When Nationalism Leads to Pacifism – Discussing the Main Theme of Attack on Titan


Disclaimer: this article describes parts of the manga that have yet to appear in the anime. If you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read this article. Although really, considering how long the next arc has been out already I think you’re just being silly for not reading the manga. SO GO READ IT YOU FLACCID SAUSAGE!

The iconic salute of the military: the hand is placed in front of the heart to symbolise dedicating, and offering, one’s life for the people inside the walls

Attack on Titan is one of the most succesful manga of all times, having sold more than 90 million copies worldwide and presumably many more people reading it through ye old online piracy websites. It is highly praised as a good, yet very grim story, with believable characters, interesting themes and plot twists that are believable enough to pass for realz. So how am I going to criticise this masterwork? This magnum opus? Well joke’s on you! I’m going to follow the hype bandwagon and praise this manga, by explaining just why the themes are just so gosh darn interesting. Git gud!

One of the most important themes of this whimsy story of friendship and love is nationalism. More specifically the notion that people are part of a bigger society and have to be willing to make sacrifices for the state. The Survey Corps is this idea pretty much personified, with Erwin Smith telling his recruits over and over again that their goal is to die in a useful way so that humanity may survive. Add a bit of pomposity, a few heartfelt speeches and Erwin’s badass baritone voice and you’ve got hundreds, if not thousands of people running torwards their doom and into the gaping maw of the titans, all to make sure that the people inside the walls live to see another day in their stunning ignorance of the world. Indeed, one recurring element of this story is the bravery of people, the willingness for them to actually and truly sacrifice their lives for the state.

You see those armbands? Eldians are forced to wear them so that they can be identified. What does that remind you of…

It goes even further, because not only does Isayama explore what nationalism is about, he also loves to explore why nazism is the darnest little rascal that it is. Attack on Titan is full, and I literally mean FULL, of nazism parrallels. The most obvious one would be the Marley-Eldian dynamic (nazis and jews respectively) with the rest of the world hating the Eldi-jews being icing on the cake for how the rest of the world looked at Judaism leading up to World War II. One (well, I’m more than just one *pats belly*) can also make the argument that the Paradisi society has a few connections to nazism. Paradis itself can be seen as a concentration camp. You know, big walls keeping everyone inside, the big scary titans serving as extra motivation to stay the hell inside, death and carnage for 99,9% of the humans daring to even venture outside, a monarchy all to happy to tell you it’s better to stay inside the walls,… And inside the walls of Paradisi society there’s a very clear class divide, with the government controlling pretty much every facet of life: food, companies, army, (lack of) technological innovation,… Sounds both medieval and fascist to me! Eldians are also the only ones who can turn into titans and those big blighters can be seen as pests. Rats, one might say. Huge, deadly and even mass murdering rats, but pests nonetheless! So over and over Isayama presents elements of nationalism and nazism in the story.

Nazis Carrying The Recognisable Villain Card

Somehow the moral concept of sacrifice to the state doesn’t sound as appealing when you’re about to be eaten…

So why is this story not just nazi or right-wing propaganda? Simple. Isayama explores every facet of nationalism from an objective point of view. The good and the bad. He deconstructs the ideology and looks at why it’s actually a very bad thing. Remember those people sacrificing themselves? They proudly leap towards their death, knowing they’re about to die, having served their purpose and aided their fellow man. A noble death, but consistently those same people end up begging and screaming for their lives, the normal human fear taking over right before they’re gruesomely ripped apart by the titans. One wonders why a lot of titans don’t have yellow or brown mouths…

The same goes for the nazi elements. The nazis of this story are the card-carrying villains you’d expect them to be. They’re horrible murderers, committing atrocities by the thousands, using propaganda to justify treating the Eldi-jews like dirt while also demonstrating they’re massive, huge and big hypocrites. The Marleyians are just as bad as the Eldians they so detest! The entire world hates them because they too use the titans to dominate and subjugate other people. The titans being Eldian children forced into a Warrior Program to make sure their families are treated slightly less badly than other Eldians. More like rabbits and less like rats. All the while it’s hinted and implied that the Marleyians will exterminate the Eldians anyway once they are no longer useful. And so far the Marleyians haven’t shown any redeemable traits the audience can root for. In fact, one of our first views of the Marleyians is through the eyes of one of their biggest adversaries: Grisha Yaegar as he watches his little sister being devoured by dogs on the order of two Marley soldiers. Why? For shits and giggles. I don’t think there is a stronger emotional example to show you how detestable these fuckers are.

What started off the series: Berthold, an eldian, before he destroys Wall Maria and helps kill 250,000 innocents

And yet, despite clearly presenting the Marleyians as the big bads, Isayama also is willing to show the Eldians commit atrocities. Reiner, Bertholdt and Annie break Wall Maria and kill 250,000 people as a result, a number that doesn’t just become a statistic. Eren brings it up when the three Titan Shifters reveal their true colours. The three are clearly shown to feeling extremely guilty because of it. Reiner is even going insane, suffering from a split personality disorder to rationalise his war crimes.

And Eren himself demonstrates the same: despite the Paradis Eldians being the ultimate victims of the story, Eren has no problems killing hundreds of Marley innocents for political reasons, losing the respect of his friends AND also deconstructing the typical traits of yer average Shonen protagonist. Every character keeps going, keeps fighting, for a sunken cost fallacy: to make sure that their slain didn’t die for nothing.

Humans? Or Monsters?

All of these examples, all of these ways that Isayama explores his themes lead to a conclusion that is shockingly George R.R. Martin in nature: war makes monsters of us all. Every side in a war is willing to commit atrocities, willing to traumatise and sacrifice their soldiers for their own selfish state goals, all for the “well-being” of the poor, helpless, defenseless, would-probably-be-eaten-by-titans-immediately civilians. We don’t need cannibalistic super light monsters with creepy faces to destroy humanity. Humanity is capable of doing that themselves. Therefore humans are the real bastards, not supernatural zombies. Which were made by said humans in the first place, you know.

The symbol of freedom! By throwing hundreds of lives away in the pursuit of the next phyrric victory…

This is what makes the series so fascinating. Isayama explores the elements of nationalism, nazism and general right-wing politics to essentially come to a thematic conclusion that is pacifistic in nature. We are introduced to the Survey Corps and told over and over again that mortality rates are high because the members of this military brach sacrifice their very lives to learn more about the titans. All to develop new strategies to kill them. All for the sake of freedom. We are taught that this helps society, only for Zeke to dismiss the entire thing in chapter 81 as “how sad”, arguing that “they make the same mistakes over and over again. I’m sure that by the end, they’ll be sending every person inside those walls off on a suicide charge, from their elders to their children.”

And ultimately I want to see how this ends. I want to see what the final conclusions are and what happens to our characters as they go from one phyrric victory to the next; sacrificing lives, material and their very souls as they constantly add to their killing list. Will the people reach peace? Will they make the same mistakes as the governments did in our previous century? Will they all come together, sing songs and become ultimate friends? Well, probably not the last one. The story is too grim for that, but it would be an interesting conclusion. Either way, I adore this series and now you know why. SO GO READ THE MANGA! OR GO WATCH THE ANIME IF YOU CAN’T READ! PEACE OUT!

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Copyright: The images used in this article are screenshots taken from the “Attack on Titan” manga and anime.  We are allowed to use them under section 107 of the US Copyright Act of 1976. Attack on Titan belongs to Hajime Isayama, Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine and Wit Studio.

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