Books Opinion

Under Hitler’s Spell – Using Harry Potter to Teach the Holocaust


‘If you think this is far-fetched, look at some of the real charts the Nazis used to show what constituted “Aryan” or “Jewish” blood. I saw one in the Holocaust Museum in Washington when I had already devised the “pure-blood,” “half-blood,” and “Muggle-born” definitions and was chilled to see that the Nazi used precisely the same warped logic as the Death Eaters.’

J. K. Rowling

Nazi Germany has been depicted in dozens of different mediums, from film to fable, personal testimony to poetry. Survivors such as Primo Levi have attempted to give accurate recollections of their time spent locked in concentration camps, while documentary makers such as Lanzmann have painstakingly collected hours of footage in the hope of honouring victims and educating the world about the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. Some have tried to represent the Holocaust through the medium of fiction for children, as can be seen with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and have come under fire from critics such as Eagleston for having turned the Holocaust ‘into a childish fable, and makes Auschwitz as unreal as Camelot.’

The debate around the ethics of representing the ‘unrepresentable’ is a huge one, and it is beyond the scope of this article to attempt to answer all the questions associated with it for myself. However, when it comes to the fictitious or analogous representation of the Holocaust, questions surrounding these debates are sure to arise. For example, is it possible to represent the Holocaust through fiction for children? And if it is, why would authors choose to do so? Can the fantastical help children to understand complex themes such as genocide and fascism, or does it just trivialise the Holocaust, turning it into little more than a vessel from which to derive a sick sort of entertainment?

In my quest for answers, I shall be taking a look at the popular series of children’s books, the Harry Potter collection. I will first highlight the parallels between Nazi Germany and the Harry Potter universe, before delving deeper into the debate and examining why Rowling would make the Harry Potter books an allegory for Nazi Germany, and if her decision to do so can have any sort of positive impact on young children.

So, without further ado, let us begin.

Any discussion as to whether or not the Holocaust can be represented in this way must first stem from the assumption that the text(s) in question are indeed allegorical of the Holocaust. Fan-sites such as The Leaky Cauldron have produced numerous articles highlighting the parallels between the Harry Potter universe and Nazi Germany, but even a casual reading of the texts reveals that Rowling’s universe may not be entirely rooted in fantasy. Voldemort, the villain of the books, is, as Rowling herself describes, ‘a sort of Hitler.’ An evil dictator with the belief that muggle-born wizards should be murdered or put into slavery, Voldemort’s beliefs strongly seem to echo those of Adolf Hitler himself. Furthermore, just as Hitler did not possess the typical Aryan features that he so advocated and was not of German descent, Voldemort also did not match up to the pure-blooded ideal that he held. Voldemort’s father was a muggle (non-magical person) and so, by Voldemort’s logic, he himself should be exterminated.

Not only that but Lord Voldemort also employs a loyal group of followers to carry out his murders for him known as Death Eaters, much like the Nazi SS officers. Just as Nazis were often labelled with a swastika, Death Eaters are branded with the tattoo of a serpent coming out of a human skull; a mark that they cast into the air whenever they are present, just as the swastika was proudly on display wherever Nazis inhabited. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix sees the formation of Professor Umbridge’s ‘Inquisitorial Squad,’ a group of pure-blood Slytherin students who act as law enforcers within the school, but who often abuse their power, deducting house points from students because ‘You’re a mudbood, Granger.’ It doesn’t take a historian to see the similarities between the Inquisitorial Squad and the Hitler Youth.

These at first seem to prove the point that Rowling created the series with the Holocaust in mind. However, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that Nazi Germany is not the only example of genocide and fascism. Adolf Hitler is not the only megalomaniac leader that the word has ever seen and Voldemort could just as easily be compared to Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, or even Saddam Hussein. Indeed, some theorists have made completely different assertions about the books, with Strimel writing that ‘the overriding theme of the Harry Potter series is coping with terrorism,’ and other critics arguing that ‘Rowling makes a strong move towards encouraging multiculturalism,’ ignoring themes of Nazism within the books. However, when one begins to look a little more closely at some of Rowling’s creations, it becomes almost impossible to deny that the books are allegorical of the Holocaust.

Take, for example, the etymology behind Durmstrang school. At an unspecified location in Europe, Durmstrang only admits pure-blood students and its headmaster, Igor Karkaroff is a death eater. Voldemort’s predecessor, Grindelwald, was a student at Durmstrang school and held the same beliefs about blood superiority as Voldemort did. Is it a coincidence then, that Durmstrang takes its name from the ‘Sturm und Drang,’ art movement that was favoured by the Nazis? What is even more interesting is that Grindelwald’s power base and the place that he imprisoned his opponents was named ‘Nurmengard,’ which sounds very similar to ‘Nuremberg,’ which is of course the city in Germany that was used to hold the famous Nazi war trials. Such similarities have not gone unnoticed in the academic world, with Frankel asserting that ‘Grindelwald preaches Wizarding Rule through racial superiority, a program that clearly echoes Hitler’s agenda. The same time, the same country, the same ideology, the same defeat in 1945: can we doubt they were partners?’

So then, assuming that these similarities are no accident, why would Rowling include them? Well, one theory is that the Harry Potter books teach children about complex themes using fantastical elements to provide a safe distance between the child reader and the horrors described. Strimel argues that ‘magical fantasy allows children to deal with timeless, realistic, frightening topics while maintaining a safe distance from the agent causing the anxiety.’ Thus, the fascist ideology that Hitler preached may be too difficult for young children to cope with if shown graphic photographs of concentration camps and gas chambers, but when the same concepts are taught in a fantasy world crammed with magic and mayhem, they are easier for the child to stomach. Bettelheim also raises similar issues in his book, The Uses of Enchantment. He asserts that ‘“safe” stories mention neither death nor aging, the limits to our existence, nor the wish for eternal life. The fairy tale, by contrast, confronts the child squarely with the basic human predicaments.’

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Of course, it may seem like a leap to suggest that children can learn about the Holocaust through a medium such as Harry Potter, but Bettelheim believes that children sometimes need a magical or fantastical explanation in order for them to fully grasp certain concepts. He states that ‘while giving a scientifically correct answer makes adults think they have clarified things for the child, such explanations leave the young child confused, overpowered and intellectually defeated.’ Could this then, be a positive outcome of representing the Holocaust through children’s fiction? If a child is able to learn about political corruption, slanderous propaganda and fascism without having to remember names, dates and statistics from a history book, then when the time finally does come for a ‘real’ history lesson, the child will learn quickly, having already been familiarised with the issues discussed.

One reason why the Harry Potter series is so effective in teaching children about the Holocaust is the way in which the young reader is able to identify with the protagonist, Harry. Hunter asserts that, with regards to the Holocaust, ‘the fairy-tale would appear to supply the ideal form within which to narrate the trauma of the event,’ due to the reader’s need to identify with the protagonist. However, it is not always easy to identify with a Holocaust survivor, especially to a child who is ignorant of the contextual factors surrounding said survivor.

Now, although the Harry Potter books are probably never going to be classified as fairy tales, it is true that Rowling invites readers to identify with Harry through her use of a close first-person narrative and it is fair to say that Harry is easily identifiable with for the average reader. A young, middle-class boy who feels alienated by his family and is somewhat of a misfit is far closer to home for children in the United Kingdom than an adult Jew in a concentration camp. Just like the reader, Harry grows older throughout the seven books, and learns about the magical world along with the reader; both of whom have been ignorant about the wizarding world until Harry’s initial letter from Hogwarts informing him that he has a place at the school. Testimonies often do not need to educate the reader about the broader contexts surrounding their experiences as the reader generally has a knowledge about, for example, what concentration camps were and who was sent to them. However, because Harry is just as ignorant about the wizarding world as the reader, everything has to be explained to Harry in order to shape his (and the reader’s) knowledge of the wizarding world.

Children reading the Harry Potter books do not have to sift through Mein Kampf in order to glean an understanding of fascist politics. They just have to embark on Harry’s adventures alongside him. The lessons are so quick and painless that the reader is not even aware that they are being taught about real ideologies and practices. Thus, when Harry is forced into hiding at various secret locations in order to avoid an almost certain death at the hands of Voldemort, the reader gets a glimpse into what it must have felt like for Jews hiding in attics and basements during the Holocaust. The readers are also forced into the shoes of the persecuted whenever the Dark Mark appears, such as at the Quidditch World Cup in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The psychological terror inspired by the mark and the implication of its appearance is similar to that of the swastika. In a history lesson, children may not fully grasp the significance of the swastika, seeing it as nothing more than a symbol. However, when in Harry’s shoes, they are taught that such symbols can have a powerful psychological impact. Sure, the Harry Potter series is highly entertaining and a pleasure to read, but the serious issues and life lessons that it has to teach are never far away.

So what other uses can Harry Potter have in teaching children about the Holocaust? Well, unlike fairy tales, whose characters are generally either all good or all bad with no in-between, both the heroes and villains in the Harry Potter series are multi-faceted, showing the complex nature of humanity when it comes to matters of good and evil. Bettelheim is not of the opinion that children can understand three-dimensional characters, as he states that ‘the figures in fairy tales are not ambivalent – not good and bad at the same time, as we all are in reality. But since polarization dominates the child’s mind, it also dominates fairy tales. A person is either good or bad, nothing in between.’ He goes on to assert that ‘presenting the polarities of character permits the child to comprehend easily the difference between the two, which he could not do as readily were the figures drawn more true to life, with all the complexities that characterize real people.’

Perhaps this is one of the key differences between the Harry Potter books and other books written for children, such as the fairy tales that Bettelheim describes. No character is represented as wholly good or evil (with the possible exception of Voldemort, who is nevertheless shown to have insecurities and weaknesses), which is especially useful when it comes to a child having a fuller understanding of the Holocaust. Ever since the atrocities that occurred, humans have been bewildered as to how humans can turn so evil so quickly. Stanley Milgram’s experiments famously highlighted the human tendency to follow orders from superiors no matter what, and I argue that J. K. Rowling, in her books, offers an alternative explanation as to why the Nazis behaved as they did.

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As Valerie Frankel discusses, ‘the reasons for becoming Death Eaters were as varied as those of the Nazis.’ Take the Malfoy family. With their white-blonde hair and pale blue eyes, they are the Aryan dream. Lucious Malfoy, the father, is a prominent Death Eater and a true believer of blood-superiority and the anti-muggle rhetoric that Voldemort endorses. However, his son, Draco, shown to be a school bully and snob throughout the series, is not as loyal to the cause as he so thinks. As a result of his parental indoctrination, all Draco wants is to become a Death Eater, but when he finally gets his wish, he realises that he is incapable of cold-blooded murder and is not as truly evil as he hoped he was. His mother, Narcissa Malfoy is only loyal to her blood-superiority beliefs until her son becomes endangered, and then she becomes a traitor to Voldemort, saving Harry’s life because she knows that saving Harry will save her son from Voldemort’s wrath. To Snape and Pettigrew, who were constantly bullied throughout their time at school, the Death Eaters provided a chance to be a part of something and a means for them to exert dominance over those that had victimised them in the past.

In painstakingly giving her villainous characters complex identities and reasons for joining the Death Eaters, Rowling is highlighting the complex nature of humanity in a way that children can understand. Bettelheim’s belief that children are incapable of understanding complex characters may be the case in short fairy tales, but in following Harry and the gang through seven books, the children have more than enough time to embrace the complexities of the various characters. While some, such as Bellatrix and Lucious, remain evil throughout the books, Rowling does a fantastic job of illustrating the vulnerabilities of characters such as Snape and Draco, forcing the reader to reluctantly sympathise with them. This is hugely important when it comes to getting an in-depth understanding of the role that the Germans played in the Holocaust. It wouldn’t be right, nor accurate, to teach children that the Nazis were 100% evil and had no morals at all. However, in studying the Holocaust and seeing the devastation and mass loss of lives, it is difficult to see them as anything but monsters. In giving the Nazis’ wizarding counterparts such human qualities, Rowling is teaching children that even those issues that remain solely black and white are not always so.

The stereotyping of Hagrid as savage and violent due to his half-giant status is also an important lesson in the politics of fascism for children. The first that the reader sees of Hagrid is when he ‘bent his great shaggy head over Harry and gave him what must have been a very scratchy, whiskery kiss.’ However, at numerous times throughout the series Hagrid is suspected of wrongdoing, purely based on the violent behaviour of his ancestors. As Strimel states, readers of the books were thus ‘forced to learn the invaluable lesson of separating Hagrid from his lineage and the past actions of his race.’ While Hagrid’s enemies did everything they could to poison the schoolchildren against him, Harry and his friends judged Hagrid purely on the behaviour that he had exhibited to them, and never left his side. This lesson of not judging people based on ancestry is especially interesting when we consider the Nazi propaganda about how Aryans deserved to dominate the world and the fact that children in schools ‘studied from teachers who believed in Hitler’s philosophies and texts filled with “Nazi and militaristic doctrine.”’ Perhaps Rowling’s lessons in the equal treatment of all and her constant falsifying of the belief that pure-blooded wizards are superior to muggle-borns or half-bloods is a lesson against that sort of discriminating rhetoric. What’s more, the muggle-borns in the Harry Potter universe being banned from certain jobs, not being allowed into wizarding schools and being forced to sign a register that declared their muggle-born status, is a shocking parallel to the 1937 and 1938 laws imposed by Hitler that banned Jews from certain jobs and also forced them to sign a register.

In teaching children about fascism in such a way that it so strongly mirrors real world events, Rowling’s readers are able to learn, not just what happens in fantasy land, but about real, key events in European history, without even being aware of it as they read.

All things considered, the idea that the Harry Potter books are an allegory for the Holocaust is not really debatable. There are simply too many similarities for the two not to be interlinked in some way, far more than can be discussed in this essay. However, what are the positive outcomes of Rowling doing this? After all, aren’t the Harry Potter books meant for entertainment over education? Shouldn’t they be left out of the classroom? I argue that no, they shouldn’t.

The Harry Potter series presents real world regimes under the guise of the fantastical. In doing so, it allows children to learn how it feels to be the persecuted in a fascist state, and how fascist dictators can influence everything, even the media. The magical elements of the texts allow children to learn about war whilst retaining a safe distance between themselves and the events being described, while the three-dimensional characteristics of the Death Eaters help children understand the complex reasons why the German Nazis behaved so terribly. All of this is done without the child audience having to remember a mass of dates and statistics which are sure to bore them and have them clock-watching until the lesson ends.

Should the Harry Potter series replace history lessons about the Holocaust? Of course not. But if books like Harry Potter can introduce children to complex adult concepts and give them a deep understanding of Holocaust politics before they come to learn about the real world events behind the books, then surely that can only ever be a good thing.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Barbara Marden
    June 4, 2018 at 5:39 pm

    Having never read a Harry Potter book I had no idea! Very well researched, written and debated.

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