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Empire with a Dark Secret

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Hey, guess what? Your entire civilization lives on a lie. It might be a secular version of a Path of Inspiration, or maybe no one in the world has ever realized that the Applied Phlebotinum powering your homes and healing your sick is actually Powered by a Forsaken Child - but in any case, Utopia Justifies the Means, right?

The publication of this verboten knowledge by an Intrepid Reporter might spell doom for all civilized society, incite universal rebellion, or simply make you Go Mad from the Revelation.

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So be good and don't delve any further.

At a smaller scale, see Town with a Dark Secret. A subtrope of False Utopia.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Fullmetal Alchemist has an incredibly sinister government conspiracy that goes all the way back to the destruction of the ancient city of Xerxes.
  • The Union in Str.A.In.: Strategic Armored Infantry, although the Black Box of their evil research was so secret that, five hundred years later, no one in the military had any idea where exactly Strains and Mimics came from. No one except the Defector from Decadence, that is. And they wonder why he snaps and starts trying to kill them.
  • Giant Robo: The Day The Earth Stood Still:
    • The miraculous Shizuma Drive, which ushers in the Third Energy Revolution and a new golden age for all mankind. Trouble is the first, hasty test of the Shizuma Drive wipes out an entire country in the Tragedy of Bashtarle, killing uncounted millions of people
    • The revered Dr. Shizuma who is credited with the drive actually caused the destruction of Bashtarille by performing the final experiment against the advice and counsel of Dr. Franken Von Vogler, who was presumed lost in the accident — and who was blamed for the disaster. This comes back to bite EVERYONE on the ass.
  • One Piece:
    • The Lost One Hundred Years, also known as the "Void Century", is kept secret by the paranoid World Government. Any attempt to learn the lost language to decipher the secrets of the poneglyphs left behind by the long-forgotten civilization (i.e. something close to OUR civilization) that preceded the World Government will result in the immediate death of the researcher and anyone remotely connected with them as well as the obliteration of their research to the point of bombing an entire island into rubble! They destroyed an island for the crime of learning the language that could be used to read ancient texts that might possibly lead them to the truth of what happened during that time period.
    • The World Government was founded on the idea that all rulers are equal and that there is no one ruler of the world. This is symbolized by the "Empty Throne" located in Pangea Castle, in the holy city of Mariejois, the capital of the World Government. It is a throne that is surrounded by blades, each representing a monarch and their vow to never seek dominion over each other or the world, a throne that no one, not even the Celestial Dragons, are allowed to sit upon. At the start of the Reverie, each attending monarch is required to renew their vow as a show of good faith, so they may discuss world affairs in peace. This idea is further strengthened by the fact that the highest authority in the world is a council called the Five Elder Stars, enforcing the idea that there is no one king that rules above the World Nobles and thus the world itself. The Reverie Arc swiftly introduces all these ideas — and reveals that they are all lies. In truth, there is someone who sits upon the Empty Throne and rules the world from the shadows; a mysterious figure called Im, who the Elder Stars bow their heads towards and serve. Needless to say, if this were to ever get out, the public would not take it well.
  • SEELE in Neon Genesis Evangelion is running a thousand-year old Ancient Conspiracy. Not only have they influenced humanity's advancement towards their Assimilation Plot but part of this influence was intentionally causing a global catastrophe (the awakening of Adam in the Antarctic which led to the melting of the polar ice caps and global sea levels rising and destroying all coastal settlements, this plus the resulting wars ending with a death toll of three billion) but covering it up as an asteroid impact. Oh, and the Captured Super-Entity they worship and want to use for said Assimilation Plot? A sentient terraforming device of alien origin (although they might not realize it themselves, the "sacred" Dead Sea Scrolls are actually an instruction manual misinterpreted as religious text). And the kicker: not only the Assimilation Plot will be what is essentially The End of the World as We Know It, SEELE's leadership of humanity from behind the scenes subtly influenced society in such a way that no one is 100% sane anymore and global birth rates are dropping rapidly so either they successfully pull out Instrumentality or humanity will die out in a few generations. Another dark secret might be what the Evangelions actually are.

    Fan Works 
  • There's more than one Hetalia: Axis Powers fic that posits the existence of the Nations themselves as this trope. Depending on how dark the story is, it usually results in mass chaos and What Measure Is a Non-Human? scenarios.
  • In The Lord of the Rings fanfic Heart of the Mountain, the mountain kingdom of Erebor is this. The protagonists were not in on the secret and are horrified when they find out.
  • Dungeon Keeper Ami: With the Shining Concord Empire and their Oracle Towers being similar to a structure that a villain used for evil ends:
    • Ami suspected this after learning that in all major government buildings there was an Oracle Tower - a structure that closely resembles the temple Zarekos was using in his bid to become a god.
    • The Light Gods have jossed the theory that the idea that the towers are evil in their own right or that they have been used for evil purposes by the SCE, but they refuse to explain their original purpose in Mercury's hearing, for fear of giving her any ideas.
  • In the Invader Zim fanfic RebelZ, Tak discovers that the Control Brains which run the Irken Empire are extensions of an Eldritch Abomination which feeds on their obedience to it, and occasionally engineers massive disasters to kill Irkens as a "blood toll" in exchange for it continuing to give the Empire gifts like cybernetic advancements and victorious planetary conquests. Furthermore, it turns out that it's done this before, to at least one other species that it eventually made drive themselves to extinction via the blood tolls.

    Films — Animation 
  • The Prince of Egypt. While he acknowledges that slavery exists, Moses freaks when he finds out that his adoptive father was responsible for mass murder of Hebrew babies.
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    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Alliance from Serenity had buried the fact that some time ago, they had accidentally killed 99.9% of the population of Miranda with a chemical meant to calm their violent urges, and turned the rest into the horrifically violent cannibal monsters that would become known to the rest of the Verse as the Reavers.
  • In the Alternate History film, Fatherland, where Nazi Germany won World War II, a few people begin to investigate the various "undesirable" populations who mysteriously disappeared. Of course this means they uncover the Final Solution's death camps.
  • In Men in Black, it's revealed that not only do aliens live among us, but most modern inventions were actually gifts from alien civilizations, not human creations. Earth is repeatedly in cosmic peril and almost everyone on Earth remains in blissful ignorance.
    K: There's always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet, and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they Do. Not. Know about it.
  • As Obviously Evil as The Empire of Star Wars is, the public are largely unaware that their Emperor is actually a Sith Lord who engineered the Clone Wars because Despotism Justifies the Means.
  • This turns out to be the case in Thor: Ragnarok. Thor and Loki both were raised to believe Odin was the benevolent but omnipotent All-Father, beloved and kind leader of the nine realms. Hela reveals that it's all a facade and Odin rose to power by the genocidal murder of anyone in his path. It wasn't until his kingdom was assured and unquestioned that he locked Hela away and began to build the false legacy of peace that existed in present day Asgard.

    Literature 
  • The Wheel of Time has two.
    • The Seanchan Empire can attribute its thousand-year history of prosperous expansion to enslaving feared and persecuted magic channelers as children, effectively making them extremely powerful, living tools that can be assigned and taken away by the higher-ups. No one realizes that the Phlebotinum for control only works when the controller has hidden potential to become a channeler. Controllers who learn this go into a pretty crippling state of denial in most cases, if not begging to be made slaves themselves.
    • Likewise with the Aiel, which is a society made up entirely of Proud Warrior Race Guy practicing Honor Before Reason. It devastates them to learn that their ancestors were originally pacifists who turned away from their beliefs and failed in their mission to help the Aes Sedai in their task of transporting artifacts to safety. Once this is revealed to the general populace, about one in three are taken by "the bleakness": putting down their weapons and just walking off into the desert. Another faction, the Shaido, take up arms against the one who told them this, Rand al'Thor, in denial.
  • In Scott Westerfeld's Succession series, the Risen Empire (a collection of 80 inhabited planets) is ruled by the Risen Emperor, who invented immortality in the form of a symbiote that attaches to corpses and brings them back to life. Of course, it turns out that this only works for 500 years or so, instead of true immortality. Needless to say, things get ugly.
  • Scott Westerfield likes this Trope. The society in Uglies relies on the government performing operations on everyone that cripple their ability to think independently, and it's enforced by Super Soldiers.
  • There's also the Humans in Zhan's The Conquerors Trilogy, who are widely feared for having a superweapon capable of irradiating entire fleets. It turned out to be based on a well-spun accident involving a solar flare.
  • The Colonial Defense Forces in John Scalzi's Old Man's War has vat-grown supersoldiers where the basic DNA used as a template comes from volunteers who die before they can have their consciousness transferred to one of the normal engineered bodies, which they use as special ops forces.
  • Borogravia in Monstrous Regiment. Turns out the Duchess who supposedly runs the country has been dead for years, their patron deity Nuggan has dwindled to nothing due to lack of belief, and approximately a third of the top military leaders, if not the entire army, is composed of women disguised as men.
  • The Familiars: The entire history and queendom of Vastia is built on a lie: that humans are the only true mages. At one point all species lived in equality, but humans invaded, took over, forced the animals to give up any magic other than their own innate talents, and reduced them from full citizens to mere familiars before rewriting history so that all of the animals' major accomplishments were credited to humans and save for a few groups the animals themselves forgot that it should be otherwise.
  • Nazi Germany in the book Fatherland. Unlike the film, the book leaves it very ambiguous whether the Dark Secret actually gets revealed.
  • The Human Empire from Yulia Latynina's Inhuman is bloated and evil; a great deal of this is explicit, but corruption often turns out to run even deeper than initially thought. Better yet, a veteran of its foundation eventually explained to his great grand-son, one of the protagonists, that it used to be less corrupt and more monstrously evil back then, because that really was the only way to save humanity from the intelligent, rapidly-breeding, rapidly-growing, omnivorous Ttakas. That biological weapons were used is public knowledge; that the The Virus behind the rampant Assassins in Space-like terrorist organisation was originally created in the First Emperor's labs ran by the aforementioned veterans in order to brainwash human super soldiers into fighting with the reckless abandon required, along with some lesser things, is not quite as well known.
  • This is very nearly the entire story of Ursula K. Le Guin's tale The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Basically, it goes like this: she starts out describing a utopia. Then she decides that the readers won't believe in it, and starts trying to add things to change that... but none of them work until she settles on all the happiness and inspiration in the society relying on one horribly abused child. Right around then is when it solidifies into a little crystal of horror.
  • Pretty much the entire point of the Green-Sky Trilogy by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, where the secret is that children were not taught about Earth's historical capacity for violence, the knowledge being kept by a select few, and anyone who disagreed with this policy got trapped below ground.
  • In The Obsidian Trilogy, Armethalieh's mages get their magic from farming it from talismans they force the population to wear and exchange on a monthly basis, from humans who can't practice magic but still have a little of it within them. They also insist on having a society without change in order to prevent demon invasion, which they also don't mention. It's been noted in-universe neither of these secrets seems actually worth keeping; their citizenry wouldn't mind what's happening, it would reassure their neighbors and their system's breaking down entirely because nobody knows why they're really doing things and thus mismanage the few necessary changes. At the same time, Armethalieh is very openly doing some nasty things which have given it a dark and ugly reputation — and worse, by people who can be trusted to do these for the wrong reasons so not even they need be let in on it. The whole thing's a study in societal erosion, not at all natural.
  • In Holly Lisle's The Secret Texts novels, the Hars Ticlarim's source of magic is the slaves they keep below ground.
  • In the Myst novels, the Terahnee appear to have a utopian world where automation and mechanical power means no one has to work. In reality, they're enslaving entire universes' worth of people to provide this "automation".
  • All of Safehold was founded with the dark secret that the religion that underpins every country on the planet is a Path of Inspiration founded out of a combination of technophobia and megalomania on behalf of its central figures. Several figures have been kept out of the loop because if they found out the truth it would shatter their entire world view.
  • While not strictly speaking an empire, the White Council of Wizards in The Dresden Files mandates and enforces the Laws of Magic. And it turns out that they empower one Wizard with the authority to ignore the Laws of Magic in order to enforce them, the Blackstaff. Harry is horrified when he learns this, and more so when he learns who the current Blackstaff is.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Doctor Who:
    • In the episode "The Beast Below", England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland as mentioned in the episode built their own ship) are being carried through space on a star whale which they torture to control the speed — they know they can't justify their actions, but they're afraid that freeing the whale will destroy the ship. Thank goodness for Amy Pond, really. There's also the fact that they feed anyone who finds out the truth and disagrees with it to the whale. Or simply someone who doesn't do his homework. Luckily, the whale won't eat children.
    • In the "Long Game", The Ninth Doctor takes Rose and Adam to a news space station called Satellite 5, in the year 200,000 — the era of the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire. However, the Doctor notes that progress is relatively slow, or simply ground to a halt with most of humanity being docile. Then he discovers why — The Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire is not a human empire at all, or at least not human-led, and humanity is secretly being controlled by a monstrous alien known as the Jagrafess by controlling information. The Doctor and Rose would appear a century later with Jack Harkness to learn of the Jagrafess' own masters: The Daleks.
    • "The Timeless Children" reveals the lie that all of Time Lord society was built on top of: the Time Lords didn't naturally evolve the ability to regenerate. They artificially gave it to themselves by studying the Timeless Child, a Mysterious Waif discovered at the base of a portal to another universe — a child who eventually grew up to become the Doctor, after having had their memories wiped.
  • Combining this with Path of Inspiration, the League of 20,000 Planets in Lexx was a theocracy headed by the Divine Order that supposedly brought order to the Light Universe and protected it from the chaos of the Dark Zone. His Divine Shadow ruled the League for thousands of years, and successfully indoctrinated humanity to fanatically worship him over generations. The dark secret of the League was that His Shadow was actually the essence of the last survivor of the Insect Civilization, a race of giant insects that fought and "lost" a genocidal war against humanity. The League's true purpose was to make humanity wholely enslaved to the Insect's desires, to the point that the entire population of the League of 20,000 willingly fed themselves to the Insect at the end of the first season. His Shadow reveals all of this to the crew of the Lexx, gloating over the way he used humans to defeat themselves.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Imperium in Warhammer 40,000 has gobs and gobs of this. Most of it self-delusional as well.
    • The man they revere as their Emperor is a semi-conscious anti-theist hooked up to a life-support machine which runs on the power of the thousands of psyker souls it eats daily, for a start. Even better: the religious canon that establishes him as God-Emperor? It was written by one of the Primarchs who fell to Chaos. Specifically Lorgar, who fell to Chaos because while the Emperor didn't want anyone worshiping him, there were other deities in the Warp who would very much welcome believers...
    • The ruling caste of the Tau Empire use mind control to inspire absolute loyalty in their subjects and hold their empire together. It's also very heavily implied that a piece of technology they gave to a vassal-species to enable direct mind-to-mind communication enabled them to extend said mind control over said species. Said ruling caste were also genetically engineered by the Eldar using the pheromone glands of a Q'orl Hive Queen and inserted into Tau society for their own ends.
    • The Adeptus Mechanicus who keep all of the technology running worship a being known as the Omnissiah. In the overwhelming majority of cases this is another aspect of the Emperor, but around 1% worship the most powerful of the star-eating abominations known as the C'tan, the Void Dragon, which is currently asleep under the surface of Mars. And to make matters worse still, it is the 1% who are actually correct. The aforementioned C'Tan was placed there by the Emperor, who intentionally wanted to inspire the people on Mars to be creative technologically (at least that's what he aimed for, when he first used Farseeing to see into the future).
  • Most of the domains of Ravenloft are this trope. In some cases, their political rulers are actually darklords; in others, a Path of Inspiration has taken hold of the populace; in yet others, their societies are completely infiltrated by shapechangers, mind-controllers, sociopathic mad scientists/wizards, undead, or other malign forces. Or all of the above. The fact that the entire game-setting is a construct built by the Dark Powers, via dubious methods and for unknown purposes, also qualifies. The Powers aren't the mightiest forces in the settings of Dungeons & Dragons, but they are close; they still take great pains to not reveal who they actually are.
  • Our whole world in KULT. Only our prison wardens know about it, and hunt those humans who know, or are coming close to it.
  • SLA Industries has a Universe With a Dark Secret. Anyone who finds out The Truth either gets hunted down and killed, or ceases to exist on their own. The Truth is that the universe arose from the imagination of a psychic from our world, and they died before it was finished. A lot of the weirdnesses of the SLA universe come from attempts to 'patch over' the gaps. The was only revealed in the game's writers' bible, not in any of the sourcebooks (so far).
  • Riedra from Eberron appears on the surface to be a utopian empire led by a ruling class called the Inspired, who serve as Willing Channelers for the spirits of enlightened beings and who came to power after saving the continent of Sarlona from a devastating war. The truth is that the Inspired are possessed by malevolent dream entities who seek to rule humanity and who actually started that war in the first place to gain power, while anyone who denies their divinity is ruthlessly persecuted (especially their ancestral enemies, the kalashtar) and people who rebel against their assigned place in society tend to get quickly disappeared. Not coincidentally, Riedra's state religion is the Trope Namer for Path of Inspiration.

     Theatre 
  • Hades in the folk opera Hadestown tells his Underworld subjects that he's keeping them safe from an enemy that doesn't actually exist.
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    Video Games 
  • Solaris in Xenogears. Of course, we know they're kind of evil from the outset, but the reasons of their existence and the sheer scale of their crimes are pretty incredible and known only by very, very few, and most citizens in particular are blissfully ignorant.
  • In Final Fantasy VI, the Ghestalian Empire's super-advanced Magitek was created by forcibly draining the magical power of captured Espers.
  • Final Fantasy VII's Shin-Ra corporation holds an arguably exclusive secret; the Mako they use to make everyone's lives better is actually an extract of the life force of the planet. While the general idea is an open secret and most people go about their busy lives knowing they're literally draining the spirit of their planet for batteries, the company goes to great lengths to hide the REAL costs behind mining and refining the stuff - including the fact that the hordes of monsters that live everywhere and in everything are in fact the byproducts / experiments of Mako, and that an alien parasite swarm-lady who found this Mako-rich planet and nearly wiped civilization out to claim it has been injected into every supersoldier Shin-Ra has.
  • As revealed near the end of Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood: the founding ruler of the Garlean Empire is actually an Ascian, who founded the Empire to advance his dark god's agenda.
  • In Chrono Trigger, the highly magical floating continent of Zeal has a dark secret —- while they used to draw limited power from the renewable Sunstone, the new (nearly unlimited power source) for all of its magic comes from Lavos
  • In Grandia II, Roan finds out that his people are the game's equivalent of Satan-worshipers, and decides they might as well be the best damned Satan-worshipers they can be, despite their end goal of killing him.
  • In Mega Man Zero, unknown to the human residents of Neo Arcadia, their utopia comes at a price: the retirement of their fellow (innocent) Reploid citizens, courtesy of their supposedly messianic leader, Copy-X.
  • The Jade Empire. Rain only falls because the Emperor and his family mortally wounded but did not kill the Water Dragon. As she is a goddess, if she is not killed she will simply live on, never reincarnating. Oh, and Emperor Sun Hai should have died a long time ago but is using the power of the Water Dragon to keep himself alive. Oh, and this was all caused by the emperor's brother, Sun Li, who's basically planning to bring about a perfect totalitarian state.
  • Mass Effect:
    • Unbeknownst to everyone, the Protheans did not build the Citadel or the Mass Relays before their mysterious disappearance 50,000 years ago. Both are in fact millions of years old and were originally constructed by the Reapers, as a means to direct all life in the Galaxy along the technological lines they desired, before they returned to cull all advanced civilisations every 50,000 years.
    • In Mass Effect 3, it is revealed that the asari didn't become galactic top dog by being wisest and smartest and being gifted with natural mind powers. Their abilities were actually engineered by the Protheans - and were even given a complete archive of Prothean technology - so as to lead galactic civilization in the war against the Reapers. Instead, they appointed themselves rulers of galactic civilization, to the point of declaring withholding Prothean technology the worst crime on record.
  • The UPEO in the Japanese original Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere, secretly controlled by the two big corporations. Although, UPEO is more of a "UN-mandated global military with a dark secret" than any sort of empire.
  • Starcraft II the Terran Dominion, Mengsk dark secret on sending the Zerg to attack Tarsonis, and his willingness to eliminate anyone who gets in his way. Also the Dominion (or at least some faction within it) has been secretly been creating a Zerg hybrid.
  • Escape Velocity Nova: The rest of known space already knows one of the Federation's dark secrets, but since the rest of known space consists of a) a icy planet only inhabited because there's profit in the fur of one of the native species, b) an Empire of warrior houses the Federation is already at war with, c) an isolationist Higher-Tech Civilization already unfairly biased against the Earth-based Federation, d) a Rebellion triggered by some Federation citizens finding out the other dark secret (and then not being able to convince the public of it), that's doesn't really make things worse. It would probably be bad for Federation morale and internal stability if it came out that the Vell-os actually still are enslaved rather than voluntarily serving the Federation, though. The other dark secret the Federation has is that the Bureau have effectively usurped control, destroying the Federation's claim to be The Federation.
  • The Sith Empire in Star Wars: The Old Republic hides an even darker secret than in the original movies, even though the vast majority of its citizens sees it as a more organized and less blatantly corrupt version of the Republic. Sure, there is rampant social Darwinism mired in outright racism, and they are ruled by a clique of insane Force-users who constantly murder each other and innocent bystanders for power and profit, but at least the social ladder makes sure the capable get all the way to the top, and the Emperor, while not benevolent, has a good enough grip on the other Sith and is far enough from the common folk for them to respect him in earnest. Well, in fact, the Sith Emperor doesn't give a flying crap about the Empire he founded, the Sith he nominally rules, and the rest of the petty state matters. The whole Empire thing got started to create enough docile population for him to kickstart a Dark Side of the Force ritual that would ultimately consume all life in the Galaxy Far, Far Away and elevate him to immortality and omnipotence. The only reason why he hasn't succeeded yet was the efforts of the two Knights of the Old Republic, Revan and the Exile, and now it's mainly up to the Hero of Tython (the Jedi Knight class character in SWTOR) to stop him for good, while the Empire remains by and large blissfully unaware of all this. It gets worse in the latest expansion Knights of the Fallen Empire. Not only does he not care for the Sith Empire at all, not only was he just using it as fuel for his ritual, but he was also secretly building another Empire, the Zakuul Eternal Empire, at the same time, on the other side of the galaxy. This is the reason why the Emperor had a tendency to remain silent for centuries at a time: his attention was focused on Zakuul via his avatar there, Emperor Valkorion.

    Web Comics 
  • Veracia, largest and (at least until recently) most powerful nation in the world of Errant Story, is pretty much founded on this trope. While most of the country does not realize this, the "god" at the center of their faith, Luminosita, is actually just a Made of Magic puppet, created by mages who are connected to and control it. Even many of said mages are made unaware of this, interpreting their connection to their god religiously. Ian tries to commit Suicide by Cop, killing off one of their cities as well as said "god". Veracia reassures its citizens that Luminosita will return, but since Veracia's mages take a Vow of Celibacy, which has been causing their numbers to grow fewer and fewer, they will likely have difficulty recreating their god.
  • In Drive the first Emperor of the Second Spanish Empire supposedly invented the titular FTL drive whose secrets are only known to the imperial family. The truth, as shown in the prologue, is that he actually reverse-engineered a Continuum ship that crashed on Earth. This secret is kept even from the branch members of La Familia, only the Emperor himself knows. Though it's obvious to every Maker of the Continuum who spots a human ship, hence the present war.

    Web Original 

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