Real History of Star Wars
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It’s a worldwide pop culture phenomenon… its value is estimated to be $70 billion… and even though it’s space fiction, it has some very real historical roots. This is your Squiz Kids Shortcut to the Real History of Star Wars—the podcast where we dive into the who, what, when, where, why and how of the big news stories. I’m Amanda Bower.
And I’m Claire Kimball.
Now, Claire is from the adult version of Squiz Kids, Squiz Today, and I was so horrified that she didn’t know why May the 4th was Star Wars day that I had to invite her here today. May the 4th BE WITH YOU, Claire… which is what ALL the Jedi Knights say to each other. How is it possible that we’re almost the same age, and you aren’t much of a Star Wars fan?
Nope, never got into it. I saw the first movie, when I was a really little kid… but not the newer movies… not the spin-offs, like The Mandalorian… and definitely not the animated series.
You’re breaking my heart. But I do know that you LOVE history. What would you say if I promised to tell you HOW the Vietnam War shaped Star Wars; WHAT the Galactic Empire has in common with Nazi Germany; and WHO in history the Jedi knights are based on?
I’m listening… and you should be too, because there’s a S’Quiz at the end!
The first Star Wars movie was released back in 1977. The director of the film, George Lucas, is American… and in the early 1970s, when he was writing the screenplay for Star Wars, his country was heavily involved in the Vietnam War.
That was a conflict between North Vietnam and South Vietnam – but the US was fighting on the side of the South. Even though the Americans had hundreds of thousands of well-trained, well-supplied troops, they weren’t able to beat the North Vietnamese, who did things like live underground in tunnels, and conduct sneak attacks and raids on the American troops.
That’s right. America was a superpower, but in 1973, it ended up retreating from Vietnam in defeat. The North won the war. That same year, 1973, George Lucas wrote his first draft of Star Wars. He told people that the rebels – including Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, the heroes – were based on the North Vietnamese. George Lucas, like many young Americans at the time, was against the Vietnam War, and thought America’s involvement in it was wrong.
So do those rebels in Star Wars fight in the same way that the North Vietnamese did? Sneaky attacks, with less impressive weapons and training?
Well, the ending of Return of the Jedi, the third movie in the original trilogy, sure feels that way. It’s on the planet of Endor, and the Imperial Army – they’re the bad guys, Claire – have matching uniforms and superior technology. The good guys include these super cute primitive creatures called Ewoks, and they use rocks and stones to help fight and defeat the bad guys.
Okay, so this Imperial Army – were they supposed to represent America?
Back when he was writing the script, George Lucas said that the Empire was “America 10 years from now” … but by the time the movies were made, it was much more like Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Want to hear WHAT Nazi Germany had in common with the Empire?
Claire, you’re the history nut, why don’t you give us a quick rundown of what exactly Nazi Germany was…
The Nazi Party was a political group that ruled Germany between 1933 and 1945. “Nazi” is a short form of their official German name. The Nazis believed that people should obey a strong leader. That leader was Adolf Hitler. He had no use for democracy, human rights, or peace. The Nazis also taught that Germans were born to rule over what they called “inferior races”, or people that they thought were less than them. Hitler preached a special hatred against Jews.
It was a terrible time in Germany – and once Hitler started World War II, it was a pretty terrible time for the whole planet. So Claire, Hitler was a dictator, who got himself into power by overthrowing democracy… that also describes Emperor Palpatine. George Lucas said that Palpatine was modelled on dictators like Hitler, and he wanted the film to make people think about how democracies can fail and become dictatorships.
Right… I guess Star Wars is a bit deeper than I thought it was!
There are a lot of other similarities for this one. Another word for Nazi Germany was the Third Reich – and Reich in German means Empire… as in, Emperor Palpatine rules over an Empire… the Empire Strikes Back.
Well, as Hitler was rising to power in the 1920s and 30s, there was a group of his supporters that all wore single colour uniforms, provided protection at rallies, and physically fought against other political parties. In 1933, there were more than 4 million members of this Sturmabteilung… and yes, “Sturm” in German means “Storm”. Surely even you’ve heard of the Stormtroopers in Star Wars, Claire…
Ah, yes… all white uniforms, ruthless, loyal to their leader… I can see the connection.
I won’t go through all the similarities, but the Imperial officers’ uniforms look an awful lot like historical German Army uniforms, down to the imitation silver death’s head on some of their officer’s caps – Hitler’s SS officers had them, too.
So… if George Lucas drew from Nazi history in creating the bad guys, WHO inspired the good guys?
Well, the Jedi knights are a mixture. Their spiritual beliefs are strongly influenced by eastern philosophies, like Shaolin monks from China, and Japanese Samurai. But they also have a lot in common with the Knights Templar, the Catholic military order from the 12th to the 14th century. Obviously we can start with the name – Knights Templar, Jedi Knights. What do you know about the Knights Templar, Claire?
Well, they had elite status, even within the army
Same with Star Wars. The other rebel soldiers look up to the Jedi, for sure.
A very strict moral code…
They weren’t supposed to marry…
That’s why Anakin secretly married Padme… and we all know how that turned out…
They had a high council of 12 knights…
Same! And both the Jedi and the Knights Templar had a preference for wearing robes… Now the Republic itself has a lot in common with Ancient Rome. There’s Roman style architecture on Padme’s home planet of Naboo… and Roman style entertainment with pod racing – a lot like the chariot races in Rome… and, in Attack of the Clones, the battle in the amphitheatre looks a whole lot like a gladiator fight.
I guess the people who make the movies get inspired from real history, and then adapt things to suit the movie.
Exactly. You know, the inspiration for everyone’s favourite Jedi knight, Yoda, was Albert Einstein – scraggly white hair, wrinkled face, a wise person with a fun-loving side.
But Einstein fled his home because of war… and his theories led to the development of nuclear power!
Yoda also had to flee his home and hide out on Dagobah… that’s a swamp planet, Claire … and it’s only thanks to Yoda that Luke Skywalker is able to learn the power of the Force!
And I guess people still like to quote Einstein and Yoda today…
Wise, you have become…
This is the part of the podcast where you get to test how well you’ve been listening…
1. The Battle of Endor, in which a rebel army with inferior weapons wins, is like which real life war?
2. Emperor Palpatine is modelled on which 20th century dictator?
3. The pod-racing and amphitheatre battle in Star Wars movies are like which Ancient civilisation?