Which is better? Doing something horrible for the greater good and succeeding? Or following a more morale path and failing?
Of all the characters in Attack on Titan, Erwin is arguably the most complex. At first glance, he seems like a noble man. The leader of the heroic Survey Corps, whose sole mission it is to defeat the titans and expand humanity’s territory. He’s shown to be a genius, who’s razor-sharp mind has helped turn the tides of war in a new direction.
But as time went on, we learned that he was hardly a saint. Erwin willingly sent men to die by the hundreds in order to achieve a goal. When they were being pursued by the Female Titan, Erwin willingly let several soldiers die in ignorance to lure her into a trap. Then later, he willingly lets her and Eren run wild in the middle of the city, slaughtering hundreds of innocent people. And that’s not even mentioning what he did in seasons two and three.
Simply put, the man wasn’t a moral man. But the question is: was he a good man? Was the man who became a devil the man who made the hard decisions that no one else would? Or was he a monster?
Well, that ultimately boils down to motive. Kind of.
First, let’s ask an important question: why? Why did Erwin become the leader of the Survey Corps? What was the reason for him to throw away so many lives?
Simple. When he was a boy, he asked his father, a teacher, a simple question: how do we know there are no people beyond the walls? A question that would ultimately result in his father’s death. Which, instead of driving the boy away from the question, only pushed him further towards it. To the point where he became a monster who could end whatever life he felt that he needed to.
That’s right! He fed hundreds of his loyal soldiers to titans all because of a childhood curiosity! Hardly the most selfless of motivations in the world.
Naturally, when he found out about Eren’s basement, he placed all of his bets on it. He shifts the focus of the entire Survey Corps towards this one carrot at the end of a stick. Did he know for sure that anything important would be in there? No. But it was a possibility. Which, to Erwin, was enough reason to give up life in pursuit of it.
But then season three happens. And so does the Beast Titan.
Suddenly, Erwin is trapped in a box. No matter what move he makes, he’s a dead man. Right when the basement is within his reach, he’s suddenly been faced with a situation that he simply cannot escape from.
So, he has to make a choice. Lead his men one last time in a gambled attempt to kill the Beast Titan and improve humanity’s position in the battle? Or find some way for himself to escape so that he can reach the basement and find the answers he wants?
This is where Erwin’s morality is solidified. Because he chooses the former. He chooses to give up on his dream and die while fighting for humanity. The devil gave up his personal ambitions for the sake of his people.
Does this make Erwin a hero? Well, it’s not that simple. He is called a devil for a reason. Even if he gave his life for the greater good in the end, and his actions definitely helped push humanity forward (most of the time), he still acted mostly out of his own self interest for the majority of the story. He did what he had to do for the greater good, but not for selfless reasons.
That’s what makes him the perfect encapsulation of the themes of the story. Is Erwin a hero? Or a monster? Well, both. And neither at all. He’s just a man doing what he feels he has to in order to achieve his goals. Goals that are steeped in moral complexity that makes him very human and very compelling.
Is it weird that I’d follow him to my death anyways? That’s weird, right?