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At the end of Return of the Jedi, the Rebels destroy the second Death Star, and Darth Vader kills the Emperor.

Given the apparently immediate celebrations on multiple planets, it seems like the galaxy has been freed from Imperial rule.

In The Force Awakens, it seems like the Republic is back in command of the galaxy, given the speech made by the First Order’s lieutenant about them.

But despite this the First Order apparently has enough resources to both forcibly take children from their parents and train them as Stormtroopers, and in relative secrecy build a Starkiller weapon far bigger than the Death Star, that quickly destroys what I assume is the home planet of the Republic.

I realise we may have to wait for future films to understand how the galaxy got here, but in case there are any other sources, what is the deal? How was the First Order able to do all this?

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    Looks to me like they sold concert tickets. – Dronz Dec 31 '15 at 19:10
  • It isn't unlikely that the remaining Imperial fleet could have banded together and fled into the Unknown Regions. There, they would have still had an impressive naval capability to dominate local powers or perform lots of "kidnap and run" operations. Since the Unknown Regions appears to have been "unmapped" by traders, people living there may have been primitive or not had space travel capabilities. – user339676 Jan 5 '16 at 1:21
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    post many of these answers - the new canon book "Bloodline" has been released and establishes the initial circumstances and instigators of the First Order post RoTJ – NKCampbell Oct 19 '16 at 15:56
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There are various newly-published literature that tell us some of what happened after that, Aftermath and Lost Stars among them. The key to your answer lies in the Galactic Concordance.

The Galactic Concordance is the peace treaty signed between the Galactic Empire and the New Republic soon after the Battle of Jakku. At the Battle of Jakku, the Galactic Empire attempted to take revenge on the Rebellion - now self-proclaimed as the New Republic - and crush them once and for all, but the odds were turned and the bulk of the Imperial Navy were exterminated in that one battle.

Without a means to continue the war strategically (it's like the USA losing all but a couple aircraft carriers in the middle of a war with the USSR), the Empire sued for peace in an effective surrender. Key terms of the treaty relevant to this question are as follows.

Clauses that suggest they aren't seeking the Empire's immediate dissolution and are willing to tolerate continued existence:

  • Coruscant shall be relinquished to the Republic (no other named worlds or systems are mentioned)
  • Imperial forces shall stay within the borders defined by the treaty
  • There was also a clause on trade that gave the Republic the upper hand or dominating influence on Imperial trade policy, probably to further the Republic's goal to restore galactic trade to pre-Empire levels while avoiding all the mess that plagued the last years of the Galactic Republic

Clauses that demonstrate their true priority - reducing the Galactic Empire's military threat potential with minimal non-military side effects:

  • All Imperial military academies shall cease operations
  • The Imperial Stormtrooper Corps shall disband
  • The Galactic Empire is banned from operating new and current capital ships to immediate effect

The article on the treaty ends by mentioning that an Imperial fleet jumped off after the treaty was signed for the Unknown Regions (Starkiller Base is later known to be at the edge of the Unknown Regions according to a galactic map in the visual dictionary).

The key points to be drawn from the above (some to correct a few points in your question that I think are incorrect) are that:

  • Parts of the galaxy are still under Imperial rule by treaty
  • The First Order's actions are a violation of the treaty

The above answers one part of "how the galaxy got here" — how did we get from RotJ to TFA, excluding the First Order for now?

The next part - addressing the First Order's rise - is as far as I know still speculatory at this point because of the following questions with no documented answer to date:

  • The Galactic Empire appeared to have fractured into factions after the treaty. By TFA, is the First Order one of those factions or have they "won"? After all, it had never truly been mentioned or implied that the Galactic Empire has officially ceased to be.
  • Is the First Order even one of the warring factions to begin with? This is a new scenario I just thought of after reading the article on the treaty - can the First Order possibly be a splinter faction formed by those who refused to recognize the treaty three decades ago, founded by those who jumped into the Unknown Regions back then, and whose territory may thus be established in the Unknown Regions as opposed to the known galaxy? (Therefore mirroring Legends in the form of Thrawn's Empire)

This is what we know so far about what happened since RotJ. We generally know how the New Republic got to where it is today, but not the same for the First Order. Whether there are other "Imperial remnants", we also do not know, or if the First Order is distinct from any still-existing Galactic Empire.

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    Adding on, new content that came to my awareness since this answer was posted informed me on the following: The majority of the Empire's surviving military jumped to the Unknown Regions, and they are the founders of the First Order. The details of the remnants of the Empire in the known galaxy is unknown. Whether those remnants are in contact with or submit to the FO is unknown, though there are members of the Republic colluding with the FO. As of the start of TFA, the Republic is in a cold war with the FO. That's the new info on the First Order's history. – thegreatjedi Jan 8 '16 at 7:22
  • As for exactly how much access to resources they have, I still do not know. It appears Snoke is an ancient dude (whether he predates the Galactic Republic is still speculated), so I would guess they encountered him in the Unknown Regions or he telepathically lured the Imperial military survivors to him. Either way, I would draw parallels to the Legends story of Grand Admiral Thrawn's empire in the Unknown Regions. There could be an Imperial presence established there in those two decades of unchallenged Imperialism the Rebellion/Republic do not know of. – thegreatjedi Jan 8 '16 at 7:25
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    Was the Empire allowed to retain any military? Sounds a lot like Versailles after WWI – JDSweetBeat Mar 16 '16 at 19:14
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    In a way, it's like Versailles, and I wouldn't be surprised inspiration is drawn there, given the Empire and First Order's Nazi inspiration. – thegreatjedi Mar 18 '16 at 11:14
  • @DJMethaneMan Back to your question, I'm of the impression they stopped short of full demilitarisation. What they did is prohibit further Imperial use of Stormtroopers, Star Destroyers and Imperial Academies. I'm of the opinion the goal is not to weaken the Empire militarily - most of the Imperial Navy was destroyed at Jakku which was what prompted the surrender - but to execute a public gesture of dismantling the most prominent symbols of the New Order. Very politically beneficial for the fledgling New Republic, as vanquished and vanquisher. – thegreatjedi Mar 18 '16 at 11:21
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This is a pretty easy answer to be honest and it doesn't need a "canon" answer. The empire and the structure of the empire still exist. All that was necessary was for someone to step in and take command of the existing structure and infrastructure of the empire.

For a fairly recent real world example, take ISIS or instance. Each city they took over, they just simply took command of the everything that was already there.

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    Why is this down voted? Good analogy. There's a power vacuum, someone seizes control of assets/resources, and becomes a force of power. – Reisclef Dec 19 '15 at 18:24
  • I think the analogy is an extremely good one. In Iraq, after Saddam Hussein's government was deposed, many former Baath party members and members of Hussein's military joined al-Qaeda in Iraq, and then, years later, joined ISIS. Reports today state that many former members of the Baath government are major figures in ISIS. ISIS is a paramilitary organization that can behave like a government because it has the officials of a former government among its members. – recognizer Dec 19 '15 at 23:10
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    I don't know. There were celebrations all over the galaxy in Episode VI, and they had killed the most powerful rulers in the Empire. The Rebels seriously slacked if, when having the upper hand, let them build up something even bigger than the Death Star that was allowed to become functional. – spacetyper Dec 20 '15 at 6:47
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    @Reisclef: I think because we tend to look for supporting evidence and arguments from the fictional works themselves, not analogies to real life (because we’re not asking questions about real life). – Paul D. Waite Dec 20 '15 at 12:54
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    @spacetyper The Emperor, his right-hand man, and their closest advisors were gone, sure, but regional governors were still in control of their systems (as mentioned in Episode IV), and there were still countless moffs and probably grand moffs, not to mention large portions of the Imperial Fleet still operational. There no doubt was some form of succession established (at least for the military), so the highest ranking members assumed/struggled for control, most likely. – TylerH Dec 20 '15 at 18:41
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I don't think a canon answer exists yet, but it seemed fairly apparent to me that the Emperor's death left a power vacuum in the galaxy. Much of that was taken and occupied by the newly formed Republic, who had the military momentum, but plenty of systems were still under control of Imperial forces. Those Imperial forces reorganized into the First Order.

  • If the Republic had the military momentum, why are they still portrayed as the underdogs? The film seems to imply that the best the 'Republic Fleet' can muster is a couple-dozen X-wing fighters, while the First Order is still cruising around in Star Destroyers replete with full complements of troop transports, building Starkiller Bases, and fielding seemingly endless numbers of tie-fighters. It's like the Republic failed to pick up anything at all from the power-vacuum. – aroth Dec 21 '15 at 4:35
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    @aroth The "underdog" in TFA is the Resistance, not the Republic. The Republic sponsors and supports the Resistance, but the Republic fleet is decimated by the Starkiller Base attack on the Hosnian system. That leaves only the nearby Resistance fleet to take on Starkiller Base. We don't know if that's the only Resistance fleet in the galaxy or simply the nearest one. – Fatbird3 Dec 21 '15 at 21:03
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To add to the existing answers:

The imperial forces were a huge military organisation comprising bazillion soldiers (plus equipment) that existed for twenty-six years. It is very well possible that many soldiers were in this army from Episodes II through VI. Given the totalitarian style of the Galactic Empire, the fact that most of these times are spent in war, and so on, I find it conceivable that for most soldiers, the army was their life.

Thus, when the emperor was killed in Episode VI, they couldn’t just tell this army: “go home; the war is over”. Most soldiers had nowhere to go, were not facing attractive employment, were facing being confronted with supporting the losing side, and so on. So, it’s very likely that they wouldn’t just put up a fight becase some superiors forced them to or news hadn’t reached them, but because it was the best option for them on the long run.

Thus, it makes sense to me that the imperial forces reorganised themselves under the leadership of whoever was sufficiently charismatic, powerful and experienced and continued to exist. This continuation may be the First Order or its predecessor.

0

I'm going with the logical answer. There are countless members of the old empire. There are numerous criminal factions who also prospered under the empire. Rebellion kills emperor and destroys death star, doesn't mean you just win and everyone lives happily ever after. There may or may not have been skirmishes/battles after RoTJ, but sooner or later, those in command/power must have realized they needed to regroup and reorganize, or else they would be eventually wiped out. I haven't read ANY of the new "Canon"(lol so stupid) material, but I do know that those who have strong ideals, will never give them up. Much like obi-wan, yoda, and bail organa, empire leaders had to go into hiding until they had enough power to mount a real assault.

  • “Cannon” — I think it’s “canon”. – Paul D. Waite Oct 19 '16 at 15:08

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