Ever since I finished my reread of the Percy Jackson books, I’ve been thinking about the way modern fantasy writers pull World War II into their magical settings. There’s an ongoing cultural fascination with this particular war, possibly because it’s the last major world conflict that we can paint as having obvious good and bad guys, but the way it’s utilized in fiction doesn’t always work or make sense.
Writers like to add some sort of magical twist into the real historical war, whether it’s giving hitherto unknown powers to actual historical figures, or running a parallel magical conflict alongside the non-magical one. Some of them do so in a meaningful way that does justice to the actual history they’re using; others, not as much.
I mentioned that it was Rick Riordan’s books that set me thinking about this, and I have mixed feelings about the way he works WWII into his story. While the setting of the Percy Jackson books is the modern day, the big conflict is rooted in the forties: it was the last time demigod children of the Big Three—Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades/Pluto—were all around at the same time, and their version of Family Feud turned into a globe-spanning conflict. The war became World War II when the various demigods’ powers and those of their allies were thrown into the mix. (This is apparently a common theme in Riordan’s universe, as the American Civil War was also exacerbated by infighting between demigods of Greek versus Roman godly parentage.) Hitler and Stalin were sons of Pluto/Hades, and Roosevelt and Churchill were sons of Zeus and Poseidon respectively.
Needless to say, the damage wrought by the conflict is enough to make the three godly brothers vow to never father children again—only for the peace to be broken when Percy, a son of Poseidon, turns up at Camp Half-Blood. This adds both an immediate tension to the story and high stakes—especially when kids of Zeus and Hades turn up again as well—but in the end it rubs me the wrong way. Given that Hades/Pluto isn’t really considered a villain in Greco-Roman mythology the way the devil/anyone associated with death is in modern/Western/Judeo-Christian thought, it strikes me as oversimplistic to play the Hitler card here. Hitler wasn’t raising armies of skeletons to fight the Allies; he was swaying regular people with his rhetoric to do so. It would make more sense to me, if Riordan had made Hitler a son of Aphrodite/Venus, for example, as her children can use charmspeak, strong magical suggestion that is especially powerful when you already kind of want to do what’s being suggested. Making him a son of Pluto instead seems to make less sense both from a power and belief standpoint, and it also feels more like a way to give my precious cinnamon roll son Nico, the modern child of Hades, angst, since he’s got a hell of a reputation from his literally evil predecessors to outrun.
I do think World War II is better used by Rick Riordan than it is by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, however. The MCU sets its Captain America origin story in World War II, but avoids making any commentary about the nuances of the war itself during the movie. Hitler himself only ever appears as a sniveling punchline villain for Cap to punch out at the end of his USO shows. And despite it being the easiest way ever to code someone as a villain, The First Avenger’s Red Skull avoids grouping himself with the Nazis, suggesting that Hitler’s aspirations are meager and short-sighted compared to Hydra’s own plans for world domination. He uses a similar “magic” (the science in the MCU is oftentimes indistinguishable from magic) to that used to beef up Cap to upgrade his own body, making himself incredibly powerful. While this somewhat parallels the real historical issues surrounding the Nazi ideal of a master race, it’s undermined by the fact that the Americans did the exact same thing but better. I know that Steve-Cap has a specific look going back to the real life forties, but it’s still kinda skeevy that the U.S.’s answer to Germany’s aggression is to send the Aryan ideal of the übermensch off to fight.
Probably the best use of WWII I can think of is its inclusion in Harry Potter. While the Wizarding War of the forties ran parallel to the real World War II, it maintains explicit parallels to the actual conflict and to the mentalities held by its main players. The story sets up Grindelwald as a clear parallel to Hitler – his Germanic heritage, his ability to sway people to his side by appealing to their darker emotions and fears, his thoughts about blood status and the supremacy of certain people over others, all reflect der Führer.
However, this fictional setup still could have been improved and made more meaningful by letting the people whom Grindelwald was so prejudiced against—Muggles—take part in the struggle against him and his overthrow. Instead, because of the Statute of Secrecy, this fight goes on completely over their heads and outside their awareness, lending an unintentional credence to the suggestion of their inferiority. There’s a different emotional conflict at play by having Dumbledore, who had been in love with Grindelwald, take Grindelwald down, but in the end it’s a very powerful pureblood wizard using tremendous amounts of magic to take down another immensely powerful pureblood.
Seventy years later, it’s easy to think of World War II as a cut and dry conflict and a convenient way to add stakes or tension to a plot. One only has to look at the prevalence of fake Nazis and Nazi-based villains in current fiction to see how much of an influence it’s had on our cultural consciousness, and adding in magic only serves to make it more exciting and suspenseful. However, it does all the war’s casualties an injustice to play too fast and loose with the war as a plot device, and I urge writers who do use it as a starting point for their magical battles to consider the real gravity of the actual historical events before doing so.