Princess Leia and the Alliance didn’t just oppose Emperor Palpatine on general principles. Their rebellion aimed to restore the Republic that Palpatine had dismantled a generation earlier.
Joan of Arc’s rebellion against the English takeover of France in the early fifteenth century was another uprising seeking to restore the old order. Henry VI’s rule in France wasn’t as despotic as the Emperor’s dark regime: but Frenchmen and women saw the English as foreign occupiers in their kingdom. Joan dreamed of restoring the French monarchy: it was a dream so compelling that an ordinary farmgirl would put aside her quiet life in the country to don a warrior’s armor and fight for France. When she raised the siege at Orléans, her legend grew and England soon was on the defensive.
Similarly, Leia’s role in defeating the Death Star both raised her profile and benefited the Alliance.
Leaders may come and go but causes last: Joan was captured and executed in 1431. Twenty-two years later, her vision became reality with the final French victory at Castillon. Joan and Leia were both important but, in the end, the causes were bigger than they were.
Hoth is a harsh and inhospitable hideout for Luke, Leia, Han and the rest of the rebel forces as they struggle against the Empire. History shows us that resistance fighters survive, even thrive, by taking to the hills, the swamps and other hostile terrain that conventional forces avoid.
Like Washington’s Continental Army surviving the brutal winter at Valley Forge over 1777 to 1778, the Alliance faces great difficulties operating from Echo Base, and that’s even before Luke encounters a wampa! Hiding out and enduring hardship, even deadly risks, was better than certain capture. History shows us that operating in punishing landscapes allows guerrilla warriors to outlast their better-armed and supplied opponents, just as the American rebels did against their British opponents in the eighteenth century or, conversely, the Viet Cong when faced with the overwhelming might of the Americans two centuries later.
Of course, they never enjoyed the Force powers that the Jedi employ to hide in plain sight or cloud the minds of their opponents. Even so, the greatest Jedi, Yoda, retreats to the safety of Dagobah when threatened by the might of the Empire. He understands that a little hardship might just win the war.
Both the British and the Dutch built their colonial empires on the backs of corporations.
The British East India Company, founded in the last years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, eventually controlled most of India while the Dutch company, founded soon after, claimed a fair bit of Southeast Asia. In both cases, these companies used private armies or local puppet rulers to protect and expand their role in the lucrative trade in spices and luxury goods from these regions.
Their historical experiences closely parallel the rise of the Trade Federation and its allies during the Republic’s dying days. Viceroy Nute Gunray, the calculating and ambitious leader of the Trade Federation who directs the occupation of Naboo, would feel right at home with historical wheeler-dealers such as Jan Pieterszoon Coen, governor general in the Dutch East India Company who mercilessly conquered Banda.
In history or Star Wars, big business pushes agendas of war and conquest in pursuit of higher profits. In both cases, powerful companies control the entire enterprise, from initial voyage to established settlement, and the armies needed to enforce their ambitions by overthrowing local rulers, if the bottom line demands it.
Palpatine plays a very long game as he rises from senator to chancellor and, finally, emperor. He does so with the eager assistance of the business interests he courts in his political career. Similarly, in history, we see politicians rise and their opponents fall, when they coordinate with the rich and powerful.
Queen Elizabeth granted the charter to create and empower the East India Company, and the monarchy profited for centuries from this wise decision until the British government swallowed up the company entirely in 1858.
Soon after Queen Victoria was crowned empress. She ruled over a state so large that it was claimed that “the sun never set on the British empire”. Similarly, Palpatine assists the Trade Federation and other corporate groups to rise under his apprentice, Count Dooku.
Their ambitions help to spark the very crises he needs to rise in the Senate and seize power. Soon he, too, claims an imperial power: one strengthened immeasurably after his new apprentice, Darth Vader, executes Nute Gunray of the Trade Federation and other former allies.
Whether you’re a scoundrel or a hero depends on perspective. Han Solo and Lando Calrissian start out as disreputable smugglers and pirates but, after aiding the Alliance, become respected generals in the fight against the Empire.
So did John Hancock, the first signer of the Declaration of Independence. Long before he set his pen to that document, Hancock made his fortune running circles around the British navy and His Majesty’s customs officers. Hancock’s business thrived through his smuggling of Dutch tea, French molasses and other luxury goods that would have been subjected to a high tax if legally imported.
By offloading away from the ports where authorities kept a watchful eye, John Hancock grew rich, powerful and admired. In fact, when he was captured by the authorities in 1768, the people of Boston rose to his defense as Hancock’s smuggling was now vital to the city’s economy.
Not a decade later, Hancock led the Boston Tea Party in a public attack on Britain’s imperial might, rather like Lando Calrissian roused the people of Cloud City against the Empire. Both men publicly defied power to rebrand themselves from pirate to patriot.
Sometimes great changes start at the personal level. Opposition to the evils of slavery grew one person at a time, as when Harriet Jacobs told the story of the unbearable anguish experienced by a North Carolina enslaved woman who saw her seven children sold before the Civil War.
Slaves could be and were freed by some owners. George Washington’s will emancipated his slaves after his wife’s death. He was a rare exception: many slave-owners valued profit and property above the humanity of their slaves. Watto the Toydarian sees his slaves, Anakin and Shmi Skywalker, as assets in his business. He wagers only Anakin’s freedom in the podrace bet with Qui-Gon Jinn. When Watto loses the bet, Anakin is freed but mother and son are painfully divided.
That anguish fuels Anakin’s darker emotions and when he returns to Tatooine too late to rescue Shmi, he believes that Palpatine’s absolute power is the only protection he can trust.
Heartbreak also scarred the lives of former slaves in the Civil War era but, unlike Anakin, Harriet Jacobs and others used their painful experiences to rally people against slavery in the United States.
Padmé is shocked to discover that slavery, outlawed in the Republic, nevertheless thrives on the Outer Rim world of Tatooine. History is filled with examples of laws that weren’t always followed or even enforced.
If you write your history from the laws and official plans, you miss a lot of what really happened. For example, the Eighteenth Amendment banned the sale and manufacture of alcohol in the United States.
From 1920 until the ban was repealed in 1933, the country was officially dry and sober. But a thriving trade in alcohol led to a culture of rum-runners and bootleggers, driving up the crime rate across the nation. Mobsters such as Al Capone profited handsomely from the illicit alcohol their gangs provided to an eager public including a lot of the same lawmakers who had pushed so vigorously to ban booze in the first place: Jabba the Hutt benefited from a lawless environment, too, enslaving women who fell into his trap.
Finding out that the world isn’t always as it should be is the start of wisdom. Luke Skywalker’s adventure begins when Ben Kenobi corrects his mistaken personal history. Once he learns that his father wasn’t an anonymous navigator but a renowned Jedi Knight, Luke’s eyes are opened to the differences between the stories he’s been told and real history.
Winning wars isn’t just about superior firepower. Sometimes the most critical forces in history are the ones that you can’t see. Obi-Wan knows this when he embraces death at Darth Vader’s hand.
His connection with the Force will only strengthen when he dies. Samurai culture also trained followers to face death in battle without fear. But the samurai weren’t simply great and fearless warriors. They followed a philosophy of bunbu itchi, meaning “the pen and sword in equal measure.”
Like the Jedi, the samurai valued the skills of peace and wisdom along with the way of the warrior. Miyamoto Musashi embodied this in his seventeenth-century text that blended Zen philosophy and sword fighting: The Book of Five Rings.
In the samurai tradition which he helped to express, the long sword that was the samurai’s weapon of choice became more than a tool. Like the lightsaber, the samurai’s sword was the life, the symbol and the soul of the samurai and helped them remain an important force into the nineteenth century.
When Admiral Motti scorns Vader’s belief in the Force, he, too, is suddenly faced with the power of the intangible.
C-3PO unfairly blames R2-D2 for their many predicaments: that’s an amusing habit in droids, but sobering in the real world. History shows us that ambitious people reap great benefits when they make someone else the scapegoat for their problems.
When Adolf Hitler sought to rally the German people behind his Nazi party, he suggested that Communists, Jews and traitors were the real problem. This began with the mysterious fire that destroyed the German parliament, the Reichstag, in 1933. Hitler suggested the fire was the work of Communists and arrested all of the Communist politicians, leaving the Nazis with a majority government.
In 1934, the SA leader Ernst Röhm and other high-profile politicians were murdered in what became known as the Night of the Long Knives. Hitler’s Gestapo and the SS carried out these executions, claiming the victims were all traitors to Germany. They were hailed by many, including ailing Chancellor Hindenburg, for “nipping treason in the bud”.
Rather like Palpatine after Order 66 caused the stormtroopers to mow their Jedi commanders suddenly identified as traitors and enemies, Hitler enjoyed a ‘purified’ Nazi party and widespread public support.
Politics is a popular sport: if you don’t have the people behind you, you won’t last for long. Caesar Augustus knew this: he wooed the Romans with bribes, bread and circuses to win their support.
Napoleon was so popular that, when he escaped Elba in 1815, the French army sent to capture him instead defected to his cause. Adolf Hitler also understood how to appeal to the people. He was the first politician to embrace air travel in his campaigns, allowing him to make personal appeals across the country.
Hitler mastered the new media of film and television: broadcasting Nazi spectacles that promoted himself as well as his Nazi causes. Palpatine is also a master of manipulation, beginning when he takes over as chancellor and continuing when he creates crises to force the Republican Senate to grant him emergency powers.
A few critics, including Bail Organa and Padmé Amidala, see through his pretence. “So this is how liberty dies,” Padmé comments in Revenge of the Sith, “with thunderous applause.”
Her ability to see through Palpatine sets her apart from the swell of adoring supporters who celebrate the inauguration of the Galactic Empire.
Historians hate it when people talk about history repeating itself. It doesn’t: new people and new situations mean that everything’s different.
You can’t truly equate the rise of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Napoleonic Empire, since first-century Rome was very different from nineteenth-century France.
History may not be doomed to repeat itself, but there are patterns in the past that the wise person should heed. Jedi Masters such as Yoda scoff at the idea that the Dark Lords of the Sith were an active threat. Yes, the Sith had been long-ago rivals of the Jedi but that was ages ago. They were history: dead and long gone! Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan discover that comfortable certainty was groundless when they confront the Sith, Darth Maul.
The old enemies of the Jedi Order were a living threat, not a historical curiosity. If the Jedi had taken that history seriously and kept a close watch for the Sith, they might have discovered Palpatine’s plot before the galaxy was doomed to suffer under his ruthless rule.
The Emperor, in his turn, ignores the history of rebellions to his own cost, and so the cycle continues.