From World War to Star Wars: Imperial Officers

Last month, I examined the parallels between the rise of the Galactic Empire and the rise of the Third Reich. This month, it’s time to move the focus away from dictators and on to the individuals that make the Empire run. At the core of what makes the Empire operate are the Imperial officers, a cold and efficient group who in many ways were inspired by the events of World War II.

The fact that fascism inspired the look and feel of the Empire is no secret. In fact, Star Wars creator George Lucas even refers to the Imperial officers in The Empire Strikes Back as “Nazis” while giving his commentary of the film. He specifically mentions their militaristic dress, noting, “The Nazis are basically the same costume as we used in the first film and they are designed to be very authoritarian, very empire-like.”

This motif is significant, and is one of the defining themes of this era in the Star Wars saga. “You’ll see as time goes on [the officers] don’t really appear in the movie about the Republic, which is the first three movies,” says Lucas. “You don’t have that same militaristic look as in the first three films because the Jedi are the ones that keep peace in the universe not the military.”

In designing the look of these characters, history played a crucial role. Costume designer John Mollo was tasked with creating the look of these sinister servants of the Empire. To inspire the designs, Mollo looked back to history. “We didn’t look at any films specifically, but had a lot of books — all the books there were on science fiction and science-fiction films, books on World War II, on Vietnam, and on Japanese armor.” The guidance he was given was simple: “George made pronouncements of a general nature,” Mollo says. “First of all, he wanted the Imperial people to look efficient, totalitarian, fascist; and the Rebels, the goodies, to look like something out of a Western or the US Marines. He said, ‘You’ve got a very difficult job here, because I don’t want anyone to notice the costumes. They’ve got to look familiar, but not familiar at the same time.’”


The Imperial Officer uniforms were based off of German Lancers from World War I and earlier.

The exact cut of the uniforms was certainly familiar, but didn’t rely precisely on the dress of the Second World War. The overall color palette and feel for the Empire was intended to be fascist, but earlier Prussian military uniforms inspired the actual cut of the uniforms designed by John Mollo.  The tunic and pants worn by Imperial officers were based on the uniform of German Uhlans, a division of mounted lancers that predated Nazi Germany. This style of uniform was used through the end of World War I, but was not a hallmark of the Third Reich.

Kenneth Colley as Admiral Piett.

Kenneth Colley as Admiral Piett.

Even the actors who inhabited the costumes share connections to World War II. Kenneth Colley, who played Admiral Piett, tells his story of being cast for the role. “The casting director for The Empire Strikes Back knew me,” relates Colley. “He asked me to meet with Irvin Kershner who, I was told, was making the sequel to Star Wars. I had not actually seen Star Wars at that point, although of course I knew what it was, so I agreed. I remember when I walked into his office, Irvin said to me, ‘I’m looking for someone that would frighten Adolf Hitler!’ And he sized me up and down and continued, ‘Yes, I think you’re it.’” On playing the role, Colley says, “Obviously they were going on some sort of design for Darth Vader’s men — there were echoes of the Gestapo or at least fascism in there — and that was also how I approached the role.”

Outside of the Star Wars films, World War II also inspired one of the most iconic characters from the Star Wars Legends stories.  Looking back on his book Heir to the Empire, author Timothy Zahn explained how he developed the iconic character of Grand Admiral Thrawn. “I wanted Heir’s villain to be a military leader as opposed to a governor, Moff, or Sith. But a normal admiral seemed too commonplace. Hence, the Grand Admirals.” The title came from reading one of the most famous accounts of the Second World War. Zahn says, “I first ran across the title, by the way, in connection with the German navy in William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

This fall, tune in to Star Wars Rebels for an all-new look at the Empire and its officers.

Cole Horton is an R2 builder, historian, and creator of From World War to Star Wars, an ongoing series of lectures at Star Wars Celebrations. He has also worked as World War II historian for Marvel Comics Augmented Reality app. You can find him on Twitter @ColeHorton.