48

When Darth Vader first becomes Palpatine's apprentice, very few know of his existence and connection to the Emperor: the members of the Trade Federation (whom he dispatches) and Yoda, Kenobi, Organa, and their associates are all that seem to know at the end of Episode III.

Ultimately, the Resistance would know about him as they would be fighting him, and Organa could have been able to inform them about his identity and the fact that he is a Force user. The military of the Empire would know of his existence, but even high-ranking members likely wouldn't know his past or identity. However, they would know about the fact that he is a Force user due to his tendency to use his "sorcerer's ways" to choke people.

So, how much would the general public have known about Vader? Would they have known him as just another military leader, or would they have known he was Palpatine's right-hand man? Would they have known about his ability to use the Force, and therefore the possibility that he was a Sith?

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+500

Restricting ourselves to canon, the novel Tarkin provides a nice list of rumors surrounding Vader:

It was that genuflecting obedience, the steadfast devotion to execute whatever task the Emperor assigned, that had given rise to so many rumors about Vader: that he was a counterpart to the Confederacy’s General Grievous the Emperor had been holding in reserve; that he was an augmented human or near-human who had been trained or had trained himself in the ancient dark arts of the Sith; that he was nothing more than a monster fashioned in some clandestine laboratory. Many believed that the Emperor’s willingness to grant so much authority to such a being heralded the shape of things to come, for it was beyond dispute that Vader was the Empire’s first terror weapon.

- p. 73

As you suspected, not many members of the Imperial military knew of Vader's past. The novel Tarkin also hints at this, as even the high-ranking Moff Tarkin did not know of Vader's past and could only harbor suspicions based on his past experience with Anakin:

Very early on in their partnership—soon after both had been introduced to the secret mobile battle station—Tarkin grew convinced that Vader knew him much better than he let on, and that behind the bulging lenses of his face mask, whatever remained of Vader’s human eyes regarded him with clear recognition. More than anything else it was those initial feelings that had provided Tarkin with his first suspicion as to Vader’s identity. Later, observing the rapport the Dark Lord shared with the stormtroopers who supported him, and the technique he displayed in wielding his crimson lightsaber, Tarkin grew more and more convinced that his suspicions were right. Vader might very well be Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker, whom Tarkin had fought beside during the Clone Wars, and for whom he had developed a grudging appreciation.

- p. 73

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    I didn't read the book. What's this "rapport the Dark Lord shared with the stormtroopers who supported him"? Is this an instance of Lord Vader being a friendly commander just like the good old Jedi? And what do you mean by support? – thegreatjedi Jan 22 '16 at 5:51
15

The military certainly knew of Vader, and many of them really liked him as a leader. It seems that "i'm gonna crush the life out of you" was reserved for career high ranking officers who sucked, or REMFs who were building mini empires at the expense of The Empire's success.

For how regular military saw Vader, see Erv Lekauf, who served Vader

"My granddad thought the world of him." ―Jori Lekauf, explaining his grandfather's opinion of Darth Vader to Ben Skywalker (src)

"What makes you loyal to Lord Vader?"
"With your permission, sir, it's because my lord never asks his men to do anything that he wouldn't do himself." ―Palpatine and Lekauf (src)


As far as knowledge of Anakin becoming Vader, that seemed to have NOT been public knowledge at all (Thanks to @Richard for linking to Leland Chee's small list of people who knew in Legends canon as of 2005).

In Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor (5 years ABY - After the Battle of Yavin, which is Star Wars way of counting years), the in-universe media propagate exaggerated and often false depictions of Luke's biography, so when Nick Rostu encounters Luke, there are a few misunderstandings that have to be cleared up. This scene hints that nobody seemed to know that Darth Vader was Anakin Skywalker, and that Anakin was the last heroic line of defense at the Jedi Temple as Vader and the 501st exterminated the Jedi.

  • I don't think Erv Lekauf's devotion to Vader is indicative of the attitudes of the whole. In fact, the Wookiepedia article on him states that Vader was surprised at Lekauf's loyalty, stating it was something he rarely saw in his subordinates. Your average Stormtrooper would be more fearful of failing Vader than willing to serve him; fear was after all the order of the day of the Empire, fro the top down. – KeithS Feb 24 '12 at 0:20
  • Leland Chee seems to think otherwise. The number of characters in canon that know that Vader = Anakin Skywalker seems to be vanishingly small; web.archive.org/web/20080719231916/http://blogs.starwars.com/… – Valorum Dec 9 '14 at 18:14
  • @Richard - "otherwise"? a couple of people certainly fits my characterization of "not public knowledge" – DVK-on-Ahch-To Dec 9 '14 at 19:49
  • I was more referring to a blanket "the military knew". It seems that only a very small and select number of people know. – Valorum Dec 9 '14 at 19:51
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    “… hints that nobody seemed to know that Darth Vader was Anakin Skywalker, and that Anakin was the last heroic line of defense …”: Missing “everyone seemed to believe” before the second that? – chirlu Oct 8 '15 at 18:00
8

I recall from "Shadows of the Empire" that the Falleen, Xizor had a vendetta against Vader and went to extreme lenghts to prove that he was a better servant of the Emperor. A bit of research on Wookiepedia notes that Xizor, "had influence on a par with Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader," which would indicate that Vader was at least "very influential." There is also a reference to Vader's Palace which would indicate that Vader was extremely wealthy, and had a visible public persona.

None of these states definitively what the public knew, but from these two references, it seems clear that he was wealthy and a public figure, but possibly not one who enjoyed the spotlight.

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    FYI: Wookiepedia is not always accurate, especially when it makes vague statements like "had influence on a par with Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader" with no quotes to back them up. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jun 13 '13 at 16:08
  • DVK: are you referring to the same wookiepedia that your answer sources? – Sam Jun 17 '13 at 15:19
  • if you have a careful look, my answer sources actual canon quotes, from specific places in canon. That's the whole point - Wookiepedia (like any Wiki) is only as good/correct/authoritative as its cites. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jun 17 '13 at 15:20
  • Wookiepedia is only quoted because it summarized what I was attempting to convey from SoE - and because I read it 10+ years ago. – Sam Jun 17 '13 at 16:04
5

Understand that between the time Anakin pledges his life to Darth Sidious, and when he resurfaces into the "public" eye as Darth Vader behind the mask and suit, very few people see him and live. The Jedi in the temple are wiped out. The Seperatist leaders are eradicated. The only ones I can think of who have seen Anakin between his fall and his transformation and aren't shown to be dead by the end of Ep III are Obi-Wan, Palpatine's personal guard, and a few clone troopers. The latter two categories are expendable if necessary. The medical droids that worked on him can easily have their memories reset. Yoda knows what happened to Anakin, but only ever sees Anakin in a recorded security hologram exterminating the Jedi and younglings in the Temple.

Also, keep in mind that the people to whom the secret of Vader's past is most important to keep are the Jedi, not the Empire. Luke cannot know Vader was Anakin until he is ready to know this. Luke uses the Skywalker name growing up; on Tattoine at least, that's not incredibly dangerous, as Shmi Skywalker was known to be Cleeg Lars' wife, and a slave before that; who knows who Watto made her shack up with to pay or buy someone off? But, if he had heard, or grew up knowing, that Vader's true name is Anakin Skywalker, one of two things would happen; he would either disavow the Force altogether, knowing what it did to his father, or he would seek his father out before he was ready. Frankly speaking, being as naive as he was he might have started asking questions about the Skywalker name that would work their way back to the Emperor, putting Luke in serious danger long before he ever hooks up with the Rebels.

By contrast, it's merely somewhat convenient that Vader's backstory isn't more public in-universe; if the galaxy knew that one of the most feared figures at the Emperor's right hand was Anakin Skywalker, formerly one of the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy, it would only heighten the fear surrounding Vader. As it is, having people not know he was even human can be useful for the same end, so it's merely never mentioned.

1

The only thing that confuses me is the conflict in the cannon novelizations. In the shadow of mindor it is hinted, via lukes interaction with former old republic trooper who was made into a puppet, that anakin was generally believed dead by the public at the end of the old republic era. And during that novel as well as in The Truce at Bakkura Leia and Luke hint that it is not the time to make it known that they are the children of Darth Vader. Presumably, if people knew Vader was originally a Skywalker they could very easily connect Luke to Anakin (i mean that would be a hella big coincidence to overlook for anyone who had knowledge of both Anakin's and Luke's name).

The confusion arrises for me in Tatooine Ghost when Anakins holocube is up for auction Mwabo offers the imperial officer to bid on it. This is the offer and han's subsequent reaction:

"She looked first to the Imperial commander in the front row. “How about you, sir? Young Anakin went on to make quite a career for himself.” Han was not surprised when the commander waved her off with a curt gesture. The officer was old enough to have served in the Imperial Navy during the height of Darth Vader’s power, and the only people with more reason than the Rebels to fear Vader were the officers who served under him".(Tatooine Ghost, pg 55).

So it could be a timing of the revelation issues or an issue of where one was during vaders reign. But this just seems to muddy the clarityof the answer I thought was true: that vaders identity was known by only a select few.

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