If, as Churchill proclaimed, “history is written by the victors” then any account accepted by a cultural majority is a prescribed and biased narrative. Individual accounts of the same events rarely align, but on the national scale this becomes much more sinister. Taking charge of an information stream and manipulating events historically and in the present is a means of controlling a populace, a kind of cultural brainwashing. The regime in North Korea is arguably the most visible contemporary example, though history is littered with dozens of extreme political ideologies at both ends of the spectrum. Yet this phenomenon is hardly the preserve of dictators and despots, with propaganda a useful universal tool during wartime. Pamphlets and posters have been utilised for centuries to unite a nation under one belief, whether rallying against a common foe, dehumanising an enemy, emphasising the importance of food and materials, or stoking national pride.
The clue might be in the title, but Star Wars has spent decades exploring war. Chronologically, the films show how a democracy is manipulated from within before it becomes a dictatorship. Crucial to Palpatine’s rise from senator to Emperor is taking charge of the galactic narrative. In Revenge of the Sith, he addresses the senate following his duel with Mace Windu and accepting Anakin as his apprentice. Here he positions the Jedi as enemies of the state and, therefore, the people. By creating fear among the populace, through the perceived threat of the Jedi and the ongoing Clone War, Palpatine can promise safety and security making his rule not one of tyranny but for the greater good.
“In order to ensure our security and continuing stability, the Republic will be reorganised into the first Galactic Empire for a safe and secure society,” Palpatine announces. But it’s a regime that will come to be defined by the fear it instils.
The Empire’s manipulation of history has been best envisaged outside of the Star Wars movies, in the comics, novels and TV shows. Arguably the best example from the new canon is Claudia Gray’s Lost Stars. Early on, protagonists Thane and Ciena are studying to get into the Empire’s youth training programme. As with any exam, the curriculum requires a fundamental understanding of the Empire, its history and ideology. But readers will notice that the history the two young would-be cadets accept as truth is far removed from the events of the prequel trilogy. Although the beats remain the same, the agenda and motivation has been skewed.
Ciena’s head swam. They’d been reviewing galactic history for three hours now. “Okay. The criminal gang that interfered with a legal execution on Geonosis and sparked the Clone Wars was led by . . . by . . .” She shut her eyes, winced, and said, “Mace Windu?”
Then she opened her eyes again to see Thane grinning at her. “See? You knew it all along”
Next to them, the CZ-I droid clucked approvingly. “Your grasp of history is excellent, Miss Ree…
– Lost Stars, Claudia Gray
This, of course, occurred at the height of the Empire’s power, when its absolute control seemed assured for centuries. But what about when the regime falls, and its control fades from the galaxy? What happens to the lies and revisions it has systematically put into place? Over the course of twenty years, the roots of the Empire ran deep. Truth and lies have comes in waves and no-one’s entirely sure of what really happened anymore. This was one of the themes of Alexander Freed’s Alphabet Squadron, set shortly after the fall of the Empire. Though there’s several conversations and character thoughts that allude to this, the below passage – which takes place in the shadow of an old abandoned Jedi temple and involves two Imperial defectors – is the most appropriate.
Nath studied Quell’s face awhile. “You’re younger than me, older than the others – except Kairos, maybe, who knows? – but young enough to have gotten the second revised history of the Clone Wars.”
Quell bristled and tried to hide it. “What does that mean?”
“The Empire’s been erasing the Jedi from history, step by step. First they said the Jedi tried to murder the last chancellor – Palpatine, before he was the Emperor – in some sort of coup at the war’s end. It’s what I grew up hearing.”
“I heard that version from the older officers. It never made any sense because—”
“Because you were taught there weren’t any Jedi to begin with, right? That they were relics, mostly forgotten?” Nath grinned. “That’s the trouble when they keep changing the story. Nah, there were thousands of them, and real influential in the Republic. Believe me, you hear a lot about the legend of the Jedi and the Force when you join the Rebel Alliance.”
– Alphabet Squadron, Alexander Freed
Built from the ashes of the Empire, the First Order has more than a few similarities to the regime that came before it. Despite its similar visual aesthetic and fondness for superweapons, it has more in common with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. On a superficial level, a comparison is warranted by virtue of both being led by a Supreme Leader, but the similarities run deeper than that. The First Order’s ideology is inseparable from its military might. More than the Empire, it’s like an occupying force, dwarfing the Resistance. The Korean People’s Army is the largest military institution in the world and is central to national identity and the image Kim Jong-un wants to portray to the rest of the world.
And as with North Korea, the First Order feeds its own version of history and the present to its people, inventing its own mythology. It goes a step further and uses brainwashing to create an obedient army, one which is completely dedicated to its version of events. Before firing on Starkiller Base, General Hux gives a Nuremberg-style rally to his gathered troops, reaffirming their organisation’s ideology and its idea of the New Republic as the enemy.
“Today is the end of the Republic. The end of a regime that acquiesces to disorder. At this very moment in a system far from here, the New Republic lies to the galaxy while secretly supporting the treachery of the rogues of the Resistance. This fierce machine which you have built, upon which we stand will bring an end to the Senate, to their cherished fleet. All remaining systems will bow to the First Order and will remember this as the last day of the Republic!”
– General Hux, The Force Awakens
If rebellions are built on hope, then dictatorships are built on the control and manipulation of information and history. Our own real-world history can attest to that much and in mirroring these events, Star Wars is as much a cautionary tale as a Saturday morning matinee, a space opera or fairy tale.
Journalism and media are also utilised for control and to push a single dominant narrative, as explored in this article.