice at Nuremberg starring Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster to Jack Nicholson’s legendary performance in the 1992 military drama A Few Good Men, military tribunals have always made for great cinema. This would simply be a science fiction riff on this genre, and one with endless possibilities for inter-species and interpersonal drama, as well as moral grey areas that the most recent Star Wars sequel The Last Jedi delves into with great aplomb (albeit to the discomfort of some of the franchise’s fans). It would be a risky venture, but one worth doing.

In the meantime, I look forward to the Boba Fett spinoff. Unlike so many of the Star Wars characters, Fett has no obvious World War II corollary. He is much more of a Cold War-type figure, more akin to Carlos the Jackal or Roberto D’Aubuisson — a hardened proxy-thug of opportunity — than anybody I can think of on either side of the Allied/Axis divide. Should be interesting.

Ben Freeland

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Writer. Teacher. Distance runner. Historian in the wilderness.