The Unhuman Wars are, in my opinion, some of the most interesting and sophisticated story elements ever to come out of D&D. That’s because they are allegories for historical events. One of the most significant allegories is the comparison between them and our World Wars.
World War One was referred to as “The Great War,” or “the War to End All Wars.” It was regarded by those who signed up to participate as a great adventure and an opportunity to see the world. It seems to me that the elves who volunteered to join the Imperial Elven Navy must not have been dissimilar from the members of the Commonwealth Countries who signed up for the Great War. In their view, goblinoids were dangerous, evil, unrelenting enemies who absolutely had to be defeated; and thus, the goblinoids were all dragged into the conflict, much as most of Europe was dragged through alliances and necessity into the conflict of the First World War. Similarly, the elves began to drag their allies into the War as well, most notably humans but also gnomes, dwarves, hadozee, and giff mercenaries.
Initially there wasn’t a lot of internal debate about the morality of the situation. But as the war progressed, both sides became increasingly willing to do terrible things, and the body count mounted. The science of World War I led to the widespread usage of chemical warfare, artillery, tanks, and U-boats. The arcanology of the First Unhuman War led to the usage of spirit warriors, bionoids, witchlight marauders, and plagues created by priests of disease-deities (most notably Yurtrus).
In many ways, the comparison between the Unhuman Wars and the World Wars is obvious. We have two of them. The second one happens about an elven generation after the first. They happen on a massive, universal scale. There is significant development in arcanology, and quickly, and I get the strong suspicion that things get far more deadly much more quickly than either side anticipates.
World War II was a different sort of war from the First World War. The war came to the civilians, as opposed to remaining mostly in a specific place you had to go to in order to fight. The soldiers were a grimmer, more cynical lot, having been exposed to the terrible stories of their parents about the so-called “Great War.” The term “genocide” entered our lexicon as one race sought the complete extermination of another. And the use of technology in horrible ways, though somewhat mitigated by the lessons learned in the First World War, culminated in the use of the atomic bomb for the first time in a tactical situation. In this case there is some overlap; the First Unhuman War culminated in the destruction of Borka (and other worlds) through elven magic (presumably High Magic); this, to me, precisely echoes the conditions under which Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed by the United States.
There are more subtle comparisons also. The Imperial Elven Navy has much in common with the British Royal Navy, both in terms of implied structure and in culture, general behaviour, tactics and attitude. At the turn of the twentieth century, the British Empire ruled the world; before the Unhuman Wars broke out, the Elven Imperial Navy ruled Known Space. Racism was an integral part of British culture; in the wake of the highly successful reign of Queen Victoria, British subjects genuinely believed that they were the height of civilization and of a superior race, and they had a duty to civilize the “savages”; just as the elves of the Imperial Navy do.
Comparisons between the rise of Dukagsh and the rise of Hitler have been made before, but I think it bears repeating. Dukagsh, like Hitler, would not have done so well among the scro were it not for the horrible conditions and persecutions created by their enemies; in this case, the elves. Similarly, punitive and disastrous war reparations levied on Germany in the wake of the First World War is historically agreed upon as a significant contributing factor to the rise of the National Socialist Party in Germany in the 1930s.) It is my opinion that the scro can be seen roughly as an amalgamation of the Axis forces of World War II; they are racial purists and right-wing socialists like Nazi Germany, militaristic like the Empire of Japan, and in most other ways behave much like Italian fascists. It has been observed that there is also a similarity between the Scro and Stalinist communism, but I believe this to be a surface resemblance, rooted more in the apparent similarity of Prussian socialism to Stalinist communism than an intentional comparison; and that may largely be driven by the fact that Stalinist communism is more familiar to the original Spelljammer fan base, who grew up during the Cold War. Indeed, the writers of Spelljammer are absolutely blatant in pointing out the revanchist motivations of the Scro behind the launch of the Second Unhuman War.
In that respect, the Elven Imperial Navy can be seen as an amalgamation of the Allies of World War II – most significantly the British (and Commonwealth), the French, the Chinese and the Americans – who all claimed to idealize freedom and liberty, but who all had (and still have) Imperialist/Colonial sentiments.
Numerous events and battles also suggest the comparison to the World Wars. The destruction of Borka I have already mentioned. Adapted to a fantasy space setting, the Siege of Lurienia looks a lot like the tactical situation of the Battle of the Bulge. Just as the latter resulted in Allied forces being pinned down in what was actually a valuable tactical point, and subjected to a long and brutal siege, the elves under the command of Admiral Leafbower found themselves similarly pinned down in a strange spot that, through the vicissitudes of war, had become a valuable tactical point, and forced to defend it in an extended siege under horrible conditions. And the circumstances of the Borka Maneuver resembles the Battle of Britain in many ways.
Also, there is a similarity in the development of technology and arcanology. A culture that is capable of producing a Scro Mantis would require a rapid industrialization similar to that of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. And one could see the advent of accelerators in 3rd edition as the result of Second Unhuman War elven arcanology, similar to the development of the howitzer prior to WWI.
There is one other significant element of the Unhuman Wars that resembles the World Wars, and that is the long-term implication for politics. While the Scro, like the Nazis, were unsuccessful in establishing their Empire, for the elves the cost of fighting them, as for the British, resulted in the shattering of their empire and their reign of the sea (of night), leaving a gap that, perhaps, some new Imperial power would come to fill.
Dungeon Masters can find inspiration in these comparisons in looking to flesh out their post-Unhuman War universe, by looking to the rituals and customs, politics and cultural changes, that developed in the wake of the World Wars for ideas.
By Sable Aradia