Updated date:

"Attack on Titan" and the Power of Indoctrination

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

Courtesy of Wit Studio.  The three might walls of Paradis Island.

Courtesy of Wit Studio. The three might walls of Paradis Island.

Attack on Titan foreshadowed a lot of big principles early on that are just now starting to be grappled with both in the series and by its fans. For this specific essay, I want to look at how the show handles indoctrination.

Courtesy of Wit Studios.

Courtesy of Wit Studios.

The Walled Indoctrination

There’s a reason why this hasn’t become a big deal until the Marley Arc of the story. When the franchise started, it was very simple with a black and white narrative. Humanity versus the titans and how to defeat them. However, it begins teasing the idea of indoctrination with the story of its mighty walls, Maria, Rose, and Sina. Originally, the residents within these territories believed they were the only ones left alive in the world. They thought this because no one could remember anything past a century ago except for the titans trying to eat them. Given the level of technology and society they had, it was understandable why they believed such a simple narrative.

No one embodied this sentiment more than Erwin Smith, commander of the Survey Corps. He was famous for asking and ordering his troops to "dedicate your hearts" for the cause of humanity. Often before a suicidal charge.

However, any that dared to ask questions about life beyond the walls, or venture outside of them, were immediately silenced by the authorities. They either disappeared or had deaths that were made to appear like an accident. When the face of a titan is discovered inside wall Sina after the battle with the Female Titan, even the religious groups seem to be in on the secret by urging the Survey Corps to immediately cover it up. The reason for this secret oppression is revealed midway through the series when the protagonist, Eren Yeager, and his comrade and friend, Historia, are captured by the military police. Their captors operate on orders from the mysterious and powerful Riess family, one of the elite citizens.

It is shown that the original King of the Walls used the power of the Founding Titan not only erased most peoples’ memory past a century, but had implanted a subliminal command within that power that his descendants would not use that power to stop the titan threat. And he had used Colossal Titans to form the three walls.

For those who retained their memories, they were bound to secrecy, becoming the elite within the walls, setting up a false king, and doing everything short of open oppression to maintain what they called “the King’s Peace.” Those who refused were hunted down or went into hiding.

When the King’s Peace is “usurped” as the Marleyans later put it, by Grisha and then his son, Eren, the indoctrination is broken.

Courtesy of Wit Studio.  Young Grisha's entry into the Eldian Restorationists in Marley.

Courtesy of Wit Studio. Young Grisha's entry into the Eldian Restorationists in Marley.

The Revolutionary Indoctrination

Speaking of Grisha Yeager, that leads into the second instance of indoctrination. Though initially thought to be one of the many victims of the titan attack on Shiganshina, the series reveals Eren’s father to be actually from Marley.

Originally a Marleyan from the internment zone of Liberio, Grisha had a double portion of propaganda drilled into him. First by the Marleyan government teaching that all Eldians are cursed and second hand citizens because of the crimes of their ancestors. Then into the ideology that Eldians were a benign and civilized people trying to build a society. This is stacked up further by the resistance’s belief that the Eldian King who built the walls was also the one who left Marley and his people there to their current fate. As such, Grisha and his cell of restorationists devote themselves to the recovery of the Founding Titan from the King’s family on Paradis Island.

However, they are ratted out by his son, Zeke, and sent off to Paradis as prisoners and are turned into titans for the rest of their days. Despite this grim fate meeting the rest of his cell, including his wife, Dina, who was a member of the royal family left behind in Marley, Grisha himself is saved by the groups’ inside man, the Owl. The Owl then tasks a broken Grisha with finishing the mission of retrieving the Founding Titan, but after first devouring him to take his Attack Titan.

Afterwards, he makes it to the walls and is taken in, where he marries and has a second family. All seems normal and the indoctrination doesn't seem to have any hold on him until the fall of Shigansina. Once the titan invasion occurs, Grisha becomes desperate and driven. Whether it was the indoctrination itself kicking in or outside circumstances forcing him back into it, it still results in Grisha accomplishing his mission. Killing nearly the entire family of the true king and stealing the Founding Titan before sacrificing himself to a newly-formed titan Eren Yeager.

Courtesy of Wit Studio. Marley teaches all its people from an early age that Eldians are literally children of the devil, as that their ancestor, Ymir, made a pact to gain the titan powers.  And is passed down to all her descendants.

Courtesy of Wit Studio. Marley teaches all its people from an early age that Eldians are literally children of the devil, as that their ancestor, Ymir, made a pact to gain the titan powers. And is passed down to all her descendants.

The Fascists' Indoctrination

The third breed of indoctrination is with Marley itself. Marley had formerly been ruled by the Eldians’ ancestors. According to them and the rest of the world they controlled, the Empire was cruel and inhuman in its treatment of non-Eldians. The Marleyans came to believe that the common ancestor of all Eldians, Ymir, made a deal with the devil to gain the power of the titans and was subsequently passed down.

Despite this being centuries ago real time, the Marleyans are still taught this brand of fantasy racism to the modern day, informing how they both view and treat the Eldians now. Though not all Marleyans are cruel, as Eren finds out during his one-man infiltration of Marley, they are still all bigoted to one degree or another. Referring to all Eldians as ‘devils’ and especially the ones on Paradis Island.

What's more, Marley indoctrinates this view into the local Eldians they control, creating a self-destructive and self-propagating lesser view of their existence. Because of this, many Eldians sign up to join the Marleyan military to improve their standing, especially those who volunteer to become “Warriors.” These are Eldians chosen to inherit the Beast, Female, Jaws, Cart, Armored, and Colossal Titan powers. The effect of this propaganda is best embodied by the character of Gabi Braun, a young Warrior candidate who so wholeheartedly believes the teachings that she tries to kill a young Eldian girl on Paradis Island who saved her life and hid her secret that she was an escaped prisoner from Marley.

However, none embrace this view stronger than Willy Tybur. Despite his unprecedented standing in Marleyan and global society that others of his race can only dream of, he not only decides to take the indoctrination one step further by deciding that the Paradis Eldians need to be wiped out, but he also sacrifices his life and many others for that goal.

The interesting thing about this presentation is its blatant referral to world and indoctrinations of Nazi Germany over 80 years ago in the real world. It's perhaps the easiest to critique immediately as wrong and immoral.

"The plain fact is that education itself is a form of propaganda- a deliberate attempt to outfit the pupil not with the capacity to weigh ideas, but with a simple appetite for gulping ideas ready-made. The aim is to make 'good citizens', which is to say docile and uninquisitive citizens."

— H.I. Mencken

A No Win Scenario?

Attack on Titan has slowly but steadily made it a point to show the power of indoctrination upon people and what lengths it can drive them to hold on to it. Regardless of the reason, indoctrination is used as a system of maintaining control over a population with as little effort as possible. It involves having the people in a comfortable/controllable place where they will keep the lie going even when the authorities aren’t present.

More so, it takes advantage of the human need for some sense of order that they can use to navigate the world. And that without that order, everything becomes so chaotic that even if the truth is a lie, it's better than the chaos the truth creates in the vacuum.

People become fodder to the machine of indoctrination to keep it going. Attack on Titan also takes the idea of dealing with indoctrination one step further. When adult Eren is confronted with the possibility that the apocalyptic Rumbling may not be necessary because of possibly changing the hearts of the Marleyans, he coldly points out that most of them that are on the island still look at them as devils. And that there are more of them than the open-minded ones in Marley and the rest of the world. For Eren, the only way to end indoctrination is to wipe out the indoctrinated all together.

For a time it certainly seems like his assessment is tragically correct. Sasha’s mercy in sparing Gabi gets her killed not long afterwards by the same person. Plus unlike the other scouts, he’s speaking from his experience behind enemy lines, as well as through the inherited memories of his father and the Owl via the Attack Titan. There is also the fact that Marley was going to attack Paradis sooner than when the Survey Corps was prepared for. The show creates a scenario where this is no right solution to be made because it has escalated too far.

The irony in this view of indoctrination, however, is its opposite in freedom. Young Eren and Survey Corp commander, Erwin Smith, see the walls as physical incarnations of the limitations of only what you know. While it's safe and comfortable inside those walls, you still are not free to go beyond them if you want to. And just because there’s safety in those walls doesn't mean that an outside force can disrupt it.

Moreover, freedom can become a indoctrinated curse in itself, such as when Eren learns of the true Eldian history. He no longer feels at peace when the titans are eliminated from Paradis. Just an anxiety knowing that their peace is fleeting and the true enemy lies across the sea, burdening him to the point where he takes extreme methods to end it all.

Or when Sasha, arguably the most free of the main cast, is killed through the manipulations of larger forces at play. Her freedom did not protect her from being swept up in the machinations of others’ indoctrinations.

All in all, Attack on Titan’s view of indoctrination is that it's a complex web, much like real life. It is possible to break free of it, as a young Eren dreams of being, but there is always the danger of another trying to take its place or control your fate.

© 2021 Jamal Smith

Related Articles