When Attack on Titan revealed what was in Eren’s basement, the result was bound to be controversial. It’s been built up as a major plot point since the first season aired back in 2014, and the show’s spent so much time on it that no answer would satisfy everyone. Even so, I think it’s fair to say that nobody could’ve predicted what we actually got: a questionable Holocaust allegory.
The basic plot points, that Eren’s father came from a country where a minority ethnic group, the Eldians is oppressed based on what the group in power, the Marleyans, claims their ancestors did. Fantasy is no stranger to allegories for real world racism, and the Attack on Titan’s is well executed from a narrative standpoint. It’s only when you factor in the imagery it uses that problems start to arise. The Eldians are forced to wear armbands with a star-like symbol and live in walled off areas that bear a strong resemblance to the ghettos where Jews were forced to live in the early days of the Holocaust. Combine that with Attack on Titan’s well-established German motifs and early 20th century aesthetic, and the allegory is almost impossible to miss.
To start with, I’d like to explain why I don’t think this twist goes beyond a poorly conceived allegory. Many people have accused Attack on Titan of promoting a fascist or pseudo-fascist ideology (manga spoilers in the link, skim through for the general idea), which I think is the exact opposite of the show’s views. For starters, the Marleyans’ actions are never framed as anything except cruel and abhorrent. From the casual abuse thrown at Grisha and Fey when they went to explore the city, to Gross’s dehumanizing speech toward Grisha and the Eldians, Attack on Titan absolutely does not justify the Marleyans’ treatment of the Eldians, which is consistent with its previous treatment of fascist ideas.
One of the core tenants of 20th century fascism was the complete subordination of the individual to the state. In fascist governments, the greatest thing anyone could do was boldly die for the state without concern for himself (and it was almost exclusively men framed this way). While Attack on Titan does frame the choice to sacrifice one’s own life as heroic, it never treats sacrifice as something people should aspire to. Take Erwin’s speech to his men and subsequent suicidal charge at the Beast Titan; he outright says that death has no meaning by itself and that it’s up to the people still living to give it meaning. When he finally convinces them to join his charge, it’s nothing more than an act of desperation that only brings more pain and suffering in exchange for a small chance of victory.
Sacrifice in war is nothing more than a last resort brought about by the cruel world they were born into, and is a decision every individual has to make for themselves. Attack on Titan emphasizes individual worth and the inherent value of life rather than defining people by their service to a cause. Everyone is special, everyone has dreams of their own beyond some nebulous duty they take on. It’s the decision to chase their own destiny, not being part of some “master race” or superior nation, that makes people special. This idea is antithetical to fascism, and is why Attack on Titan’s story is more anti-fascist than anything else.
If Attack on Titan isn’t promoting fascism, then what’s the problem? Well, it’s complicated. Before I get into that, I’d like to clarify that I don’t think any subject matter should be automatically off the table in fiction. Good stories can come from anything, and fiction can very often provide a unique perspective on real world events. The one caveat here is that sensitive subject matter should be treated as such. The Holocaust was one of the greatest evils of the 20th century (which has no shortage of evils), and any reference to it in fiction should be done with the utmost care to make sure it’s not portrayed with any moral ambiguity. Now, I don’t think Attack on Titan does this, but it does come closer than it should to muddying the waters.
While the series frames Marley’s actions as unequivocally wrong, it also casts the Eldians in shades of grey, as opposed to purely being victims. Grisha coming up with a more positive version of Eldian history based solely on blind faith in his ancestor and a belief that the Eldians are chosen by Ymir (an all too close parallel to the Jewish belief that the Israelites were God’s chosen people) is treated as another form of dangerous extremism that ultimately brings him to ruin when his obsession drives Zeke to betray him. Furthermore, the Eldians’ ability to turn into Titans makes any real world allegories difficult since there’s no real ethnic group that automatically has some kind of superpower. Taken all together, this plotline could be read as saying that the Jews carried some of the blame for the Holocaust, which is both false and abhorrent.
Like I said before, though, I don’t think that’s what story is trying to say. Even after all of this, it never once treats the Marleyans’ actions as remotely justified or moral. Gross’ speech to Grisha wouldn’t be out of place coming from a Nazi in a World War II movie, and none of the other Marleyans are given any kind of justification or development. Taken in context, the chief message the show wants to convey with Grisha’s flashbacks is another condemnation of blind extremism, the same way it condemns the Wall Cultists’ zealotry or the Military Police’s blind devotion to the government. Cut out the Holocaust imagery and there wouldn’t be any controversy at all. Divorced from that, nothing in the story would be particularly offensive, and virtually nothing about it would change. The Holocaust references are so incidental to the main story and clash so strongly with the text itself that it seems like including them was a misguided attempt to make the Marley/Eldia story more impactful than it already is, rather than a way to promote fascism.
That doesn’t justify the series’ decision to use such imagery—references to real world atrocities should be used carefully if at all—but it does explain things. It was a poor decision, but not a malicious one. Whether that’s enough to excuse Attack on Titan will vary from person to person, but as for me, I’ll be sticking with it. The writing so far has been uniformly excellent, and one poor creative decision—serious as it is—isn’t enough to make me give up on it all together. I’m not implying that people who do are somehow wrong, though. Everyone has different standards and expectations from art, and no two people are going to have the exact same experience with a story. As always, it’s up to every individual to decide what they want out of their stories and what their limits are. It’s just too bad that Attack on Titan is making people decide that in the first place..