Although much has been made of the contrasting upbringings of Tom Riddle and Harry Potter by the Harry Potter community, very little analysis appears to have been put forth towards analyzing the differences between each character’s childhoods, with many fans focusing upon the similarities instead. The fact that they are each half-bloods, or that both characters grew up as orphans and despised their summer holidays away from Hogwarts, are things often pointed out by characters in the books and by fans around the world. But this leaves several fundamental questions unanswered, mainly the reason why Voldemort turned into what he did, as opposed to Harry. Although the question may not be possible to fully answer until after all seven books are complete, it is possible to infer that Voldemort’s early life was fraught with political and social tensions that could easily lead a powerful and talented young man down a dark path.
Tom Riddle first actively began his championship of the beliefs of Salazar Slytherin in the year 1942, with the first opening of the Chamber of Secrets. This places the developmental years of the Dark Lord’s life within the context of the Second World War. It also allows us to infer that Riddle in his very early years knew the bitter taste of extreme poverty, through the Great Depression. Harry, for all the difficulties he may have been fraught with as a child, could at least count on receiving daily meals, even if they were not as filling as a child his age would desire. Tom Riddle, growing up in a London orphanage, was not guaranteed even that small comfort.
In that London Muggle Orphanage, Riddle would also have witnessed many things that a boy his age should not have to witness. In the summer of 1940 (the summer before Riddle’s third year; as he was in fifth year when he first opened the Chamber), when he was around 12 or 13 years old, Riddle was living in a city subjected to Nazi aerial bombardment. At the very same age where Harry Potter was inflating his aunt and running away from home, Riddle would have had to listen for air raid sirens and run for cover. Further, the difficulties he was experiencing at the Orphanage would likely have been multiplied tenfold, due to the entire country being on war-footing.
Two years after this event, Riddle opened the gates of the Chamber of Secrets. At this point, the Western front of the war wasn’t particularly active. British and American forces were tangled with Rommel’s Nazi forces in North Africa and the Battle for the Atlantic was in full swing, but nothing was occurring which Riddle would have seen with his own two eyes. However, there was the matter of the Eastern Front. By this time, the infamous Operation Barabossa was around a year old and the Battle of Stalingrad was in full swing. Hitler’s so-called “great and proper task” of the wholesale annihilation of the Slavic peoples to the east to make room for his perfect Aryan race was at its critical moment. It would appear to be something more than a coincidence then that at this same moment, Rowling would have Riddle hatch his original plan to destroy what he perceives as the impurities within the wizarding race. The philosophy of Voldemort, which preaches that might makes right and that power goes beyond ideals of good and evil, is not very far away from the political conduct of Adolf Hitler. It can easily be argued that a young man like Riddle would admire that conduct, and see in Hitler’s madness a man casting away his boundaries and attempting to bring about his own personal ideals.
Riddle, after being forced to shut the Chamber until a later date, graduated from Hogwarts in June of 1944. Some time during that summer, he returned to Riddle House and murdered his father and grandparents. But what occurred after this is simply not gone into in any detail within the currently-released books. It is told that he disappeared and delved into the Dark Arts, but where he went and to whom he went to is not told. What is also unexplained is how Riddle managed to get away with the murders of three Muggles with magic without any sort of trouble. [The latter question was resolved in HBP – ed.] Both questions, however, can be answered if taken together. “Operation Cobra”, the assault which burst open Nazi defences in Western Europe, occurred on the 25th of July 1944 (D-Day had already occurred), and it can easily be said that before and after this operation, young men would’ve been flowing over the channel and onto the continent in droves. This presents Voldemort with an excellent opportunity to escape the gaze of the British Ministry of Magic, for he could simply move with the Muggle troops into France.
The question of where he went from there is also quite easy to offer conjecture upon. One of the very first things that Philosopher’s Stone reveals is that Albus Dumbledore is most famous for the defeat of the Dark wizard Grindelwald in the year 1945. It would seem somewhat frivolous for Rowling to include this specific date for no reason, and allows for some conjecture. Grindelwald, being a great Dark wizard in 1945, could only quite possibly belong to the darkest of nations of that time period, Nazi Germany. Whether he fulfilled a position as the Nazi-equivalent of the Minister of Magic, or something entirely different cannot be known. I would imagine that Hitler’s suicide towards the end of April would have coincided somewhat with the death of his Minister (if that is indeed what Grindelwald was), but whether it does or does not, Tom Riddle then had some 6 months to a year to seek out, discover and perhaps even be instructed by the Nazi Reichmage. Grindelwald could easily be the first step Riddle took towards becoming the great Lord Voldemort that would appear so many years later.
There are further similarities and connections one may find between the German führer and Riddle, but the crux of the matter is that these of the events that encircled the early life of Tom Riddle. The desperation of the Depression, the racial hostility of the 1930s and 40s and the resulting devastation of the war are all things that Harry Potter was never touched by, but which plagued Tom Riddle for every second of his existence. It is in upbringing that the true origins of the malevolence of the Dark Lord may be traced.
Artwork by J. Hauser with special thanks to Jason Felix.