The Walking Dead has a surprising number of illuminating parallels.
As we dig into The Walking Dead and try to bite into Fear the Walking Dead and the Walking Dead webseries Fear the Walking Dead: Flight 462, it seems like these zombies are inescapable pulp horror fodder.
But when you take a closer look at the whole Walking Dead world you start to see that it’s more than just a horror series bent on eliminating as many brains as possible. The Walking Dead has a lot to offer beyond cheap thrills. There’s intention behind this series, and nowhere is that more apparent than in its parallels with the Holocaust.
That may seem like a stretch, but a show about survivors and the fight to stay alive can actually do a lot to give modern viewers a way to better understand the Holocaust. It’s not that the many firsthand accounts of Holocaust survivors aren’t enough; rather, experiencing a modern allegory can help those who are historically removed from the Holocaust better learn its cautionary tale
And once you start looking at the series that way, there are a lot more parallels than you might have realized at first.
8. The Resistance
Let’s start out with a straightforward one. Our hero Rick is a walking metaphor for the resistance leaders during the Holocaust. Leaders like Tuvia Bielski of the Bielski brothers, fled the ghetto where his family was trapped with his brothers. Tuvia was a military man, and fought for Germany in World War I. He went into the forest and led a group that helped free and protect Jews through World War II. Rick is a desperate character, one who shows us not only the struggle to survive in a world where he must constantly stay hidden from the enemy, but the difficulty in identifying the proper course of action in a time of societal collapse.
On a broader scale, while many Jews were getting carted off to concentration camps there were a proud few who rose up against the Nazis. When Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto found out that they were going to be carted to their death they fought back using guns, grenades, and Molotov cocktails. Like our protagonists in The Walking Dead struggling against the seemingly omnipotent, or at least omnipresent, force of the walkers, the Jews of Warsaw refused to let the oppressive Gestapo take them without a fight.
7. Searching for Normalcy
When Lori and Rick are reunited in season two, they vow to take care of each other and be together. This is, perhaps, human instinct, but it’s also reflective of the way many people felt at the end of the Holocaust. Because it was such a struggle to survive, many people involved in the war immediately married afterwards and tried to put the ugliness of the concentration camps behind them. For many it was impossible to forget the horrible things they had seen, but if they attempted normalcy there was a respite from the pain.
The Walking Dead frequently reflects this search. With the zombie plague, the rules have changed. Surviving is different from living. Especially in the most recent season, as we looked at Alexandria, it’s easy to understand both the dangers of complacency and the solace of a small everyday moment.
6. Sound and Silence
Perhaps one of The Walking Dead‘s greatest contributions to our understanding of how people lived in the Holocaust is in conveying the importance of sound. If something is too loud the Walkers (or the Gestapo) will find your hiding place and swoop in to attack. When you’re watching and a somebody makes too much noise, you instinctively you feel a sense of unease and dread. Walkers respond to noise and there is no salvation when a walker arrives. Think about the stories of Corrie Ten Boom, Anne Frank, or the many others who hid Jews or were themselves in hiding. Loud noise coming from somewhere it shouldn’t was the surest path to capture.
But the silence can be more frightening than a car explosion or an air raid signal. Most of the scariest moments on The Walking Dead come out of complete quiet. There is always a sense of foreboding and anxiety that accompanies the silence because who knows what is lurking in the shadows? There was a sense of dread, of imminent danger in even the seemingly calmest moments, that the Jews felt every second of their struggle for survival during the Holocaust. The Walking Dead makes its characters live with that oppressive dread, and so helps its viewers understand it.
For many people in the camps, hope was in constant short supply, but was nonetheless important for survival. Think about Daryl’s nickname for his daughter Judith, “Little Ass Kicker.” Obviously a baby is not taking down walkers, but the implication is that Judith will grow to be a warrior. There’s not even hope that the world will be rid of walkers, only that Judith will be able to survive them.
Glen and Maggie’s relationship is a measure of hope. In season two episode thirteen, when Maggie is concerned that all their friends are dead, Glen calms her down by finally admitting, “I love you. Maggie, I love you. I should’ve said it a long time ago and it’s been true for a long time. We’re gonna be alright, okay?” Walking Dead shows us that even in the darkest moments the characters don’t give up, and it matters because Holocaust survivors never gave up either.
Manya and Meyer Korenblit were teenage sweethearts when they were taken to the same work camp, Budzyn. They would sneak to the fence and agreed that if they survived, they would return to their hometown to wait for each other. They were separated shortly after and ended up in different camps, but after the war ended they found each other in the Polish town of Hrubieszow. Hope drove the Koreblits forward, and every hard resolution to survival that a character on The Walking Dead makes is a reminder of the intense suffering those in camps endured with the hope of a better life ahead.
4. Potential For Evil
In Germany, during the 1930’s the bias against Jews bled in very slowly. People were fed ideas that Jews were responsible for the German people’s poverty and economic hardships. One day Jews were wearing yellow stars. Weeks later they were moved to ghettos. It did not happen all at once; so many Jews and Germans accepted the new rules and moved on. However, this gradual prejudice eventually made Germans able to kill Jews because they had been told that these people were the root of all their problems and salvation would only come when Jews were dead.
In season one episode six of The Walking Dead, Dr. Jenner whispers into Rick’s ear, “We’re all infected.” Sophia becoming a walker in season two episode seven is a metaphor for how Nazism and inhumanity could seep into anyone, including the most innocent. Everyone can become a walker. Everyone could become a Nazi. Much of 1950s and 60s literature was written by thinkers and theologians grappling with how the Germans could do such horrible things to their fellow man. In Elie Wiesel’s Night he says, “Humanity? Humanity is not concerned with us. Today anything is allowed. Anything is possible.” The Walking Dead makes literal this possibility, that any one of us might turn. It takes the idea that people have the capability for evil literally embodies that potential in the undead.
3. Flirting with the Enemy
Andrea’s relationship with the governor in season three was remarkably similar to what happened in many concentration camps, where Gestapo generals would take Jewish women as consorts. Sometimes these relationships benefitted the women involved. Helena Citronova had a relationship with Franz Wunsch inside of the Auschwitz concentration camp and was able to use Wunsch’s feelings for her to save herself and her family.
Andrea’s attraction to the governor reveals the ambiguity that happens when societal rules are pulled away. Andrea is drawn to the governor because he lets down his guard and is vulnerable to her, like in season three episode four, where he reveals his name is Philip. Andrea and the governor show how bad and good get muddled and that it can be hard to tell a character’s true intentions. The Walking Dead lets the viewer experience all the moral gray area that happened in the wake the Holocaust in a relatable romantic way. It seems impossible that a Jew would ever work with the Nazis, but The Walking Dead presents a similar scenario in an understandable fashion. Andrea falls for the wrong person, but in the world of The Walking Dead, making a bad character decision can be deadly.
2. Deeper Meaning
Glen Mazzara, season 2 and 3 showrunner, tweeted that writers were required to read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, about trying to survive life in Auschwitz and how finding meaning in a desperate situation can save a person.
“@Ebradley127: Great article. Makes me curious what else was on that “reading list” that’s mentioned.” Man’s Search for Meaning by Frankel
— Glen Mazzara (@glenmazzara) September 30, 2012
Frankl posits that for people to survive, they must find meaning in the dark as well as the light. The characters who do the best in The Walking Dead are the ones who move past the hardships and keep surviving and pushing forward in every single moment.
As a fictional allegory, The Walking Dead is able to do something historical narratives struggle with by definition: show complete story and character arcs. This can help viewers to understand the impact of both positive and negative experiences in a way that’s frequently difficult in real life alone.
Beth Greene is a great example of a character who is able to mature into a pillar of strength. In season two Beth is timid, and in season two episode ten she considers killing herself. Beth does not want to live in the zombie world. But with the support of her family, Beth is able to hope again. Her tragic romantic relationships of Jimmy and Zach help spur her on. Beth becomes a character full of hope and who finds meaning in the little things like singing for her friends and caring for Judith. Beth meets a grisly demise at the hands of Dawn, but she dies fighting the injustice of the Grady Memorial Hospital.
Storylines like Beth’s help us see the bigger picture, see the the light in the dark places, and learn wisdom from even the most abhorrent of human actions.
1. Never Forget
Carol says that she “just need[s] to forget” the horrible things she has done and seen in season 5 episode 2. That’s reminiscent of the attitude of many Holocaust survivors. In his book Maus II, Art Spiegelman talks about how many Jews struggled to find normality upon returning to postwar life. All of the time spent struggling in desperation for food and hope touched every part of their humanity. It sounds so odd – our natural reaction is to assume normal life would be a respite from the horrors of the Holocaust.
In Season 5, when the members of The Walking Dead group come to Alexandria they are unable to fully integrate back into society. They have seen too much and killed too many to function in a normal society again. Most of them, including Rick and Carol, do not trust a place that is safe. They’ll never feel safe again. And Michonne says that her sword is always on her back, even when it’s not physically there. The Walking Dead immerses the audience in the scary world, and the audience sides with Rick and Michonne in what some might call their paranoia.
So when we go back to Holocaust survivors struggling to return to civilized life, the allegory of The Walking Dead suddenly makes this problem more tangible. It puts the viewer in the headspace of the survivors, even if one threat was real and the other only imagined.
And make sure to tune into the new season of The Walking Dead on October 11th.