Note: I wrote the vast majority of this essay before the current war in Ukraine. Seeing a major war occurring in Europe has changed our perspective collectively on some of these things, but it doesn’t really change my conclusions in this essay.
With the release of Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore this week, I though I would answer the age-old question in the Harry Potter universe: who would win in a fight between the wizards and the muggles?
I teased this essay all the way back in 2018 when I reviewed The Crimes of Grindelwald. I thought about it for a while at the time, but I eventually dropped it because I thought it was too complicated, and the more I thought about it, the less sure I was of the answer. However, I never forgot about it, and over the past year, I’ve thought of a different way to go about it. Rather than trying to solve the whole problem from the beginning, let’s go through the different advantages and disadvantages each side has to try to building up a winning strategy they could use.
To do this, I turned to Reddit, where weird scenarios like this get debated frequently. I thought that if I looked at some of the “muggles vs. wizards” threads that have been made over the years, I could get a pretty comprehensive view of the arguments that are being made and what factors people are considering. I looked at the top hits for this debate on r/harrypotter and r/HPfanfiction, but I found r/HPfanfiction to be generally better for substantive debate. Also, when I did that, I was quickly alerted to the fact that I should also be checking r/whowouldwin, so I read through those debates, too.
And the answer, it turns out, is that it’s complicated.
TL;DR: The muggles would win, unless the wizards maintain the element of surprise, but most individual wizards who want to escape the muggles will be able to.
First off, we should consider whether the author has anything to say about this debate, but in fact J. K. Rowling has said very little.
The one point I’m aware of that Rowling definitely did say (though even then only by implication) is that wizards will always beat muggles in secrecy. In a 2004 interview, Rowling was asked, “Are the Muggle and Magical worlds ever going to be rejoined?” And her response was, “No, the breach was final, although as book six shows, the Muggles are noticing more and more odd happenings now that Voldemort’s back.” This suggests that muggles will never be able to expose wizards. However, that seems a bit harder to believe today. In 2004, there were no smartphones, no Twitter, and not even YouTube. If a muggle managed to film something magical today—including parents of a muggle-born child in their own home—wizards might not be able to react fast enough to keep it out of the Cloud, and from there, we know that nothing on the internet is ever really erased.
There’s another frequently mentioned quote claimed to be from Rowling to the effect that a muggle with a gun usually (or even always) beats a wizard. However, no one can cite an original source for this quote (see e.g. here), so it is very likely that she never actually said this. (And being British, it’s not something that would come up as often as in America.) In the debates, some people try to claim that a gun would beat a wand because the Shield Charm (Protego) doesn’t stop bullets. However, there’s no indication that Protego doesn’t work on physical objects. There’s not much evidence in the books, but one passage shows that it can stop a fight that’s come to blows:
[Hermione] looked as though ready to wrestle [her wand] out of Harry’s hands and he reacted instinctively.
The invisible shield erupted between Ron and Hermione: The force of it knocked her backward onto the floor.
—DH Chapter 19
Also keep in mind that muggles had guns before the Statute of Secrecy, so wizards would have encountered them historically, even if they’re not familiar with them today. Thus, it seems likely that Protego would stop bullets.
Now, the obvious advantage of a gun is that it’s faster than a wand. But it’s also usually not instantly fatal. If a wizard can get a Shield Charm up before they’re incapacitated or killed, they suddenly have a lot more options. And also, if they expect to be going up against a gun, remember that Fred and George were able to enchant pre-cast Shield Charms into clothes. One-on-one, a properly-educated wizard will probably beat an armed muggle, although it’s not guaranteed.
But we’re not interested in a one-on-one fight here. If this question is asked, it’s usually the Wizarding World vs. the Muggle World—in other words, an all-out war. Who would win then?
The consensus on Reddit seems to be what I eventually concluded: that wizards would win easily if they have the element of surprise, but muggles would have a solid edge if they already knew about magic. However, there are a lot of bitter disputes on these points, with some commenters claiming that a single competent wizard could take over the entire muggle world (no they couldn’t; otherwise, Grindelwald would have done it) and others saying that even the wizards’ most powerful protections wouldn’t save them from determined muggles (they would; some of them are literally unbreakable unless they’re betrayed from the inside).
You kind of have to be careful about how seriously you take these debates. As it turns out, a disturbing amount of them focus on the idea of muggles using nukes against wizards, who mostly live integrated in muggle cities, or whether muggles would be able to bypass the magical protections on Hogwarts to bomb a school full of children!
But even so, once you condense them down, these debates yield a pretty good list of arguments for both sides. So, let’s go through them and see what advantages and disadvantages each side has.
This is the massive, massive advantage that seems like it should be a trump card for almost everything. The muggle population is enormously greater than the wizard population and ought to be able to overwhelm the wizards with sheer numbers.
We don’t know exactly what the population of the Wizarding World is. J. K. Rowling doesn’t do math, and her statements range from about 3,000 in Britain, implying about 300,000 worldwide if the numbers are proportional, to 1,000 students in Hogwarts alone, implying as many as 3,000,000 worldwide, especially if non-humans are included. But even with the largest figures, that means muggles will outnumber wizards by two thousand to one!
This means muggles have ridiculously more firepower than wizards. And not just that; it means more people and resources to help close the knowledge gap with wizards. It means security through obscurity, as wizards will struggle to keep tabs on every military unit and find every backup and failsafe, let alone every muggle soldier. It means that if the muggle governments fall, enough muggles can go to ground (including military units) and engage in asymmetric warfare of their own to give wizards a lot of trouble.
And most of all, it means that for wizards, the greatest enemy is attrition. Wizards may be able to take out a lot of muggles if they’re smart, but every wizard who slips up and gets captured, incapacitated, or killed is a major loss to their side—one that’s much less easy to replace. Muggles can turn out a new batch of soldiers in a few months. For wizards, not a lot of people are actually qualified to be Aurors, and those who are seem to need several years of training.
Actually, we should probably try to figure out how many wizards are trained fighters, since dfferent countries can have very different attitudes regarding their military (or equivalent) forces. How many people does the Department of Magical Law Enforcement employ? I grew up in a small town whose size was probably close to the upper limit of the population of Wizarding Britain, and its police department employs about 40 people. Add a few more to make up for state and federal law enforcement and the military, and 50 is probably a good number.
Similarly, Voldemort seems to have had about 50 Marked Death Eaters. (Harry sees “at least thirty” in the graveyard in Goblet of Fire, ten broke out of Azkaban, and some had been killed earlier.)
For comparison, the British Armed Forced have almost 200,000 active and reserve members. Once again, that’s 2,000 times as many, even if Light and Dark team up.
Some commenters argue that magic is simply too overpowered for mere numbers to compete. It’s like the difference between a machine gun and a bow and arrow, but I actually take the opposite view. I think the sheer numbers on the muggle side are pretty near insurmountable. Let’s look at it in reverse. Who do you think would win in a fight? 100 of these fine men and women?
Or 200,000 of these guys?
The U.S. Marines are one of the most highly-trained and effective fighting forces in the history of the world, but 100 of them against a force the size of a medium-sized city (and that’s the actual fighters, not the whole population) is going to be a bit much even for them, even with a supply line behind them. Sure, they could scare off the cavemen at first without breaking a sweat, but that won’t last long if the cavemen are organized, determined to fight back, and—this is the part everyone seems to forget—just as clever and resourceful as we are today.
Even if wizards are as far above us as U.S. Marines are above cavemen with spears, they just don’t have the numbers for it. My go-to answer for this question has always been that muggles could use overwhelming force to Zerg-rush the wizards whenever they wanted (in open warfare). But there are other issues to consider. Let’s look at their kit.
A wand may beat a gun, but it does so mainly with versatility, and its weakness is that it’s only effective at relatively short range. A gun shoots bullets at a higher speed than spells, more times per minute, and most importantly, over much longer distances. And we haven’t even talked about military weapons yet. Tanks, artillery, planes, and missiles all pack more firepower than the spells most wizards are able to cast and would make muggles a very effective force in a frontal assault.
It’s true that muggle electronics don’t work at Hogwarts and probably in other high-traffic areas for wizards, but once they step out of their enclaves, it very much does. And that gives muggles a big advantage because communication is key in modern warfare. Wizards have some instant methods of communication, but they’re not used widely or often, even compared with muggle militaries of the 1990s when the books were set. Computers, GPS, cell phones, the internet—all of this stuff gives muggles access to much more and better information faster than wizards can get it.
But even beyond that, technology would put up a strong defense against wizards’ mind-altering spells. Computers would let muggles store anything from information about magic to records of military orders in the Cloud, safely away from any humans who might be a target for Memory Charms, and without worrying about physical documents that can be altered or destroyed. This doesn’t completely negate wizards’ infiltration advantage—far from it—but it’s a big factor.
This one is more speculative because it’s based on behavior, not ability. Wizards could improve their knowledge very easily if they wanted to. But the fact remains that, as described in the books, wizards are idiots when it comes to anything muggle. Probably 90% of wizards were raised magical and know next to nothing about muggle technology. The other 10%(-ish) are muggle-borns who probably know more, but whose formal muggle education stopped after the 5th grade. Arthur Weasley, who is obsessed with muggles and works with them more than most, can’t even pronounce the word “electricity,” and the Daily Prophet had to explain what a gun was to its readers. They just don’t know how to fight muggles.
Wizarding World Weak Points
The Wizarding World doesn’t have a complex infrastructure like the muggle world to target, but there are some vulnerabilities. Remember, attrition is the enemy. There are a very few wizards like Dumbledore, Grindelwald, and Voldemort who are leagues above everyone else in power. Taking them out would mean the loss of a major force multiplier and an even bigger blow to morale. Most wizards are also helpless without wands, so if muggles capture wandmakers or even just snap every wand they can get their hands on, it would be a significant win. And while most important magical facilities are hidden, muggle soldiers just might be able to occupy Diagon Alley and lock down Gringotts, which would cripple the magical economy. There are still points of leverage available to muggles.
However, it might still be possible to protect those weak points magically. The muggles would probably have an easier time of it with…
Based on what we know of Harry’s class at Hogwarts, probably in the ballpark of 10% of wizards are muggle-borns, who lived the first 11 years of their lives in the muggle world and who have muggle families and friends whom they care about. Surely, some of them would be willing to fight for the muggle world they were born into, right? Someone with detailed knowledge of the magical world and the ability to bypass anti-muggle protections would be incredibly valuable.
True, this might not be as easy as it sounds. Hermione Granger was a muggle-born, but by the time she was 17, she was fully integrated into the wizarding world and identified with it enough to Memory Charm her parents and send them to Australia without giving them a say in the matter, which is a very “Wizard Culture” thing to do.
Still, a war between muggles and wizards is a very different situation, and I suspect not all muggle-borns are like Hermione. Even if they spend most of their time around wizards, they probably still enjoy seeing muggle movies and surfing the internet on summer break. Today, even at age eleven, many of them are probably complaining about not being able to bring their phones to Hogwarts.
And if loyalty isn’t enough, you could appeal on moral grounds: which side is more likely to perpetrate crimes against humanity? Until 1998, Wizarding Britain put all of its criminals, even minor ones, in a psychological torture chamber for an extended period. Hagrid says that just two months with the dementors in Azkaban left him wishing for death. If that sounded bad to Harry when he was only thirteen, it’s a lot worse in the real world.
Also, they don’t necessarily have to be defectors or even muggle-borns. Capture an enemy wizard, remove their wand, and interrogate them. For less savory regimes, bribe muggle-borns to help, or track down their muggle families and threaten them. (In fact, some muggle intelligence agencies have probably done that already.) Once you know what to look for, locate and get in contact with muggle-born children before they’re 10 or 11, when wizards bring them their school letters. Perhaps they could serve as spies. Even if wizards wise up and start kidnapping muggle-borns at the first sign of accidental magic, magic runs in families, so genetic testing might be able to find them from birth and move them to more secure areas. There are a lot of options here to level the playing field with magic.
No. Just no.
Not all of the advantages go to the muggles. Wizards have some pretty powerful weapons as well. Let’s see what they have up their sleeves.
Existing Control and the Element of Surprise
This is the biggest one—the one that may actually be a trump card over everything the muggles have if they play it right. The wizards already have people close to (presumably) every muggle head of state, and they have enough influence over them to “arrange for the President to forget to call.” (HBP Ch.1.) They also have a pretty tight hold over their secrecy for the moment. If they wanted to use that influence, they’ve practically already won. The one thing almost all the debaters agreed upon is that if the wizards decide to move while the Statute of Secrecy is still in place, they’ll be pretty much unstoppable. The muggles won’t even know it’s happening. It’s only if the war starts after magic is revealed that muggles would have a chance.
(Unless, of course, some paranoid muggle leaders have successfully developed countermeasures away from the watchful eyes of the portrait of Ulick Gamp.)
Stealth and Secrecy
This kind of is an absolute trump card, but it’s a trump card with limited scope. Wizards can make locations Unplottable on a map (and that’s without even counting the Fidelius Charm). They have muggle-repelling spells that make muggles see magical things as mundane and uninteresting (Hogwarts), not see them at all (the Knight Bus), or get distracted away from them (the Quidditch World Cup). The efficacy of this drops dramatically if the muggles have wizards helping them get in, but on an individual level, a wizard or a small group of them could render themselves literally unfindable.
The reason this is limited in scope is that it doesn’t scale. You can’t seal off Hogwarts, the Ministry of Magic, or Diagon Alley completely without crippling the magical economy or infrastructure. As a society, it’s going to be much harder for wizards to protect themselves that way, especially if there are defectors.
Also, on a societal level, wizards are actually pretty well integrated into the muggle world geographically. Where is the seat of government? In the middle of London. The only hospital? London. The only bank? London. Largest shopping district? London. This has advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantage is that it’s much harder for them to hide this way. However, the one big advantage is that it’s a bottleneck for muggle soldiers. They can’t bring out the big guns if all the targets are in the middle of London (and there hardly any actual military targets to start with).
On the offensive side, it’s even better. Wizards have ways to turn invisible, to disguise themselves as other people, sometimes to turn into animals, and to covertly listen in on conversations. They can read minds. They can wipe people’s memories (on a mass scale in Fantastic Beasts 1). The less scrupulous ones can use mind control. They can kill without leaving evidence.
And of course, there’s space warping. Newt Scamander could transport a small army undetected in his suitcase.
Is this an absolute trump card on the offensive side? I think not, and with improvements in muggle technology, it’s even less so. We don’t know how magical concealment interacts with computers, automated security systems, thermal imaging, or satellite photos. Would it be possible to shoot artillery at the “hole” in the map where there must be something Unplottable? But even if that doesn’t work, muggles could still put a pretty tight grip on non-magical areas.
Mind manipulation is trickier. Muggles would have to wise-up fast and develop reliable methods to detect impostors, infiltrators, and mind-controlled officials. This could be very difficult depending on how underhanded wizards want to be about things like tampering with supply and communication lines. Still, it would be hard to control major world leaders perfectly without raising suspicions. Plus, we know that the Imperius Curse, Legilimency, and Veritaserum can all be fought, and soldiers would probably be better equipped than most to do it. Also, once again, all the important information can be stored in the Cloud, where it might not even physically be on the same continent, so wizards won’t be able to get to it.
Wizards have more practical advantages, too. Most notably, in logistics, mobility, and medicine, they are far superior to muggles.
Wands don’t need ammunition, and broomsticks don’t need fuel. Magic can’t create food, but it can multiply it, and it can also summon food, such as summoning fish from a river. Magic can create water seemingly from nothing. Wizards don’t need supply lines—not like muggles do, really only for durable goods
There are multiple means of teleportation in the Wizarding World. It would be almost impossible to improve on wizards’ mobility. They can easily escape most any trap a muggle puts them in if they still have their wands, and traditional battle lines would mean almost nothing to them.
Finally, a muggle soldier who breaks a leg is out of commission for weeks. A wizard can be back in the field the same day if it’s not too bad—maybe even never leaving the field if they can “mend bones in a second” (CS Ch. 10). Considering they can regrow bones, it’s plausible that a wizard could have their leg blown completely off and grow it back a week later, as long as it wasn’t caused by a magical injury. All this means that, person-for-person, wizards would make a much more effective fighting force than muggles, able to put everyone on the front lines and operate independently almost indefinitely.
The problem is that even if a wizard is a hundred times as effective as a muggle soldier, they’re still going to be outgunned twenty to one. I keep coming back to the fact that the numbers are just so unbalanced that there’s no way past them.
Muggle World Weak Points
The other side of this coin is that muggle society is vulnerable and riddled with points of failure to a frightening degree. We’ve seen with the COVID pandemic how sensitive our complex supply chains are to an unthinking virus and pandemic restrictions that try to be accommodating. How much damage could someone do if they were malicious and had magic? Hit a few key points in transportation, food distribution, the power grid, and other utilities, and wizards could bring the muggle economy to its knees.
Now, most wizards don’t know a thing about muggle infrastructure, but that brings us to…
This is the wildcard, and the one I didn’t think of until late in the game: if wizards can defect, then so can muggles—and there are a lot more muggles.
Muggles will be fascinated by magic, and in a population that large, statistically, there will be some who may be in a bad place and care more about the wizards they’ve never met than the muggles around them. There will probably be more who take issue with the civil rights implications of muggles subjugating a tiny minority of the population for their magic. Unless the wizards did something really bad like publicly assassinate someone important, there will probably be plenty of muggles willing to help them.
Oh, and even besides all that, wizards have a working Truth Serum.
Muggles probably couldn’t help wizards very much directly, but what they could provide is information. All that information about weak spots in muggle society? Wizards could learn it pretty quick if they had an actual muggle explain it to them. They could get more information about muggle society, politics, and culture, meaning crucial leverage to act on the diplomatic front, knowledge of whom to subvert to infiltrate military bases, celebrities who might be persuadable if approached. In modern conflicts, information is king.
Yes, nuclear weapons are an advantage for the wizards. Nukes are worse than useless for muggles in this kind of asymmetric warfare because the muggles would never use them—certainly not in the muggle population centers where most of the magical infrastructure is. They would very probably not use them on Hogsmeade, which is mostly residential, and absolutely not on a school, Reddit!
But worse than that, nukes are a liability. Despite how tightly they’re locked down, it would probably be possible for a team of wizards to steal one, or mind control the soldiers at the launch facility. Now, they have leverage to hold muggle cities hostage, and things have just gotten a lot more dangerous.
At this point, you may be thinking that I missed a few things in the magical world—things that would let wizards beat muggles hands-down. Well, I’m not counting those because they’re too powerful—at least when described with blanket statements. These are things that must have significant limitations on them, even if they aren’t described as such because they would break the original story if they didn’t. So here are the things I’m not counting:
Time travel ruins any story that’s not specifically about time travel. There’s a reason Rowling destroyed all the Time Turners in Book 5. Plus, looking strictly at the books, time travel can’t change the past. Next!
As described in the books, it can’t really be deployed on a large scale, and luck is no substitute for proper planning. Next!
Overuse of the Fidelius Charm
You can’t just Fidelius anything. It presumably has to be something that not very many people know, and it may be that it has to be cast on a place since that’s the only way we see it used. If you allow the Fidelius Charm to be used unrestricted, you can have weird things like Voldemort putting a Fidelius Charm on himself, so that no one knew who he was or why people the Death Eaters didn’t like kept turning up dead. Since that didn’t happen in the books, we can assume that’s not an option.
“The cry of the mandrake is fatal to anyone who hears it.” (CS Ch. 6.) But this can’t be literally true. Neville was tossing mandrakes over the wall in the Battle of Hogwarts in the open air. If their cry is loud enough to carry any significant distance, they should have wiped out most of the fighters on both sides instantly.
Remember that J. K. Rowling borrowed a lot of her material from real life folklore, and in folklore, the cry of the mandrake is not fatal to anyone who hears it, but only to the person who pulls it up out of the ground. For this reason, it was said that you should tie a rope to the mandrake and a dog and have the dog pull it up instead, so it would be killed instead of the human. Translated to pseudo-scientific magic, it seems likely that the cry of the mandrake in the Potterverse is only fatal at point-blank range, so it’s not nearly so much of an area-effect weapon.
A basilisk could be a devastating weapon, even though its gaze doesn’t carry through cameras, and for that matter, even if it has a range limit. It could kill thousands before the muggles even figured out what was going on. The thing is, they would figure it out. If it was striking in broad daylight, probably someone would get a glimpse of its tail instead of its head and get a message out in short order. And a basilisk isn’t Godzilla; it can be killed with a sword. Once they figure out what they’re dealing with, muggles could probably find ways to detect and kill basilisks quickly.
Dementors are the closest thing the Potterverse has to literal demons. They’re invisible to muggles, unkillable, and cause crippling fear and depression in everyone around them. Strategically-placed dementors could rule the muggle world with barely a fight. The thing is, I don’t think wizards would use them. Dementors are treacherous, and they multiply when they’re well-fed. Wizards have enough control over them in the status quo, but the prospect of reigning in a horde of dementors glutted on millions of muggle souls would be too terrifying to contemplate.
Fiendfyre just might be enough to tip the scales for the wizards. It’s a living fire that spreads unnaturally fast and can burn anything, even things that can’t normally burn. It’s also hard to control, but it can be put out permanently, unlike a swarm of dementors.
Fiendfyre has to be limited, though. It has to burn itself out, or else turn into normal fire that burns itself out. If it could only be stopped with magic, it would completely break the story. If it were that easy to destroy the world, or even just a city, someone would have done it by accident centuries ago. It may be unstoppable, but that has to be within a fairly narrow area.
However, that still may be powerful enough to win. Some commenters pointed out that even with plausible limitations, Fiendfyre plus invisibility plus Apparition already equals an untraceable WMD that could destroy a city or at least a military base in a day.
…But then, why didn’t Grindelwald do that? Was it just because he had too much opposition from his fellow wizards? If Grindelwald didn’t do something to take over, we can probably assume that it’s not that easy, so I feel confident in discarding it.
The Stuff They Do in Fantastic Beasts
There was one thing that changed in the Fantastic Beasts films—something I already complained about in Crimes of Grindelwald: magic got way more powerful. And it’s not just magical powerhouses like Dumbledore and Grindelwald. In Fantastic Beasts 1, Newt repairs a bombed-out building as easily as he would a broken plate. The way magic is portrayed in the books, it beats what muggles on the streets have and even maybe even muggle infantry soldiers, but it’s not overwhelmingly powerful. Yet in Fantastic Beasts, it really does look like a few wizards (or one Dumbledore) could stand against an army. In Crimes of Grindelwald, Nicolas Flamel even says that Grindelwald’s blue fire could destroy all of Paris. Now wizards really do have WMDs.
This gives the wizards a much wider path to victory. A small group of them could sweep through the muggle world, destroying all military bases and industrial centers in their path until the muggles no longer have the resources to fight back…maybe. Once again, the wizards’ enemy is attrition. Only one in a thousand muggle soldiers has to get lucky to stop them. Even against invisibility and muggle-repelling charms (of the sort described in the books), they could probably manage that.
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
One underlying question is if wizards were exposed, why would there be a war? This may seem academic; we’re just assuming there is one, but I think it does matter because it affects how a war would be fought. What is the goal of each side, and what are they willing to do to achieve that goal? (Although as we have tragically seen in Ukraine, the answer to that question can be very different for different countries.)
First, why would the war start? Well, muggles would definitely have problems with wizards. Besides the fact that real witch-hunts still happen in parts of Africa and Asia, muggles would probably experience anger (“Why didn’t you help us with XYZ disaster?”), jealousy (self-explanatory), and fear (“They have mind control. ‘Nuff said.”) Even if muggles were willing to let wizards keep their little enclaves (which is far from certain), they would probably demand concessions that wizards aren’t willing to make, and things would eventually escalate.
Meanwhile, wizards would also experience fear (“Witch hunts, ya know?”) along with a strong desire to return to the status quo ante. If they tried to apply their usual methods of wiping memories when it’s impossible to hide anymore, things would get ugly fast.
That’s not to say things would definitely go this way, or even likely go this way. I think a lot of social unrest followed by integration is a more likely result, especially if wizards figure out that magic is worth a lot of money. But the premise is that there is a war, so we’re starting from there.
What Is the Win Condition?
Now, what does each side want? What does victory look like in this hypothetical conflict? Because for each side, some goals are much more realistic than others.
For the muggles, if the win condition is, “Wizards surrender and integrate into muggle society,” this is probably not possible—not in its entirety. While some, even many individual wizards will integrate (see above about muggle-borns), and thus muggles could get the benefits of magic, the Fidelius Charm, other methods of concealment, and magical means of acquiring supplies would allow a large fraction of wizards to hole up in their enclaves like Hogsmeade forever.
If the win condition is, “Destroy the wizarding world as a civilization,” this is also probably not possible.
Now, hold up. Is this a plausible win condition in the first place? This might seem like an outrageous goal from the perspective of a modern Western government, but there are still real witch-hunts that happen in parts of Africa. And in fanfiction, the sky’s the limit, with multiple stories where muggles go so far as to nuke wizards (or try to), never mind the logic. But even so, it’s very likely not possible. The wizarding population is too well hidden and largely accessible only through the wizards’ own infrastructure like the Floo Network. Even if they make the current infrastructure unusable, wizards can rebuild in new and better-hidden locations that are more defensible from infiltrators. There’s no realistic way to get rid of the holdouts completely.
But I think the most plausible win condition is, “Neutralize the threat of wizards to the muggle world,” and this is probably mostly doable, not by eliminating all wizards, but by forcing the survivors deeper into hiding. Muggles would have be eternally vigilant against future infiltration attempts, but attrition and defection would lower the number of wizards willing and able to fight against muggles to a negligible threat level.
Although…this also sounds an awful lot like the War on Terror, and we all know how that went.
What about for wizards? If the win condition is what Grindelwald wanted, “Muggles surrender, and wizards rule over muggles openly,” this is very likely not possible in open war. It’s at least partially doable if wizards maintain the element of surprise, but if the secret is out, the wizards will never be able to exert a stable hegemony over the muggles. There are just too many of them.
If the win condition is, “Destroy the muggle world as a civilization,” this is…sort of possible, but it doesn’t help. I’ve seen debaters argue that a trump card for wizards would be to subvert muggle governments and start a nuclear war themselves, which the wizards would be able to weather in their isolated enclaves. But as I’ve written about before, a nuclear war wouldn’t actually destroy civilization—cripple it for a couple decades, yes, but it won’t actually achieve the goal.
But this may be the wrong target. An army moves on its stomach, and the real weakness of a civilization is the supply lines. If wizards harass muggles enough that it becomes difficult to carry out agriculture or deliver electricity, this could be enough to collapse muggle civilization.
But this still wouldn’t actually solve their problem, because in this case, their win condition should be, “Neutralize the threat of muggles to the wizarding world.” And the numbers just don’t work. This is only possible by doing what they’re already doing—secrecy and isolation. Direct force is never going to be enough. Even if the wizards destroy organized civilization—even if muggles are reduced to hunter-gatherers, enough individual muggles will remain to fight back against the wizards—if they can find them. It would be very difficult for a wizard to stay safe outside of their magical enclaves in that scenario. They couldn’t eliminate the threat.
There’s one more piece to the puzzle, here. The key question is not, “Who could win in a fight?” but “Who would win in a fight?” A realistic war is not the same as “no holds barred,” and even wizards have ethics—maybe not as many as muggles, but they have them. There are some methods that both sides are simply not going to be willing to use. (Note: the revelation of Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine is only a distinction of degree, here. There are still lines they won’t cross.) If you take total war, genocide, and weapons of mass destruction off the table, that changes the calculus a lot.
So, what’s the answer? It seems that “Who would win?” is confusing and uncertain and as dependent on the definition of the word “win” as anything else. In a way, the wizards are already winning by keeping the muggles from finding them out, but that’s something I believe would be near impossible in today’s era of ubiquitous surveillance and cloud storage. However, if the question ends with “in a fight?” that’s a different story. Here is my final assessment:
- If wizards maintain the Statute of Secrecy, the wizards win hands-down with their ability to subvert muggle governments.
- If wizards don’t maintain the Statute of Secrecy, the muggles win hands-down with their overwhelming numbers advantage. BUT…
- Even if the muggles win, a large fraction of wizards will be able to hide in their magically-protected enclaves indefinitely.