The English title of this anime: The Saga of Tanya the Evil is, to my way of thought, a misnomer and misleading. It pre-judges the character, and primes the viewer for one interpretation of her actions. The Japanese title Yojo Senki (幼女戦記), Young Girl’s War Record, is more neutral, but not as clickable. The anime is the story of the impact of this girl on a war, and vice-versa. Because of the title, most commentators assume that both Tanya and the Empire are evil. It’s not that simple. Let’s take the Empire first.
At a high level, the world of Tanya is an alternate universe to our own. It is 1925, and Europa is sliding into a war similar to WWI, with some elements of WWII.
Imperial not-Germany is an up-and-coming industrial power, surrounded by potential enemies who wish to preserve the balance of power in Europa: the Republic of not-France, the Triple Entente of not-Scandinavian countries, and Dakia, which is the original Roman name for Romania (and BTW, NSA still uses DA as the country code for Romania). Also in the mix is the neutral Russy Federation, which is not-Russia, and the supposedly-neutral Allied Kingdom of not-England.
The Empire’s concept of war in Europa, War Plan 315, is essentially defensive: if attacked, hold on the borders and sequentially defeat the enemies with a mobile striking force. At no time does anyone suggest invading a country just for the sake of invading a country. So the ethos is demonstrably more pacifistic than Imperial Germany in 1914.
The Entente countries kick off the war by invading the Empire over a border boundary dispute (see Schleswig-Holstein Question). Entente LtCol Anson Su (it’s アンソン・ス, not Sioux or Sue) complains that they were told it would just be an active patrol. After what was supposed to be a limited mobilization to recover lost territory at the southern tip of not-Sweden, the Emperor and the politicians decided to launch a counter-invasion of the Entente Alliance. The goal, driven by fear of another invasion, was to destroy the threat from the north. The military high command complains that it couldn’t convince the political authorities that if the Empire was deeply involved in a northern war, the Republic would then mobilize and invade. This is what happens, and again, the Republic is the aggressor, not the Empire. After the Empire is tied up on two fronts, Dakia decides to invade, unprovoked, despite her army and tactics being of pre-WWI quality. So now the Empire is fighting on three fronts.
Even though at one point the High Command says that Plan 315 is defunct, the underlying concept still applies. The imperial forces (lead by Tanya’s strike group) easily beat Dakia, and occupy the whole country, eliminating that threat. They then turn and apply their mobile forces against the Entente. At this point, WWII leaks through. In a move modelled on the Nazi attack on Norway, and reminiscent of the US landings at Inchon, they land a force behind Entente lines, at Orsefjord, and once again, Tanya leads the way. The Entente countries are occupied.
With the Entente and Dakia out of the way, the beleaguered Empire is free to turn its attention to the Republic. In WWI, the French advanced into Lorraine, and the German forces attacked through Belgium with the intent of sweeping around their left flank and encircling them. Think of it as a swinging door, hinged on the southern Ardennes. In WWII, the French armies advanced into Belgium and the Germans swept around their right flank. The swinging door was hinged on the northern Ardennes. In Tanya, the final battle has the Empire withdrawing from the land area not identified as Belgium, enticing the Republic to advance, then swinging around their right flank, much like in WWII.
The Republic forces collapse, and the Empire occupies the entire country, establishing hegemony over all of Central Europa. What they don’t understand is that what makes them feel safe, makes the rest of the world feel unsafe. Both the Allied Kingdom and the Russy Federation prepare for war, the not-USA Union of States is recruiting volunteers to send over there, and, in yet another WWII touch, the remaining Republican forces escape from the Europan continent to the western part of the northern Southern Continent.
The series ends with Republican General Lugo not-de Gaulle establishing a Free not-French movement in not-Tunisia. The final scene shows Tanya deployed with her not-Afrika Korps.
Throughout all this, it’s fairly obvious that the anime wants to make us think that the Empire is evil: their opponents all refer to it as evil, and the producers chose Germany as their model, since we are all conditioned to think of Germany as evil for starting two World Wars. The military headquarters is even draped with red banners that lack only swastikas to evoke the Nazis.
But when you think about it, the Empire really isn’t evil, at least not in a Hitlerian tomorrow-the-world sort of way. It is led by inept and clueless politicians, but aren’t we all. What the Empire is guilty of is failure to consider the reactions of others. They fear encirclement. They fear invasion, quite rightly, it would appear. They attempt to prevent this through ill-advised counter-invasions. When the Scandinavian Entente invaded them, they made the mistake of advancing well beyond the existing borders, even though those may have been in dispute; think of it like the UN forces moving north of the 38th parallel in Korea. That led the French Republic to mobilize (possibly because of treaty obligations, a la WWI) and then invade.
Dakia’s was a straight up unprovoked invasion (again, possibly treaty driven). The Empire beat them handily, and then took over the country. The results may look the same as Hitler’s occupation of the various countries of eastern Europe (Romania was actually an ally), but the motivation was quite different. Unfortunately, the occupied have trouble telling the difference.
Same way with the not-French Republic. In our world, de Gaulle was able to organize the Free French because Germany was occupying half of France, and there was a puppet government, not in Paris and therefore arguably not a government at all. If the Empire had dictated a peace settlement, and then withdrawn its troops, the Parisee government would be the obvious legal government of the Republic, and General Lugo would be a rebel.
There is a Game Theory strategy for dealing with an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, which is a good analog for international relations. The Tit-for-Tat strategy says you respond to a hostile act by an equally hostile act, and then maintain a willingness to cooperate. The Empire’s mistake was to fail to recognize the needs of the other nations, and to cease all cooperation after one hostile act.
Next time, we’ll examine the question “can a 10-year-old girl be evil if she only blows up one ammunition factory?”