Yûki Kaji voices Eren Jaeger in Attack on Titan (© Hajime Isayama / Kodansha / "ATTACK ON TITAN" Production Committee / IMDB)

Nazism Repackaged? A Closer Look at the “Fascist Subtext” of ‘Attack on Titan’

Many fantasy writers have incorporated the visual footprint of the Third Reich into their fictional worlds. Few, however, have done so as extensively as the creator of Attack on Titan, who revisited this terrible chapter of history not to find inspiration for a fearsome antagonist, but to excavate the divisive ideas that lay buried there.

Finding One’s Mission

When approaching Attack on Titan, few probably find themselves thinking of Martin Heidegger, yet the man and the manga are connected to each other in interesting ways. As of today, Japan counts no less than six translations of the German philosopher’s seminal work, Being and Time—five more than the English language. This bit of trivia is not to imply that Isayama is intimately (if at all) familiar with the work, but it does indicate that Heidegger’s ideas, which have an extensive and well-researched relationship with those of Taoism, deeply resonate with Japanese culture.

In the story, various characters use the phrase, “I was born into this world”, in order to make sense of their existence, find justification for their actions, and rule out suicide as a solution to their problems. This axiom, the precise meaning of which is as elusive as the writings of Heidegger himself, carries with it a couple of philosophical assumptions that can only be fully comprehended by comparison.

As Heidegger states, Being and Time was first conceived as a critique of traditional ontology—the phenomenological study of being—as it had been practiced in the West for over two centuries. He takes particular issue with the claims of René Descartes, whom he believes presented the world “with its skin off”. Denying the famous adage, I think therefore I am, Heidegger argued that an entity could not possibly be understood as independent from the world around them as, by definition, the only way to exist was, simply, in the world. Because the world predates the self, and goes on existing long after the self has dissolved, it also precedes any man-made code of ethics, a supposition which led him to conclude that concepts of good and evil are, fundamentally, dependent on one’s place in the world. Consequently, only by accepting one’s thrownness, meaning one’s artificially determined situation in space and time, could one begin to live authentically.

It should be noted, at this instant, that the scholarship which defends Heidegger from Nazi ideology far outnumbers—and outweighs—the scholarship that hands him over to it. But while the philosopher’s ideas provide no direct excuse for violence, some of his writing, notably his Hitler-sponsored 1933 inaugural address, The Self-Assertion of the German University, clearly illustrates how they could be adapted to serve the needs of the Hitlerites. For what is authenticity, except the striving to be true to oneself? And what is true to oneself, except that which one has convinced oneself to be true?

As Eren prepares to destroy the nation of Marley, as well as the innocent civilians he knows reside there, his friends attempt to dissuade him. But Eren, possessed by his fatalistic understanding of reality, refuses to listen, and sums up his argument to them in a single sentence: “I have always been this way.” Having grown up in a society that hides behind walls, under the influence of a pacifist king who, unbeknownst to his subjects, wanted them to atone for the sins of their ancestors, Eren resolves to remain true to what he himself has always believed in spite of what others—those whom Heidegger would perhaps refer to as ‘the Man’, or the ‘they-self’—told him: that he will fight for freedom and survival, no matter the cost.

Marina Inoue, Yûki Kaji, and Yui Ishikawa (2013) (IMDB)