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geralt walks up the stairs in a castle with light beaming out the windows Katalin Vermes/Netflix

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The real-world history that breathes life into The Witcher

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Hana Kraus and Walter Beer were young middle-class Jews living in the Central European state of Czechoslovakia when Nazi Germany invaded their country in 1939. In the ensuing years, the new genocidal regime robbed them of family and community, but they survived and came to the U.S., where they married and raised a family.

Hana and Walter were my maternal grandparents. I wasn’t mature enough to hear their stories when I was young, but in my senior year of high school, a newspaper assignment had me researching the Holocaust and accounts like their own. Given a greater understanding of part of my family’s history — my dad’s paternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants who came to the U.S. from Germany in 1908 — I hungered for more stories from people in Central and Eastern Europe, a culturally rich region the West often overlooks. I found a deeper connection to my past through an unlikely source: The Witcher saga.

Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski published his first Witcher short story in 1986, a few years before the Communist Party fell from power in Poland. His novels, which follow the monster hunter Geralt of Rivia as he searches for his missing adopted daughter Ciri in a land torn apart by war, were published throughout the 1990s but gained great acclaim after CD Projekt Red adapted them into video games starting in the late 2000s. Now a new audience has stumbled into The Continent with the release of Netflix’s The Witcher, but while faithful to the books, the series departs from the historical context from which the source material sprang up 30 years ago.

Only Sapkowski can say exactly what was going through his mind when he wrote his stories — the kingdoms, characters, and political groups in Witcher lore do not correlate exactly to any real-world counterparts — but within the fantasy tales, there are parallels to the complicated history of ethnic strife and resistance to oppression in Central and Eastern Europe. Fighting monsters is frightening, but Geralt’s survival during a brutal moment, one that mirrors real-world international conflict, speaks greater truths.

geralt bends his knees and holds a sword while covered in a cloak Photo: Katalin Vermes/Netflix

The age of migration brings diversity and war

The fantasy world of The Witcher resembles medieval Central Europe. The first sentient beings to populate the Continent — millennia before Geralt was born — were gnomes, then dwarves, according to an account from the dwarf Yarpen Zigrin to Ciri in Blood of Elves, the first Witcher novel. (Much of the lore in the Witcher books is vague, filtered by personal biases, and debatable.) Elves later arrived on the Continent from elsewhere, and fought against its other nonhuman inhabitants. A mysterious calamity called the Conjunction of the Spheres eventually brought parallel realms into alignment with the unnamed world on which the Continent exists. In the aftermath, humans crossed over to this planet after destroying their home world, one elf tells Geralt in Sapkowski’s fourth Witcher book, The Tower of the Swallow.

These newly arrived humans waged war against elves and other nonhumans, and eventually established the Northern Kingdoms. The humans built cities over elven ruins. The Nilfgaardian Empire rose to the south. By the time The Witcher’s story starts, many nonhumans in the Northern Kingdoms have assimilated into human society, although they live in ghettos and are treated as an underclass. Some nonhumans live in the wilds to avoid human control. Elves, dwarves, and halflings rebelling against the humans form the Scoia’tael guerrilla units, which commit violent acts of terrorism.

The Witcher’s setting (and the complicated conflict tearing it apart) recalls the fundamental history of Central and Eastern Europe. The part of Europe stretching from Germany’s eastern border to inner Russia was subject to migration and invasion from the West, the Middle East, and Asia, though the history of the area is incomplete and unclear. By the end of the 10th century, the area had hosted Slavs, Huns, the Turkic-speaking (but also multiethnic and multifaith) Khazar khaganate, Germanic Franks, Magyars, the Kievan Rus, and others.

Sapkowski grew up in a country aware of its history, and in turn, the story of The Witcher shares a deep connection with the past. The disputes between nonhumans and humans echo real-world disputes over territory and citizenship that draw dividing lines according to race, nationality, or ethnicity. This has happened in Poland often. But the fact of the matter is: Poland has a heritage of diversity stretching back to at least the Middle Ages.

The Kingdom of Poland was founded in 1025, but some historians believe its origins as a state date back to the Christianization of Poland and the baptism of Duke Mieszko I in 966. The Mongols crossed the Russian steppe from Central Asia, sacked Kyiv, and then raided Poland in the mid-13th century. In 1264, Duke Bolesław the Pious issued the Statute of Kalisz, granting special rights to Jews in the Greater Poland region as Western Christian states were persecuting them. His successors ratified and expanded the statute so it covered all of Poland. Muslim Tatars settled in the allied Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 14th century and have lived in Polish lands for centuries. Romani people (sometimes called “gypsies” by Europeans, although many now consider that term offensive) were documented in Poland in the 15th century.

freya allan as ciri walks through a forest camp Photo: Katalin Vermes/Netflix

The Witcher echoes the complexity of history

Despite Poland’s history of diversity, the decision to cast people of color in Netflix’s Witcher series attracted backlash online, especially after some opposed the notion that Geralt’s adopted daughter, Ciri, could be played by someone who isn’t white. (The production landed on British actress Freya Allan, who is white). The overall cast playing humans and nonhumans, however, is diverse. Showrunner Lauren S. Hissrich took a break from Twitter due to the internet controversy, but commented on her casting choices after her return.

“The books are Polish and packed with Slavic spirit,” she tweeted July 26. “It was important to keep that same tone in our show. [...] The Witcher is REALLY interesting when it comes to depicting racism because it’s about species, not skin color. What makes characters ‘other’ is the shape of their ears, height, etc. In the books, no one pays attention to skin color. In the series... no one does either. Period.”

The Northern Kingdoms of The Witcher’s Continent are also complicated societies where discrimination sits alongside grudging coexistence and occasional cooperation. Elven sages helped humans learn to control magic, before their relationship soured and erupted into violence. While interspecies romances play into the lore, Sapkowski illustrates some elves as being contemptuous of humans and those who assimilate with them. Some dwarves serve as bankers to humans or agents of human kings, but are put at risk for doing so and for not joining nonhuman rebellion. Nonhumans are stereotyped and targeted in propaganda. Attacks against nonhumans are frequent and referred to as pogroms, a Russian word used to describe mob violence targeting Jews and other ethnic groups in Central and Eastern Europe. Witchers, magically and chemically engineered mutants, were massacred by pogrom before the start of the series.

The ethnic tension that marks everyday life in the Northern Kingdoms seems heavily inspired by the history of ethnic relations in Poland, which has been fluid and complicated. In medieval Poland, Christian anti-Semitism led to outbreaks of violence against Jews. Jews enjoyed considerable religious freedom while inhabiting the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth formalized in 1569, but the development of Jewish communities in Poland led to some estrangement from Christians. As the Commonwealth waned, anti-Semitism worsened. The Romani people were stereotyped, discriminated against, ostracized, and persecuted throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and afterward. Poland adopted anti-Romani legislation in the 16th century, but there is evidence that some people ignored the rules. Some Romani settled in the Commonwealth and found employment as everything from farmers to craftspeople to horse dealers.

A game of thrones leads to genocide

War erupts frequently on The Continent. The Nilfgaardian conquest depicted in the Netflix series is only one of the conflicts the people of the Northern Kingdoms endure over the course of the saga (and throughout Sapkowski’s documented history). The individual kingdoms often fight among themselves. Northern rulers, and those seeking to usurp them, sometimes seek political alliances with Geralt due to his skills as a fighter and monster hunter. But Geralt is aware of the political corruption, oppression, and discrimination that’s rampant in the Northern Kingdoms, and refuses to let himself to participate by allying with a ruler.

Poland, likewise, is no stranger to war and oppression. Beginning in 1772 and through the rest of the 18th century, Russia, Prussia, and Austria invaded and absorbed the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth over the course of three partitions, robbing Poland of independence for 123 years. Poland regained its statehood in 1918, but its sovereignty didn’t last long: Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and occupied the western half of the country, casting the Polish government into exile. The Soviet Army crossed over into eastern Poland later the same month and occupied it. The division of Poland is believed by many to be the result of a secret clause of a nonaggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany. The Nazis established ghettos in which to confine Jews in their territory, and ran concentration camps and death camps including Auschwitz.

The Witcher’s nonhumans are often active and reactive victims. The elven and dwarven Scoia’tael oppose human rule through armed conflict and subterfuge. Some elves plot political schemes to secure elven rights or protect their heritage. Geralt is offered opportunities to help the rebels, but balks at the risk of being used for political reasons that could end in violence.

The desperate efforts the nonhumans in The Witcher make to fight oppression recall the drastic measures that oppressed people in the real world have sometimes taken to protect themselves. The Nazis weaponized millennia of ethnic and religious tension to justify the subjugation and mass murder of Jews, Romani people, and members of the LGBTQ community. But the targeted ethnic groups also fought back however they could, despite the potential for grave consequences. Jews in partisan units in Poland and Eastern Europe waged guerrilla skirmishes against the Nazis. Imprisoned Jews fought against deportation to the Nazi-run Treblinka death camp during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. When SS guards armed with machine guns came to transport residents of the “gypsy camp” at Auschwitz to gas chambers in May 1944, the Romani prisoners armed themselves with whatever they could find or weaponize to defend themselves. Their resistance forced the Nazis to delay the camp’s liquidation until August. Poles, whom Nazis considered inferior, revolted against the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

a man in armor swings a sword as his opponent Photo: Katalin Vermes/Netflix

Things get (even more) complicated

The Witcher books portray the Scoia’tael rebellion and the Northern Kingdoms’ resistance to Nilfgaard in shades of gray. Resistance and advocacy movements allow oppressed people to secure their rights and independence. But sometimes the movements can be corrupted or exploited.

In the second war, the Nilfgaardian Empire secretly supports the Scoia’tael rebellion and uses it to destabilize the Northern Kingdoms and pave the way for Nilfgaard’s invasion. Nilfgaard promises the return of the ancient elven territory of Dol Blathanna in the Northern Kingdoms to the elves as payment for cooperation. The rulers of the Northern Kingdoms exploit fear of a nonhuman uprising to support nationalism in their domains. In Blood of Elves, one king even uses unwitting nonhuman allies to bait Scoia’tael into a trap. Humans fear a non-human ruled Dol Blathanna could become a puppet state for Nilfgaard.

Ciri’s dwarven friend Yarpen Zigrin, who is loyal to a Northern king, questions the Scoia’tael’s motivations and tactics in Blood of Elves. He considers them misguided and is convinced they’re backed by Nilfgaard, before it’s confirmed as fact. A lot of people in Central and Eastern Europe espoused this type of skepticism as Communist parties rose to power there. The Allies’ defeat of the Nazis freed oppressed people from a genocidal regime, but exposed them to manipulation. As it fought the Nazis, the Moscow-centralized Soviet Union liberated Jews from Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. It absorbed Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and other territories over the course of World War II, and for decades afterward, it propped up the Communist governments that kept them as USSR member states until they won independence.

Socialist and Communist parties touting governments that would treat everyone equally rose to dominance in many Soviet-influenced satellite states like Poland and Czechoslovakia. Many were skeptical, and resisted the rising Communist parties. (Yugoslavia split from the Soviet Union and formed its own socialist system before ultimately breaking into separate states in the early 1990s.) In Blood of Elves, Yarpen Zigrin tells Ciri that most nonhumans don’t support the Scoia’tael, and prefer coexistence with humans to rebellion. And as the series progresses, some Scoia’tael question their alliance with Nilfgaard.

Cold War Communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe not only fell far short of realizing the egalitarian ideals they touted; they often resorted to repression. The ruling Communist party in Poland forced nomadic Romani to settle down into sedentary communities in 1964, but presented the effort as the extension of an assimilation campaign. During a complicated political crisis, the Communist regime in Poland purged masses of Jews from its ranks in 1968 and compelled the emigration of at least 13,000 Jews or Poles with Jewish ancestry from the state. NATO supported resistance groups and attempts to form independent democratic states around the world. The conflict between the USSR and NATO spawned the Cold War, which involved conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Nilfgaard’s use of the Scoia’tael to fight a war mirrors how rebellions were co-opted in the real world to fight proxy battles.

NATO’s victories led to the rise of new democratic governments and post-colonial states, but its campaigns also sometimes destabilized developing countries and created new political rifts within them. Ethnic relations deteriorated for some communities. In a turn where fiction once again mirrors reality, the war between Nilfgaard and the Northern Kingdoms reshapes the political landscape of The Continent, creates new political rifts, and worsens ethnic divisions in its wake.

Politics get ugly

Democratic, independent governments rose to power in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, and throughout Central and Eastern Europe, following the collapse of Communist regimes and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But the ethnic tensions of the past remain, just as pogroms and discrimination targeting nonhumans are a persistent threat throughout The Witcher’s timeline.

Sapkowski suggests these issues will outlast the conflicts that spawned them. Such appears to be the case in Eastern Europe. People within the region and without are concerned about an apparent resurgence in anti-Semitism as well as anti-Romani and anti-Muslim sentiment. A surge in nationalism has led to immigration crackdowns by conservative governments, along with xenophobia buoyed by historical fears of invasion and an out-of-control social media landscape that can be used to mask hostile political agendas like the propaganda used in The Witcher. The Polish government has also been accused of attempting to shape how people remember the Holocaust in Poland. These types of issues are not exclusive to this region. They’ve reared their heads around the world, including here in the U.S. Fear and hatred of otherness are persistent problems that tear The Witcher’s world apart, just as they threaten ours.

Adapting a book series that many fans consider to be a cherished example of Polish literature into a TV series for the world at large is a challenge that might give even Geralt pause. Polygon asked Hissrich how she stayed true to The Witcher’s Polish roots.

”Poland itself, historically, has been taken over by other countries and dominated by politics for so long, and that influenced people that live there and obviously that influenced Sapkowski,” Hissrich said. “The most important thing that I found is that there is a really sort of engaging and appealing aspect to a lot of the Polish people that I’ve met, and it’s their desire to keep moving on, and that’s something that I find is really great in these characters. Amidst tragedy, amidst some of the worst shit that’s happened in the world, the characters on our show continue putting one foot in front of another and continue walking through things.”

The so-called witcher’s code by which Geralt abides gives him an excuse to avoid getting involved in politics as the world crumbles around him. He refuses to formally ally with any political faction or kingdom; the witcher only hunts monsters for gold. He empathizes with the losses suffered by nonhumans at the hands of humans, but won’t join the Scoia’tael rebellion. He will take paid security guard jobs for rulers, but he won’t sign up for an army or commit a political assassination. He’s frequently criticized for his resistance, and his apolitical choices often have very real consequences.

But he’s also the type who would put himself at risk protecting nonhuman friends from a pogrom.

Freedom of speech is a powerful weapon. My grandparents later used theirs to lend testimonies to the documentation of the Holocaust in the hopes of preventing future genocide. The Witcher channels history to create action-packed drama that depicts war and its costs.

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