The Philosophy of Attack on Titan – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Attack on Titan, where we explore the surprising political ideology of the society within the walls. Is it possible that in this dystopian society a controversial philosophy from a Nazi theorist, Carl Schmitt, may be the only thing keeping the fabric of society from collapsing? Or is that just what those in power want citizens to believe?
Written by: Matt Reichle
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Camille Lecoq and Jared Bauer
Edited by: Sean Rowe
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
The Philosophy of Attack on Titan – Wisecrack Edition
What’s up wisecrack? Jared here. Today we are talking about a colossal series with amazing fight scenes, a shit ton of crying cowards, and gargantuan steamy ken dolls: Attack on Titan. Many anime properties explore death but few ruminate on the visceral reality of human finitude quite like Attack On Titan. In a way, Titans are a physical personification of death: walking reminders of human mortality—a sort of existential confrontation with the inevitability of death.
It’s pretty horrifying. However, the darkest element of the series isn’t the eerily introspective confrontations with death or the fact that Titans have no genitals—it’s the construction of the society behind the walls itself. The show’s set in an anachronistic quasi-Germanic society full of German architecture, German war cries, and characters with German names. But the similarities to German history don’t stop there. Upon closer inspection, the political ideology of this society lines up with the beliefs of one of the most notorious Nazi philosophers: Carl Schmitt.
Now just to be clear: Schmitt’s a real piece of shit. Dude was a card carrying Nazi, unrepentant to the end. We are in no way saying that his ideas are good, nor is Attack on Titan saying this. We are saying that the show can be understood as an exploration of his ideas. What makes Attack on Titan so dark is that it presents us with a society, faced with a horrific enemy, that maintains stability while reflecting Nazi ideology. Is Attack on Titan one of the most provocative shows out there? Not because of the balls to the wall violence, but because it dares to ask: is it possible that in this dystopian society—a controversial philosophy may be the only thing keeping the fabric of society from collapsing?
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Attack on Titan. Spoiler alert, and oh yeah- We’re only covering the TV show, not the manga. They’re going to be different anyway. Also we had to use dubs so we don’t have subtitles all over the video. Don’t freak out. Central to Schmitt’s philosophy and Attack on Titan’s civilization is the concept of what he calls “the political.” For Schmitt there are three concepts that situate the political and create a stable society: conflict and inequality, clear distinctions between friends and enemies, and sovereignty.
The first thing that Schmitt highlights is that conflict, division, and inequality among human beings is inevitable. Central to this is an understanding that humanity, in its most basic nature, is savage and hellish. People are essentially shitty and life isn’t fair. Mikasa, Armin, and Eren, all make arguments about the way the world is that are completely in line with this thinking. When young Mikasa is kidnapped it is the image of a mantis eating a moth and her father with a duck he hunted, that kick starts the killing spree that saves her and Eren. It’s a constant theme that the show returns to: it’s a dog eat dog world and you have to fight to survive. This constant war against all is in line with Thomas Hobbes’ understanding of humanity’s most basic nature- we’re all monsters at heart and social structures are the only thing that can keep us at bay.
Schmitt takes things a step further: it isn’t just that people are terrible: rather hostility is unavoidable. For Schmitt, inequality is sort of inevitable: people will always be smarter, fitter, more attractive, and it’s not the job of politics to fix it. If society is to function properly, according to Schmitt, it doesn’t make sense to attempt to eliminate antagonism or inequality because they will always exist: instead a strong sovereign ought to be concerned with maintaining order and control of the population–focusing on social issues like inequality misses the point, for him. In Attack on Titan, we see this first hand: classes are separated by literal walls.
Each wall section is its own caste system. The people in wall Maria are not as safe as the people inside wall Rose and Sena. While people are being eaten in Trost—people in the inner city are chillin in castles, playing chess and shit. The scouts venture past the wall and risk their lives while the MP’s in the inner walls barely know how to use their Omnidirectional Mobility Gear—they just sort of get drunk all day. Most media narratives would see severe inequality as something to be repaired, but in Attack on Titan- we haven’t seen much evidence of that. Trying to alleviate things like inequality, for Schmitt, is a distraction from what’s really important for “the political”:nationalism and survival—and this is where the parallels between the series and Schmitt get creepy.
Nowhere is this focus on the nationalistic duty of the warrior class more apparent than in the theme song for the first half of season 1, which looks and sounds like “triumph of the will” level nationalistic propaganda. The lyrics of the song are about fighting past defeat, trampling over corpses, having the will of starving wolves and piercing scarlet holes in the twilight with bows and arrows, over scenes of the soaring military and crazy battle scenes. It may as well have been a post-World War I rallying cry for the defeated German people. Which gets us to Schmitt’s second element of the political:a clear distinction between friend and enemy.
The idea is—good governments need an enemy to struggle against without completely dominating them. The titans provide a sort of check against total conquest beyond the wall. Without a clear enemy, human nature drives a war against all: an unending civil war full of war crimes, dehumanization, and the eradication of your own people becomes an inevitability. The existence of a clear enemy impedes the quest for constant war and infighting. Both Erwin and Pyxis are concerned with this friend enemy distinction.
On the wall with Eren, Pyxus makes this very comment about the necessity of the Titans as an enemy: “before titans, different raced, different creeds all scratching and biting at each other for blood… Humanity required an enemy greater that itself just to survive.” Both Pyxis and Erwin Smith worry that the Titans aren’t the actual enemy—that they are not the real threat—the real threat is humanity itself—the Titans merely keep people in line. They give everyone a common goal.
Now, the purpose of the Titans is not yet revealed in the show. We know there is a face in the wall, and that there are abnormal Titans that are controlled by people. It could be the case that they are merely tools of the elite to lower the population–they could be trying to break people out of their cages–or they could just be evil. If Annie is in fact working for government officials to create emergencies and lower population, if the rogue Titans are in fact part of an inside conspiracy–then what we have is a government-fabricated enemy–a threat that is a Schmitt-ean wet dream–an intelligent, strong… naked enemy worthy of battle that will keep humanity from fighting each other.. Also, incidentally, it would be a great criticism of Schmitt’s politics.
In a way the Titans could be read as an allegory for the perfect scapegoat, as the source of all fears that mobilizes a population and gives the people in control their very power. Even in the show’s theme of freedom, the show reflects Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction. The scouts badge is the wings of freedom. Eren and Armin are constantly crying about a life beyond the walls. And humanity is likened to penned cattle behind the walls. More than that, freedom and community, for Schmitt, is defined as denying cowardice in the face of impending death—joining the scouts is a sort of liberation from the fear of living inside the wall waiting to die. The desire to join the scouts together cements Eren’s class as a community—but not just any community—a political community that gives life purpose…the battlefield.
For Schmitt a political community is defined by the ability to kill your enemies for the sake of your friends or dying at the hands of your enemies for your friends. The scouts that risk their lives are like the troops in the the Alfred Tenyson poem “the charge of the light brigade.” Yeah Attack on Titan characters’ quote Shakespeare and Tenyson. Having Oluo quote Tenyson is particularly prescient-“the Charge of the Light Brigade” is an exemplar war poem about dying with your comrades in battle—especially given how many scouts die fighting Annie. This sense of camaraderie and political community is what binds together the remnants of humanity, rather than letting them tear themselves apart.
However, the friend-enemy distinction gets a little fuzzier as the show progresses. Eren and Annie being Titans erodes the clear lines between a foreign enemy and a domestic friend—it’s why the partial transformation scene: when Eren saves Mikasa and Armin from cannon fire, is essential. It shows what happens when there isn’t a clear division between human and titan—the line between who needs to be protected, and from what, blurs and it makes the task of securing the population near impossible. The final element of Schmitt’s, the political, is the power of the sovereign itself. Sovereign entities have the ability to declare states of emergencies that justify sacrificing populations for the greater good—like sending a battalion to reclaim wall Maria. The ability to declare this kind of state of emergency is crucial for the long-term stability of most societies: you don’t want political bickering getting in the way of fighting the giant monster about to murder you all. The sovereign can also make exceptions in the law—like special citizen status for the people to live inside wall Sina.
In Attack on Titan we don’t have a very good explanation of how the political works outside of the military–it appears that the current leadership structure is based on marshall law and military rule. Sure, we know that Premiere Dhalis Zachary is in charge of the military tribunal that has the power to execute Eren—and we know that the wall cultists have grown in power since the attack on Shiganshina—but the actual structure outside of military control hasn’t been revealed. We do know that the leaders send millions/thousands to their death to ensure the safety of the rest of the people inside the walls. Pixus explains that the retaking of wall Maria was little more than a thinly disguised purge to ease the stress from the massive influx of refugees–it was a decision to kill off part of the population for the greater good.
As twisted as it sounds, for Schmitt, the sovereign must maintain this ability to do even the most horrendous of things if order is to be maintained. So wisecrack—with this in mind, I invite you to ponder this: what would happen if all the Titans suddenly disappeared? Would society devolve into anarchy? Would there be a civil war inside the walls that would be even more brutal than the occasional Titan attack? Or would it be an opportunity for liberation and greater peace? For Schmitt eradicating your enemy isn’t an option because there is always a drive for warfare, another enemy to be found. Eliminate one enemy and another one pops up until there are no people left to kill but your own population.
Of course, we should be wary of a guy who warned about unending war while being a principal theorist for the Nazi Party. There is still a pretty robust debate in academia about the redeemability and use of Schmitt’s work for understanding international conflict. People still invoke Schmitt when discussing executive power, the pitfalls of our current system, and even the war on terror. Attack on Titan could go in so many directions. It could reverse course and become a scathing criticism of Schmitt style politics, or it could simply complicate them. we’ll just have til season two to find out!