The Influence of Nazi Germany on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series
It is evident that fictional stories have always thrived off the imaginations of their writers. Nonetheless, it is also true that most authors are inspired by the world around them to write their stories. For example, Ayn Rand was inspired by her political experiences from her native country, Russia, to write her novels. However, can an author be inspired by something he has never lived through? Can he be influenced by culture and history of other countries?
Modern writer J.K. Rowing is an example of this type of writer. In truth, although she is strongly influenced by her own culture in England, Rowling, like numerous other modern writers, is equally inspired by literature, culture and historical events of countries around the world. In particular, the author draws parallels to Nazi Germany during the Second World War. She clearly states in an interview: “I wanted Harry to leave our world and find exactly the same problems in the wizarding world. So you have the intent to impose a hierarchy, you have bigotry, and this notion of purity, which is this great fallacy, but it crops up all over the world. People like to think themselves superior and that if they can pride themselves in nothing else they can pride themselves on perceived purity. So yeah that follows a parallel [to Nazism].” 1
J.K. Rowling is known to have created not only a detailed and captivating story, but also an entirely new magical world in which her characters live. Thus, we see that even though this world is considered fictional, the author creates a world that maintains all the aspects of the real world. Through her characters such as Voldemort and Grindelwald, she shows that issues that arose during the Second World War are not confined to the real world. She shows that they are timeless, universal and relevant in even the magical world. Through her parallels, she brings a certain sensibility towards the issue and attempts to teach her readers, who are predominantly children and teenagers, the dangers of bigotry and power hunger as well as the importance of unity, bravery and compassion. By describing the idealistic views on society held by characters of the magical world such as Grindelwald and Salazar Slytherin as well as their similarity to Anti-Semitism, by comparing Voldemort’s life and personality to Hitler’s and finally by comparing both dictators’ regimes, a clearer understanding of Rowling’s use of parallels will arise.
1. Idealistic Views on Society (Before Voldemort)
In general, as human beings, we are always trying to improve the community that we live in. The trouble is, what is right and good for one person may not necessarily be right for another. For most people in today’s society, genocide is seen as a terrible and unfair act; however, during the holocaust of World War II, many people believed that ethnic cleansing was a necessary procedure that would ultimately benefit society.2
The condemnation of the Jews was, in fact, directly influenced by a perennial anti-Semitism in Germany.3 To Hitler, in particular, the Jew was a “mythical figure, incarnate, the figure into which he projected all that he hated and feared.” 4 Thus, under the influence of a plenary anti-Semite, mass populations turned against the Jews and, eventually, condemned them to die.5
These ideas of ethnic cleansing and hatred are identical to those expressed through the “villains” of Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In the magical world, wizards who had blood that had been “tainted” by a Muggle were condemned to die by prejudiced wizards. Rowling shows us the prejudiced ideologies of three wizards in particular, other than Voldemort. Firstly, Salazar Slytherin, one of the founders of Hogwarts, believed that only pure-blooded wizards deserved to attend the school.6 Also, Grindelwald and Dumbledore believed in wizard supremacy over Muggles and wished to overthrow the Muggle-tolerant government.7
1.1 Salazar Slytherin
Firstly, it is important to realize that the prejudice against Jews was not an entirely new idea. Hitler highly benefited from the long history of Anti-Semitism in Germany; William L. Shirer believes, even, that the Nazi’s came to power because their movement was a “logical continuation of German history.” 8 Similarly, Voldemort and Grindelwald were not the first to encourage racial superiority. Salazar Slytherin, born a millennium before these two men, also had strong racist beliefs. He was one of the four founders of Hogwarts and believed that only pure-blood wizards should be allowed to attend Hogwarts. When the other founders refused, he left the school, leaving behind a Chamber of Secrets. This chamber was the home of a deadly Basilisk. Slytherin hoped that one day the heir of Slytherin would come and fulfill his wishes, murdering all the “impure” wizards at the school.9 Thus, in the beginning, Slytherin refused to give the “impure” wizards access to education. Later, he refused to give them the right to live. This progression of hatred was equally present during the Second World War: Jewish people continually lost all their rights and freedom until they were condemned to death. In fact, the missionaries of Christianity had said to the Jews “You have no right to live among us as Jews.” The secular rulers who followed stated “You have no right to live among us” and finally, the German Nazi’s had told them “You have no right to live.” 10 We can thus clearly see that the notion if purity giving you a right to live is present not only in the magical world, but equally in our world during World War II.
1.2 Grindelwald and Dumbledore
views on society evidently did not die with his own death. Gellert
Grindelwald, in particular, maintained similar views. Joined by Albus
Dumbledore at the age of 18, Grindelwald had a prejudiced mission to
achieve wizard supremacy over Muggles.11
Both men believed that because wizards are more powerful then Muggles,
they indubitably have the right to rule. In simple terms, they wanted to
use Muggles as slaves for the wizarding people. In their opinion,
because they are more powerful, they are more worthy of freedom and, in a
way, of life. This prejudiced opinion evidently mirrors the thoughts of
Adolf Hitler who insisted that the Aryans deserved superiority over the
Jews. For Hitler, to be born a Jew meant that one was “not a human
being and therefore unworthy of life.” 12 Because the
wizarding world’s existing government at this time believed that the
Muggles should be left alone, Grindelwald and Dumbledore wished to
overthrow their own government and to establish their own system of
government: one that would encourage wizard dominance.
The method in which they planned to come to power is also quite similar to Hitler’s. In particular, they planned to convince the public that their intentions were purely for the benefit of society. In order to get mass populations on their side, they even developed a slogan, “For the greater good” to promote their good intentions.13 This use of propaganda through slogans is quite similar to Hitler’s; in truth, the latter used slogans such as “Free Germany from the Jews” 14 to convince the German people that a purification of society was the right thing to do. He wished to be seen as the savior of Germany and not as a racist supporting genocide.
Also, Grindelwald was defeated in 1945, the year of Hitler’s death,15 and Rowling confirms in an interview that this fact is not a coincidence.16 By confirming the existence of the reference toward Hitler himself, Rowling confirms that the ideologies of certain characters are quite similar to and might have even been inspired by the ideologies of Anti-Semites during the Second World War.
2. Voldemort: the Life and Personality of an Ideal Dictator
Adolf Hitler is one of the most well-known dictators in history. Therefore, an important question that we must ask is: why Hitler? What characteristics did Hitler possess that made him so “successful”?
In my opinion, Hitler’s life and personality played a significant role in his rise to power. His childhood and youth was tainted with poverty, abuse and, thus, a growing distaste for the Jews.17 As a young adult, he read books that confirmed his own prejudices about the Jews and continued to do so later in life.18 Although, unlike Voldemort, Hitler was a somewhat awkward speaker with small groups of people, his remarkable speeches were what persuaded mass populations to join his side.19
In her book series, J.K. Rowling recreates her own Hitler through her character of Voldemort. By explaining the why’s and how’s of Voldemort’s dictatorship, she is able to show us what drives power-hungry dictators like Hitler in general and how they are able to fulfill their goals. In truth, while there are of course many differences between the two, the similarities between Voldemort and Hitler are simply impossible to ignore.
2.1 Childhood and Youth: Origins of Hate
The environment in which a person grows up usually has a significant influence on his or her personality, values and beliefs. Additionally, children may have distinct reactions, whether conscious or not, to certain situations. For example, one of the reasons why Hitler hated the Jews was because he blamed them for his poverty and unhappiness; he believed that they were responsible for the loss of the First World War and the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles.20
Though they were both fed and reasonably taken care of as children, neither Hitler nor Voldemort had a necessarily happy childhood. Hitler was abused as a child21 and lived a large part of his life impoverished in a predominantly Jewish region.22 Voldemort, in turn, was born and raised in a Muggle orphanage and, thinking himself superior to the other children, was quite unhappy there.23 Taking this into consideration, it is quite possible that both men’s personal experiences as children and young adults shaped the men they became and contributed to their desire to cause harm to others. Voldemort’s desire to exterminate Muggles was, among other things, a direct result of his feelings of superiority and anger towards the Muggle foster children. Thinking he was special and more powerful than the others, he strongly believed that he was not worthy, but that he deserved of supremacy over them. Voldemort, like Hitler, read about his family history to reinforce his prejudices towards the Muggles.24
Persuasion and Manipulation
Both Voldemort and Hitler developed abilities of persuasion and manipulation during their childhoods and carried them to their adulthood. Thus, neither can be considered unintelligent, because both, at a young age, knew how to manipulate others to get what they want. For instance, as a child, Hitler was able to manipulate his mother into pampering him.25 Similarly, Voldemort was an extremely intelligent and manipulative child, able to change his mood in an instant in order to convince others to give him what he wanted. He often used cruel magic against the other foster children to make them afraid of him.26 Hence, even at a young age, he played off others’ emotions and controlled others through fear. Still, Voldemort knew his boundaries. For example, when Dumbledore came to visit him, he understood that this was a man he could not scare; therefore, he became immediately polite to ensure that the man would trust him.27 Hitler also knew his boundaries as a child, since he learned to accept his father’s abuse, and also as an adult since, after his failed Beer Haul Putsch he realized that the only way to attain power was through democratic means.
Additionally, another trait of a successful propagandist that both men possessed was the ability to convince others of one’s good intentions. This talent is essential to the achievement of power. Duly, at the age of 22, Hitler used this talent to persuade a crippled aunt to give him a large sum of money and to leave him the bulk of her life’s savings.28 Similarly, Voldemort, at approximately the same age, convinced an old woman named Hepzibah Smith to show him Hufflepuff’s cup, which he needed to make a Horcrux. He was also able, through his charm, to persuade Horace Slughorn to provide him with necessary information on Horcruxes. Furthermore, both dictators had to gain the support of large groups of people. They both were able to play off the publics’ emotions in order to gain their approval. More than anything, Hitler played off collective anger towards poverty and powerlessness; he was seen as the beacon of hope that would provide them with change. Voldemort, however, played more off the fear. Being a powerful wizard, he had the ability to kill anyone who disagreed with his actions, he himself being invincible because of his Horcruxes. Each of his followers were terrified not only of defying the Dark Lord, but also of the fact that they could not even think about disagreeing with him, since, through Legilimency, he could read their minds.
Both men used their manipulative abilities to reach their main goal: the attainment of power. This theme is underlined, mainly through the contrast between Harry and Voldemort, by an important life lesson: that power is a dangerous thing that even Dumbledore, wise and compassionate as he is, would never let himself have, for he would be much too tempted to abuse that power. He tells Harry, and thus, the reader, that “It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.” 29 The author clearly makes the distinction between wanting power for yourself and attaining power because it is necessary. In his fifth year at Hogwarts, Harry took the role of leader of the DA not because he wanted to, but because he knew that the others were in need of his help. Voldemort, on the other hand, wished to have the absolute control of the wizarding world in his hands because he wanted power not for the benefit others, but for himself. For this reason, he did not wish to simply integrate into the existing political system; on the contrary, he wished to overturn the government in the form of a revolt, creating in its place an entirely new system of government led by him.
Likewise, although he convinced others that he was only seeking to help Germany, it is evident that Hitler was driven by a lust for power as well as personal ambition.30 He even went so far as to say that it was God’s plan for him to be powerful and to order the murder of those who were “unworthy of life.” 31 As the “heir of Slytherin” and the “greatest wizard who ever lived,” 32 Voldemort believes that he deserves the right to rule. In an interview, J.K. Rowling comments on this topic: “Voldemort is of course a sort of Hitler…it's interesting to find how superstitious these people are, with all their power. It's part of their paranoia, the desire to make themselves bigger then who they really are; they love talking about destiny and fate. I wanted Voldemort to also have those paranoid traits.” 33
Voldemort’s personality can be summarized by the significance of his name. The fact that Voldemort changed his name34 from Tom Riddle represents many things. First, it shows that he was racist and ashamed of his Muggle blood. Secondly, it shows that he saw himself as a superior human being for whom a “normal” name did not suffice. Thirdly, his name, meaning “flight from death” (vol de mort in French) shows that his power was strong enough to conquer even his biggest fear: death. Lastly, it is used a propaganda mechanism. We see throughout the series that the mere mention of his name invokes fear in people to the point where normal wizards call him “He who must not be named” and his followers call him the Dark Lord.35 For the story, the fact that Harry calls him by his weak and pathetic name, Riddle, directly before he defeats him36 becomes an act of large significance; Harry shows him, at his last moment of life that he is indeed not a superior and invincible human being.
3. Voldemort and Hitler: Political Regime
In this manner, all the stars began to align for the rise to power of both Voldemort and Hitler. They both had the right personalities and arrived at the right time. To add to this, the dictators did not confront heavy resistance. Voldemort benefited, of course, from the mistakes of Cornelius Fudge, the former Minister of Magic. The author based him on the British Prime Minister during the Second World War, Neville Chamberlain.37 This Prime Minister was known for his attempt to appease the menace of the Nazi regime for, in the author’s own words, “political convenience,” 38 thus permitting Hitler to invade Czechoslovakia, dismissing it as a “quarrel in a far country between people about whom we know nothing” 39 Thus, Fudge is an evident example of this philosophy: being a somewhat weak individual, addicted to his own position and privileges, the Minister refused to believe that Voldemort had returned and, when he realized that he was, failed not only to act, but also to make this knowledge public, thus permitting Voldemort to come to power.Hence, once having officially come to power, the dictators began to make changes in their government.
3.1 Treatment of the “Inferior Race”
During the Second World War, there was not only a distinction made between Jews and non-Jews, but there were also distinctions made within the Jewish race. One would be classified by different degrees of mixed blood, depending on their ancestry.40 The need for distinction is in itself a symbol of inequality and racist beliefs. Similarly, in the wizarding world, wizards are categorized as either pure-blood, half-blood or Muggle-born by those “to whom these distinctions matter, and express their originators' prejudices.” 41 Though the author had not initially intended to make this connection, she was “chilled to see” 42 this correlation because her story and the story of the holocaust are so closely linked together.
The Holocaust was a gradual elimination of Jews that consisted firstly of racial distinction, then the removal of rights, followed by concentration camps and murder. Like in the real world, the government under the control of Voldemort first ordered the “Muggle-born registration commission.” 43 This consisted of the interrogation of Muggle-born witches and wizards that would eventually lead to their death. Mirroring the conditions in which the Jews were placed, Rowling writes a situation where Dolores Umbridge, who works for the government, interrogates a Muggle-born witch:
“Could you please tell us from which witch or wizard you took that wand?”
“T-took? I didn’t t-take it from anybody. I b-bought it when I was eleven years old. It – it – it – chose me.”
“No. No, I don’t think so, Mrs. Cattermole. Wands only choose witches or wizards. You are not a witch.” 44
The interrogation of Mary Cattermole shows that because she is Muggle-born, she is not considered a witch in the eyes of the government; likewise, to the Anti-Semites, the Jews were not considered human beings.45 All the more, Ron Weasley, like several sympathizers during World War II, offered to tell the authorities that Hermione Granger was his cousin in order to keep her away from her potentially deadly fate.46
The concentraion camps in which the Jews were placed were filled with fear, misery and helplessness. In the magical world, the Muggle-borns, placed in concentration camp-like situations, were surrounded by Dementors that the government set loose on them. When Professor Lupin explains to Harry what these creatures are, the reader is immediately struck with images of despair and begins to understand the situation in which victims, whether Jews or Muggle-borns, were forced to live through: “[Dementors] infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair; they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. [...] every good feeling; every happy memory will be sucked out of you. […] the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself ... soul-less and evil. You'll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.” 47
Additionally, Rowling’s naming of Grindelwald prison, Nurmengard,48 was perhaps a direct reference to important aspects of Nazi Germany with similar names, such as Nuremburg, where the war crime trials were held.49
3.2 Press and Propaganda
It is evident that most governments want to win the approval of the general public. Many governments use propaganda to convince the people that what they are doing was right. For example, the Nazis used the Swastika, having been the symbol of good luck, well-being and happiness for thousands of years, to convince the public of their good intentions.50 They used control of the press to manipulate their thoughts and opinions. In the wizarding world, when Voldemort took control over the ministry, one of his propaganda tools was the large statue in the Ministry of Magic’s atrium. This black stone statue depicted a witch and wizard sitting atop hundreds and hundreds of naked Muggle human bodies as if they were their thrones, each with “rather stupid, ugly faces, twisted and pressed together to support the weight of the handsomely robed wizards.” 51 On the statue are the words “magic is might.” This sculpture, looking down on all the workers arriving at the ministry, is an undisputable symbol of wizard dominance and is an eerily accurate visual of the acts that took place during the holocaust.
Voldemort also had control of the press. Mainly through his control of the Daily Prophet, he attempted to convince the public that Muggle-borns were unfit for life and thieves for having stolen magical powers.52 Through journalists like Rita Skeeter, he began to make the public doubt his adversaries; in fact, Harry was accused of participating in the murder of Albus Dumbledore. Dumbledore, even, was accused of treason.53 Voldemort’s propaganda was used to cause confusion and doubt in the minds of the public where they would not be able to know who to trust.
The author additionally mirrors the fact that the elimination of Jews certainly did not come without any resistance. On the contrary, there were several attempts to stop genocide from not only within Germany, but from countries all around the world, such as the French Resistance who opposed the Nazis in their attempt at ethnic cleansing.54 J.K. Rowling creates the Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore’s army, The Quibbler and Potterwatch to show the presence of resistance against the Death Eaters. She sends the reader an important message: that each person, no matter their age, race or difference in personality, can make a difference and contribute to the fight against bigotry. She reminds us that we must fight for what we believe in and that we are stronger united. She also accentuates constantly the themes of bravery and loyalty throughout her book series. Furthermore, this moral is made clear in the final battle when students from all four houses at Hogwarts reunite to conquer Voldemort and his followers.
Hence, by taking a look at the similarities between the prejudices against the Jews and the Muggles, between the life and personality of Voldemort and Hitler as well as between the political regimes of both dictators, we are able to conclude that Rowling was, without a doubt, inspired by the historical events of the Second World War when writing her novels. Rowling does not, however, continually overwhelm the reader with this heavy topic. On the contrary, she craftily incorporates parallels to these historical events to add depth to her story. Also, she does not add parallels for no good reason. In reality, through her characters, her storyline and subplots, she is able to express her own interpretation, opinions and analysis of this historical event. She thereby teaches her readers a series of life lessons concerning compassion, equality, love and courage. It is thus with creative wit, a deep understanding and compassion for those affected by the disasters of the war and the desire to bring a certain morality to the surface of her readers’ minds that Joanne Rowling mirrors the events of the war in her novels.
1. Drogos. “J.K. Rowling at Carnegie Hall”
2. Waite, Hitler and Nazi Germany, 57.
3. Ibid., 34.
4. Ibid., 63.
5. Ibid., 44.
6. Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 234.
7. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 291.
8. Waite, Hitler and Nazi Germany, 3.
9. Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 229-231.
10. Snell, The Nazi Revolution, 31.
11. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 291.
12. Waite, Hitler and Nazi Germany, 5.
13. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 291.
14. Snell, The Nazi Revolution, 31.
15. Waite, Hitler and Nazi Germany, 98.
16. Anelli and Spartz. “TLC/MN Interview Part Three”
17. Waite, Hitler and Nazi Germany, 6.
18. Ibid., 8.
19. Ibid., 20.
20. Ibid., 9.
21. Smith, Adolf Hitler: His Family, Childhood and Youth, 58.
22. Ibid., 68.
23. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 220.
24. Ibid., 385.
25. Smith, Adolf Hitler: His Family, Childhood and Youth, 26.
26. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 223.
27. Ibid., 225.
28. Ibid., 8.
29. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 575.
30. Waite, Hitler and Nazi Germany, 2.
31. Ibid., 56.
32. Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 231.
33. Upton, “Interview with J.K. Rowling”
34. Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 231.
35. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 151.
36. Ibid., 591.
37. Drogos, “J.K. Rowling Discusses Inspiration for Minister of Magic”
39. Waite, Hitler and Nazi Germany, 86.
40. Ibid., 32.
41. Goldstein, “Complicated Identity Politics”
43. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 234.
44. Ibid, p. 214
45. Waite, Hitler and Nazi Germany, 86.
46. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 173.
47. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 158.
48. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 290.
49. Waite, Hitler and Nazi Germany, 112.
50. Snell, The Nazi Revolution, 22.
51. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 199.
52. Ibid., 172.
53. Ibid., 171.
54. Waite, Hitler and Nazi Germany, 103.
Anelli, Melissa and Emerson Spartz. “The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet interview Joanne Kathleen Rowling: Part Three.” The Leaky Cauldron, 16 July 2005. http://www.leakynews.com/#static:tlcinterviews/jkrhbp3
Drogos, Edward. “J.K. Rowling at Carnegie Hall Reveals Dumbledore is Gay; Neville Marries Hannah Abbott, and Much More.” The Leaky Cauldron, October 20, 2007.
———, “J.K. Rowling Discusses Inspiration for Minister of Magic and More in New Interview.” The Leaky Cauldron. February 04, 2008. /2008/2/4/j-k-rowling-discusses-inspiration-for-minister-of-magic-and-more-in-new-interview
Goldstein, Dana. “Harry Potter and the Complicated Identity Politics.” The American Prospect. July 24, 2007. http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=harry_potter_and_the_complicated_identity_politics
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Vancouver: Raincoast books, 1998.
———, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Vancouver: Raincoast books, 2008.
———, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Vancouver: Raincoast books, 2005.
———, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Vancouver: Raincoast books, 1999.
Snell, John L. The Nazi Revolution. United States. 1966.
Upton, Sue. “New Interview with J.K. Rowling for Release of Dutch Edition of ‘Deathly Hallows’.” The Leaky Cauldron. /2007/11/19/new-interview-with-j-k-rowling-for-release-of-dutch-edition-of-deathly-hallows
Waite, Robert G.L. Hitler and Nazi Germany. United States. 1966.