What’s Up with Attack on Titan’s Weird Fascist Cult?

I’m about to discuss the ending of Attack on Titan, spoiling everything that the Final Season Part Three (no, for real guys, it’s the final final part) will cover. So, if you’re not caught up or willing to get spoiled, beware.

There has been this bizarre divide in the fan base for a while now. You might trace it back to the controversy around the ending, but it goes further back, to the first installment of the fourth season in December of 2020. It wasn’t immediately obvious, but the fans grew divided, only worsening after the manga ended and alienated a vocal faction of the fandom.

For lack of a better term, you’re aware of these Jaegerists. You’ve seen them on Twitter arguing that Eren did nothing wrong, except that he shouldn’t have stopped at wiping out eighty percent of humanity. He should have impregnated Historia, wiped out the world outside the walls, and reigned as king of Paradis.

The Jaegerists, as I see it, are angry that Hajime Isayama didn’t commit to Eren’s plan of eradicating the human race, instead reducing him to a flawed and tragic character, rather than the staunch force of nature he’d been since the time skip. I’ve struggled to wrap my head around how so many people could get angry over the most predictable end to the story.

Seriously, it’s not like Isayama was trying to make anyone mad. At least Rian Johnson said he wanted to upset people and their expectations when he made The Last Jedi. I was surprised when I read the ending because I thought it would be a lot more daring; Attack on Titan didn’t skip the goldfish, much less jump the shark. It’s the ending I expected since I found out what the Rumbling was.

The answer I’ve come to after finishing the manga and drawing my own conclusions is that Attack on Titan has always accidentally courted this strange cult of masculinity and nationalism, but the divide between that faction and the majority of fans didn’t become clear until the last stage of the story.

To start, I wouldn’t say that masculinity or nationalism are inherently bad. I have to say that because the two have unfortunately become buzzwords, and I imagine a lot of people will take my usage of them as some kind of politically-motivated rant. It’s not.

I aim to explain the phenomenon of the fan divide, examine the reasons for the ending’s controversy, and help people draw their own conclusions. So, no, I don’t think masculinity have a positive or negative connotation; they’re concepts that take the alignment of the person wielding them.

I would next like to reiterate that Attack on Titan has always flirted with this brand of patriotic zeal. The first three seasons tap heavily into an “us vs. them” narrative, and that was widely accepted at the time because the “them’ was a horde of unthinking monsters.

Most of the opening songs by Linked Horizon are imbued with the idea that there is nobility in fighting for your people, it’s something to take pride in. These OPs evoke an image of German nationalism, drawing attention to the fact that Eren’s surname is “hunter” in German and using German in their lyrics. However, it’s impossible to deny that the vast majority of people hear the words “German nationalism” and think of Nazism.

Attack on Titan has largely avoided the controversy of that association because it didn’t portray the military or government as benevolent, like fascist propaganda would. Sure, the soldiers of the Survey Corps are brave, but the institutions are rife with corruption. Our heroes defy and even rebel against those autocrats.

Besides, the Titans are man-eating monsters! Attack on Titan is a story about the last of the human race versus mindless giants, not disparate ethnicities, so the subtext of fascism doesn’t track…right?

So yeah, we learned that the Titans aren’t the real “them”. That would be Marley, a country locked in a cycle of oppression and war with the Eldians on the island of Paradis for two thousand years. The Marleyans are in the midst of committing genocide against the Eldians, using them as fodder to maintain the Titan war machine for global military supremacy, so Attack on Titan is not people fighting monsters anymore.

There are Eldians like Gabi who believe that they’re evil by their very nature. There are Eldians like Reiner or Pieck who have had the chance to reflect on their actions and throw their lot in with Marley regardless. There are Marleyans who are good people and don’t hate Eldians, but they’re a minority. Isayama shreded our naïve assumptions of good and evil, and that point leads us to Eren.

Isayama took advantage of the lengthy time skip as he transitioned into the final stretch of the story, and radically transformed Eren as a character. The brash hotheaded boy learned that his mother’s death was a coordinated effort towards genocide, not a mindless act of violence, and he has been replaced by a somber man. Eren still possess his singular motivation to pursue revenge and justice for Paradis, but when you realize that rage is no longer pointed at unthinking creatures but all the people of the world, the implications are staggering.

Eren doesn’t create the Jaegerists as a fascist militia, centered on his cult of personality, but it grows as he recruits people to aid in his mission. His goal of protecting Paradis from the world attracts the people predisposed towards radicalization, like Floch, a soldier struggling with survivor’s guilt who finds a successor to the deceased Commander Erwin in Eren. I’d love to talk about Floch more, and I might eventually give him his own essay, but that’s not my purpose here, so let’s move on.

Eren isn’t possessed by an ideology so much as his priorities. He values his friends, the island he calls home, and a world that would destroy them simply isn’t worth considering. Isayama does an excellent job of creating a scenario where there is no feasible route to peace. Eren’s actions are almost justified simply because it’s a matter of survival, and who in his shoes would choose their enemy’s life over their own?

However, Isayama also demonstrates the futility of that type of thinking; the peace doesn’t last. Eren is successful in buying his friends and Paradis several lifetimes of peace as the world struggles to recover from the Rumbling, but it wasn’t as simple as breaking the wheel of human events. The cycle of war found a new reason to begin again, and chugs on in spite of the Rumbling.

So while Attack on Titan and Isayama once again skirted themes or messages that might be construed as fascistic, Eren is still the figurehead for a genocidal nationalistic movement. The group who identify themselves by his name execute people of different ethnicities who won’t swear allegiance and accept the death of millions if not billions in stride, as long as it secures their homeland.

But I haven’t connected the theme of nationalism with my claim that it’s a weird fascist cult of masculinity. Just what do I mean by that? First, there is a long-standing tradition of fascism and traditional masculinity being closely associated. Right-wing ideologies tend to emphasize cultural heritage, so it’s only logical that someone possessing a nationalistic inclination would hold strong beliefs about masculinity.

We run into a problem, however, when we start to apply those standards to Eren without the benefit of context. In Chapter 139, Eren’s persona of grim certainty in himself and his goals cracks, and he confesses how he feels to Armin. He’s scared to die, he’d give anything to avoid the consequences of his actions, he wants Mikasa for himself, and he refuses to let anyone else have her.

For some reason, the biggest meme to come out of Attack on Titan’s ending was Eren saying he wanted Mikasa to think only of him for the rest of her life, or “ten years, at least!” I’ve tried to come to terms with that, because the scene is downright haunting. Eren has been denied any semblance of a normal life, and he is giving his life and happiness to buy those things for his friends. This scene is where he finally admits what he wants in a moment of weakness with his best friend.

It’s heartbreaking, but it’s been mocked as cringe-inducing and pathetic. Yeah, it’s pathetic, but have we forgotten the root word of pathetic? Pathos, evoking pity or sadness. This moment should stir our basic human sympathy, not derision.

I don’t know how anyone could read Eren ask Mikasa what he is to her, spoken as a desperate plea for her to give him something to live for, and not see and dread this coming. Nope, my gigachad sigma male idol Eren just revealed he’s a simp, time to go on Reddit and whine.

And it was this that made me realize how weirdly tied these ideas are. There was a large group of people rooting for Eren solely because he was cruel and abandoned his friends, and they turned on him once they learned that was never the real Eren. It’s not just juvenile, it’s psychotic. They had an insane idea of what a strong male character should be, and Eren’s desperation shattered the illusion.

It’s this bizarre self-insert power fantasy mentality that I don’t know how to address. I get why someone would want to be a character like Kirito: he’s smart, talented, and he gets the girl. Somehow, people got wrapped up in Eren’s plans of global annihilation and tricked themselves into believing this was the same kind of story as Sword Art Online. Eren can’t show weakness because I hitched my idea of masculinity to him, and I need fictional characters to assert my manhood. Oh, well, that’s sad.

The ending of Attack on Titan is magnificent. It’s not perfect, and you can see where it’s rushed, or nitpick, but the story is a brilliantly executed tragedy. The boy who loved freedom and never tasted it gave up everything so the people he loved would have a chance. He became a monster because this is a cruel world, but it’s also beautiful, and he would make a martyr of himself to keep them safe and happy.

Actually, my main complaint with the ending was that Isayama didn’t properly explain why Eren should be stopped. The Scouts have never been in favor of the Rumbling, but they don’t ever come up with an alternative plan. The Warriors who join the mission to stop Eren were perfectly fine committing genocide against their own people, but now it’s beyond the pale to do it against the perpetrators?

Hange and Armin, allegedly the two smartest characters, had four years to devise a plan that would keep Paradis safe, and they had nothing to show for it. Armin just insists that they can talk it out, even though the rest of the world consistently reiterates their belief that Eldians are not human and are demons who turn into Titans out of malice. Armin and Hange insisting that they could have negotiated their way out of a genocide is childish to the point of being suicidal.

Obviously, Eren is not right to enact the Rumbling, just as the Marleyans are wrong in their countless crimes against Eldians, but what’s the Scouts’ idea here? Lay down and die for the sake of a country that enslaved your countrymen and sent Titans to devour you? Isayama ought to have given Armin and Hange a concrete reason to believe the Rumbling wasn’t the only answer.

But hey, you’d already know my feelings about the ending if you followed me on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, where I discussed that while the second part of the final season was still airing. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of other hot garbage takes to go around on my Twitter, because I’m talking about all the anime I’m currently watching. Until next time, thanks for reading.

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