J.K. Rowling, Hollywood, and the Holocaust

In an era where Auschwitz is fading from memory, what do fictional movies about the Nazis owe to fact?

Johnny Depp as the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Nazis have always had a place in Harry Potter. The original series dealt extensively, although indirectly, with the ideologies and violence of Hitler’s regime. The series’ main villains, Voldemort and his Death Eaters, evoke the fascist German dictator and the SS police squad—down to the skull imagery. Those same villains rely on a pure-blood rhetoric similar to Nazi ideologies. What’s more, Voldemort’s power theatrics mirror Hitler’s, and the Death Eaters find similar parallels in the Nazi’s prewar Brownshirts militia. Still, while many of the series’ characters can be loosely compared to real people, they stand far more solidly as fictional representations. Readers can—and likely have—devoured the series without thinking about Nazi Germany at all, even as they learn lessons about power, its abuse, and the nature of oppression.

But as the series expands into Hollywood, the wizarding world’s deliberate nods to real-life atrocities are becoming harder to ignore. In the leadup to the release of J.K. Rowling’s new movie, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, much of the buzz points to a surprising direction for the movie: a collision between pop-culture fantasy and, with Nazi Germany, real human history. The genre has crossed paths with real life before, of course, but 2018 is the era of post-truth—and the line between fact and fiction is blurrier than ever. Fantastical rewritings of traumatic historical events risk overwhelming fact, and if anyone has the cultural power to rewrite history, it’s J.K. Rowling.

The Boy Who Lived has lived long indeed—twenty-one years after the publication of the first novel, the Potter series has a colossal fandom that continues to interact directly with Rowling, and fans also talk with one another on countless fan websites and podcasts. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have sold 500 million copies worldwide in eighty languages, including Philosopher’s Stone editions in Latin and ancient Greek. As of 2018, five of the eight movie adaptations of the original series are on the list of fifty highest-grossing films of all time. Thousands of fans of all ages lined up for midnight book releases in the 2000s. The final instalment of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, sold 11 million copies in its first twenty-four hours—at the time of its release, that made it the fastest-selling book of all time.

Any new additions into the Harry Potter world that Rowling produces are likely to be a topic of conversation in playgrounds, at high-school parties, over dinner tables around the world, and even in university classrooms. Just two years ago, Rowling produced a play with Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and the script sold at least 4 million copies in its first week of circulation. The original production in London won a record nine Olivier Awards, and its Broadway production in New York won six Tony Awards. The show has since expanded to Melbourne, San Francisco, and, in its first translated production, Hamburg. Then there’s the new film series: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first instalment (of five!), hit theatres in November 2016, just four months after Harry Potter and the Cursed Child premiered in London. It passed $800 million (US) worldwide.

Set in 1926, the film follows the story of Newt Scamander (played by Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne), a “magizoologist” who travels from Britain to New York on business. A clumsy Muggle—or No-Maj, for Rowling’s American wizards—opens Newt’s magical suitcase and inadvertently releases his dangerous magical creatures into the city. In his chase to recapture the creatures before any damage is done, Newt runs into a powerful dark wizard in hiding, Gellert Grindelwald.

The second of the five movies, titled Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, will be released this November. The Fantastic Beasts series is, essentially, a long prequel to Harry Potter. Before Voldemort rose to power in the early 1970s, the Fantastic Beasts’ antagonist, Grindelwald, was the wizarding world’s biggest villain. But if Voldemort’s trajectory sounds strikingly like something out of Nazi Germany, so does Grindelwald’s—perhaps even more so. Grindelwald’s campaign against Muggles and Muggle-born wizards began in the early 1920s and was based on magical “blood purity.” He continued to gain a following in Europe over the next several decades, though largely on the mainland, outside of traditional Potter territory in the UK. Grindelwald committed a series of as-yet-unknown atrocities until his defeat in the legendary 1945 duel with a much younger version of the beloved headmaster from the original seven-book series, Albus Dumbledore—the duel happened the same year the final instalment of Fantastic Beasts will be set in.

There are already parallels between the Fantastic Beasts’ villain, Grindelwald, and Hitler himself. While Voldemort held comparable ideologies and exhibited similar tactics to Hitler’s, Grindelwald seems to almost mirror him. In the original series, Harry learns that Grindelwald built a large prison called Nurmengard, which eerily recalls the real life city of Nuremberg, where large Nazi rallies were held and German Jews and non-“Aryans” were stripped of German citizenship. Later, Grindelwald’s slogan, “For the greater good,” was written over the gates of the prison; “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes one free) hangs over Nazi labour and extermination campus, including over the gates of Auschwitz, the most infamous of them all. Grindelwald also appropriated the otherwise neutral symbol of the Deathly Hallows into his own crest, creating a permanent association with hate, the same way that Hitler used the swastika, a peaceful sun symbol from Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain cultures.

In 2005, Rowling told media her Grindelwald tie-in to 1945 was not coincidental. She added that it amuses her to make allusions to “Muggle” events in her stories and that wizarding and real-world wars feed each other. It isn’t uncommon for authors to do what Rowling has done—infuse fantasy into history—but it’s worth asking what responsibility authors have to the truth, especially when it comes to the Holocaust. Fifteen to 20 million people died in Nazi camps and ghettos in Europe, 6 million of them Jews. And there are still about 2 million fewer Jews today than there were before the Holocaust. When an author like Rowling enmeshes genocide with magic, it implicates outside forces. Sure, it may be fiction, but it also strips the cultural burden of fault and guilt from Nazi leaders and places at least some of it into the hands of supernatural forces. Providing magical reasons or motives for historical events removes weight from reality. It also allows Rowling to engage with the Holocaust without meaningfully grappling with antisemitism, then or now. Instead, the movie shifts the blame onto something or someone that does not exist—and it does so at a time where many people can no longer tell the difference between fiction and fact.

In February 2018, three months after filming wrapped for the upcoming Fantastic Beasts movie, the Jewish Claims Conference and Schoen Consulting conducted a survey on knowledge of the Holocaust in the United States. Researchers called 1,350 Americans to discover what they knew and thought about the Holocaust. As it turns out, Americans are already losing track of the facts, with the younger demographic being particularly clueless. Researchers found that 41 percent of millennials believed that 2 million or fewer Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and 41 percent of American adults didn’t know what Auschwitz was at all. Another 45 percent could not name a single one of the 42,000 concentration camps and ghettos from the Holocaust. Most frighteningly, 68 percent of millennials did not know Hitler was democratically elected; they instead believed he took power by force.

Millennials are forgetting—or perhaps never learning—key information about the Holocaust. What information we do glean is often from popular media. In the same study, 18 percent of all survey respondents said their first exposure to the Holocaust was from books, movies, or television. Respondents were also asked to say how familiar they were with certain historical figures; millennials reported generally higher rates of familiarity with Anne Frank, Oskar Schindler, and Elie Wiesel than all American adults surveyed in the study. All three of them are the subjects of famous books and movies—the recovered diary later published as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark), and Elie Wiesel’s autobiography Night. By contrast, fewer millennials were familiar with Heinrich Himmler (commander of the Nazi SS) and Adolf Eichmann (a Nazi of high rank and major organizer of the Holocaust). The only person respondents knew better was Adolf Hitler himself.

In other words, how pop culture depicts Hitler and the Holocaust matters. Storytelling dictates people’s emotional relationships to history, so it can influence how details from these historical events are weighed and remembered. Fictionalizations of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany are abundant, and there are even a number of fantasy films that already exist on the topic. Movies such as The Devil’s Rock (2011) and Hellboy (2004) have the Nazis opening portals into hell to summon demons to their aid. Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) pits Jones against the Nazis in a race to acquire a powerful supernatural artifact, the Ark of the Covenant. The 2013 movie Frankenstein’s Army depicts what turns out to be an army of human-machine hybrid monsters, created by a descendant of Viktor Frankenstein, originally under orders from the Nazis. Attributing supernatural atrocities to the regime is a relatively common movie-making strategy. They all run the risk of making this history surreal, but at the same time, these movies add to crimes of the Nazis; they don’t attempt to shift blame or undermine the horror of existing history.

Professor Karen Priestman is a historian at Western University whose research, in part, centres on issues of remembrance and forgetting in Germany. She points out that the aesthetic of Nazi Germany is one of the reasons creators are attracted to the topic. This brings to mind the plethora of films and TV shows that join Star Wars in using Nazi-inspired uniforms, accents, and rally imagery to lend power to their imaginary regimes. But Priestman is careful to distinguish between movies in the context of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany and movies about those topics. She explains that if a fictionalization of the Holocaust were to lead viewers to do their own research, its impact would more likely be positive. But the reality is that most people won’t follow a night out at the movies with intense research. “And what if they watch a movie about the Holocaust and they think, ‘Okay, now I know something about the actual Holocaust?’” she asks. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” It’s unlikely viewers will believe literal magic caused the Nazis to do anything, but what other facts and context will get lost in the retelling?

Fantasy movies, including the ones in the Fantastic Beasts series, tend to present themselves as removed from reality. However, Rowling’s work presents its fantasy world as functioning within a real one. In the seven original novels, she inserted the wizarding world into a Muggle society that we are led to believe is identical to our own. Part of the magic of Harry Potter is that the wizarding world is designed to be a secret world in our regular universe. Fans want to live in the wizarding world; we want to believe it exists alongside our own mundane lives.

That the nonmagical elements of Rowling’s sprawling narrative appear to be congruent with the real world is an essential part of maintaining this happy illusion. But what if that secret world tells us that—surprise!—our own humanity is not really to blame for one of the most disastrous wars of our time? It was not an insidious, deliberate spread of hate, but magic that orchestrated the war. Remember, 45 percent of all respondents in the Schoen survey couldn’t name a single concentration camp. How much rewriting of history would it take to have a legion of fans think Nuremberg was a fictional prison built by Gellert Grindelwald?

In January 2017, after blatant lies about the size of the crowd at Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, the American public—and the world—watched a White House representative say the words alternative facts on live television. By September 12, 2018, the president himself had publicly made over 5,000 false claims, according to the Washington Post. White nationalists are marching openly across America, and Holocaust deniers are running for office. Patrick Little, a white supremacist and antisemite who ran for Senate in California this year and has “US Presidency 2020” splashed across his website, praised Hitler, claims the Holocaust never happened, and wants to “expel the Jews by ’22.” Arthur Jones, who ran for Congress in this month’s midterm election in Illinois, has an entire page on his campaign website dedicated to denying the Holocaust (he lost but pulled in a quarter of the vote). John Fitzgerald, who ran for Congress in California, “offer[ed] $10,000 to anybody who can prove that the official Holocaust narrative is true” and recently said on a radio show, “My entire campaign, for the most part, is about exposing this lie.” (He also lost but also pulled in roughly a quarter of the vote.) It’s a tense time to be putting out fiction that reimagines the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

The question of what art and popular culture owes to reality has never been simple. Somewhere, there is a line between artistic freedom and respecting victims. But art does not exist in a vacuum, and popular culture even less so. Priestman mentions that fiction can contribute to denial and that denial is deeply damaging to the public memory of the event. Even when an adaptation is done well, Priestman says, “You’re never going to get an accurate depiction of the Holocaust. It’s just not possible, because it’s not in our vocabulary. It’s just not in our capacity.” Perhaps the film that came closest to reaching that capacity is Shoah, a critically acclaimed documentary about the Holocaust. It took over ten years to make and runs nine hours in its attempt to do the subject justice. But not every Holocaust film can be nine hours.

Still, Priestman also warns against the risks of turning Nazi Germany into an untouchable moment. People have always made art about human history, including about other recent atrocities; the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda in the last half century have both sparked their own fictional adaptations. Rejecting fictionalizations about any traumatic time period could arguably remove it from the public consciousness. We may learn the timelines and the numbers in school, but the stories—Anne Frank, Oskar Schindler, Elie Wiesel—remain with us long after whatever test we were studying for. There is no doubt that stories matter.

What Priestman describes is the double-edged sword of fictionalization: on the one hand, not depicting Nazi Germany and Holocaust could be damaging to the memory of what many consider the most traumatic event in Western history. On the other, irresponsible fictionalizations muddy the true historical events and feed the fire of denial. Priestman recognizes that fictionalizations should be about respect and influence. As a historian, what she wants to see in any fictional movie depicting the Holocaust, or other mass trauma, is that, while every single detail may not be correct, the spirit, sentiment, and themes of the film are correct. In other words, there are ways to do this wrong, and there are ways to do this right.

For a way to do it right, we might turn to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). It’s a rare example of a film in the fantasy genre that engages directly with real, traumatic historical events. The film is set in the countryside of Spain in 1944, a few years after its bloody civil war. Fascist dictator Francisco Franco is in power. The leading villain, Captain Vidal, serves as a stand-in for the regime, in command over an outpost in the wilderness still fighting the remnants of guerrilla resistance. Deep in the woods, at first oblivious to his tactical machinations, his young step-daughter meets a mystical faun and engages in a complex set of tasks that will supposedly return her to her rightful place as princess of the underworld.

As with any good work of fiction, there are several interpretations of the story, but the fantasy narrative can be seen as an escape mechanism for a young girl who can no longer bear the horrors of her daily life. The film never shies away from the brutality of the regime—at times, it even swings into a lack of nuance, with Vidal more caricature than character. But it represents the perspective of the child. The young girl resists mentally, through her imagination, as the guerrillas resist physically, their paths mirroring each other. As the violence reaches a fever pitch, her magical tasks become more and more ghastly—reality seeping into fantasy. And there is no happy ending: an informed viewer would know that Spain was gearing up for thirty-one more years of dictatorship. But Pan’s Labyrinth depicts resistance and self-determination. The magical narrative supports and comments on the depictions of historical reality. Fantasy feeds fact.

Perhaps J.K. Rowling has no obligation to care about any of this. Maybe she thinks it has been long enough since the Holocaust. But viewers and readers must demand more of artistic creators. It’s true that Rowling may yet join creators like del Toro and make an effort to do right by history. Some distance from the actual atrocities committed by Nazi Germany could turn this upcoming Fantastic Beasts film into a powerful narrative that parallels and comments on the worst of humanity, urging us to do better. In a 2007 interview at Carnegie Hall, Rowling was asked about the connection between Death Eaters and Nazi ideology, and she told fans, “I wanted Harry to leave our world and find exactly the same problems in the wizarding world.” She added that “the Potter books in general are a prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry.”

It’s a hopeful answer. But as fans gear up to watch her next movie, we must remember that fantasy and pop culture can no longer be given a pass as trivial or unimportant. Popular art can generate deep and meaningful analysis of reality, but it can also distort it. Rewriting history is no joke when neo-Nazis are running for office. The truth is slippery in 2018—and we must be critical of how creators respect it, even in fiction.

I am a devoted fan of Rowling’s work, and I’ll be lined up and in costume on the November premiere date to watch Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. But, for the first time, there will be apprehension encroaching on my giddiness. The Potter series has long provided important messages for young people. The Daily Prophet and Rita Skeeter have armed a generation for an era of fake news, Umbridge and Fudge prepared us to fight authoritarian and power-hungry leaders, and, ultimately, all seven books are a manifesto of acceptance and love. As another element of the beloved saga unfolds, we can only hope that Rowling will rise to the standards she long ago set for herself.

Nara Monteiro