Despite being separated from the last Star Wars trilogy by nearly 30 years, The Force Awakens really hits the ground running without a ton of exposition.
This seems to be an intentional mirroring of Episode IV, which tossed around concepts like the Empire, the Galactic Senate, Alderaanian royalty, and a Rebel Alliance without much set up or explanation. I personally think it works to The Force Awakens favor that we aren’t treated to prequel-esque scenes explaining the minutiae of the current political climate, but it is a lot of information to take in very quickly.
So if you’re confused about what the heck a First Order is, and how the Resistance is different from the Rebellion, don’t sweat it, we’ve got you covered. Here’s how it all breaks down.
What happened to the Empire and Rebellion after Return of the Jedi?
While the events of Return of the Jedi dealt a crippling blow to the Galactic Empire, the conflict did not end there. Imperial and Rebel Alliance forces continued to fight a bloody and protracted war, including major battles over Naboo and Geonosis.
Following the Battle of Endor and the death of the Emperor however, Imperial forces struggled to maintain their already tenuous hold over the galaxy. After a series of major defeats, the Imperial power structure began to fracture, with splinter fleets led by various Moffs and regional governors struggling against each other as much as Rebel forces.
During this time, the Rebellion reformed as an actual government called the New Republic. Chandrila, homeworld of Rebel leader Mon Mothma, was selected as the first capital. Eventually, the Republic would adopt a system of rotating their capital planet, with Hosnian Prime serving as the seat of the Galactic Senate during the events of The Force Awakens.
In the months that followed, the Galactic Empire and the New Republic soon found themselves locked in a bitter war of attrition, with the Republic unable to push Imperial forces out of the Core Worlds, but the Empire unable to produce and field enough ordinance to turn the tide.
Facing a slow but eventual destruction, the remaining Imperial leadership gathered for a summit on the planet Akiva, in an attempt to reorganize under a unified strategy. Some pushed for peace with the Republic, while others supported the idea of continuing the Emperor’s mission, and retreating into the unknown regions on the outskirts of the galaxy to seek out the secrets of the Dark Side. Before a decision could be made though, the group was betrayed by an Imperial fleet admiral, and the New Republic fleet once again scattered them.
Approximately a year after the Battle of Endor, Imperial forces made one final stand on the planet Jakku. The result of that battle was a near total defeat for the Empire, including the loss of the Ravager, the last Super Star Destroyer. This was the last major battle of the Galactic Civil War.
In the months that followed, the battered and exhausted Empire signed a treaty with the New Republic called the Galactic Concordance. While it did not end the war outright, its terms did force remaining Imperial forces to remain in predetermined boundaries, and more or less stopped hostilities between the two sides. In an effort to move on from the war and let the galaxy begin to heal, the New Republic also scaled back its military by nearly 80%.
Unfortunately, this peace would not last. In the decades that followed, the remnants of the former Galactic Empire began to reorganize under a new banner: The First Order.
What is the First Order?
The First Order was formed out of the ruins of the Galactic Empire. It is led by a mysterious figure known as Supreme Leader Snoke.
Although inspired by the principles and iconography of the Empire, the First Order is much less focused on galactic governance. It does not seem to hold very much territory in the traditional sense, with Snoke himself ruling from a mobile command center. Instead, the First Order seems much more centered on a sort of military fanaticism, allocating all of their resources into the development of weapons and training of soldiers.
Prior to the events of The Force Awakens, the First Order had not done much to destabilize the relative peace. They had confined their operations to the unknown regions at the edges of the galaxy, and the Republic leadership did not consider them to be much of a threat. Despite a significant disarmament movement following the Battle of Jakku, the Republic fleet was still much larger than the First Order’s, which explains the need for Starkiller Base.
Prominent members of the First Order include General Hux, commander of Starkiller Base, Captain Phasma, leader of the stormtrooper regiments, and Kylo Ren, the apprentice of Supreme Leader Snoke.
What about the Resistance?
The resistance is a small military organization operating in First Order territory. Although led by General Leia Organa, it is not formally affiliated with the New Republic. Instead, it is a splinter movement established to combat the growing threat of the First Order, due to the New Republic leadership’s unwillingness to engage in another armed conflict.
However, it’s rumored that the New Republic may be discreetly funding the Resistance’s operations, and the First Order itself does not see a distinction at all between the two.
The Resistance’s membership includes many prominent figures from the Galactic Civil War, including former Admiral Ackbar, Nien Nunb, and Poe Dameron, a former New Republic starfighter squadron leader. The organization is currently based out of the planet D’Qar, located in the Outer Rim.