The Civil War in Skyrim is one of the game’s main themes. On one side, you have Stormcloaks trying to make Skyrim a separate entity, its own country/empire/state/whatever. On the other side, you have the Imperials trying to keep the empire together. Skyrim’s gameplay does push you towards the Stormcloaks, but honestly, I never felt that the Stormcloaks were… justified.
The Stormcloaks’ demands are simple. They want to freely worship Talos and they want Skyrim’s independence. Those are fair, noble causes worth fighting for. But you have to pick a time and place to fight for these things.
You see, the time in which Skyrim is set, the empire is recovering from a war with the Thalmor. In exchange for ending the war and giving themselves a chance to rebuild, the treaty the empire signed with the Thalmor banned the worship of Talos. The empire’s armies, which consisted of large numbers of Nords, need to recover, because everyone knows the Thalmor will attack again. Clearly, when everyone else is recovering from a massive war with huge numbers of casualties, that’s the perfect time to start another war, isn’t it?
Of course, it’s easy to side with the Stormcloaks because you’re about to be executed at the start of the game by Imperials. But why would they spare you? They caught you alongside a whole bunch of Stormcloaks. “I’m not a Stormcloak, honest!” probably wouldn’t convince anyone. Really it’s an administrative error thanks to that bitch lieutenant woman who just said to kill you anyway, but I find it really weird that NONE of the Stormcloaks… spoke up for you. They were all just “yeah we don’t know who s/he is but sure let him/her die as well”.
You’re free to join the Imperials and they don’t exactly give you a warm welcome (although they absolve you of your involvement with Stormcloaks) but for both sides, you’re more of a useful pawn than anything else.
Unfortunately, it seems that Ulfric’s demands in Markarth, as had inadvertently allowed the Thalmor to start roaming Skyrim, killing Talos worshipers.
Before the events of Skyrim, it turns out that, as long as you weren’t blatantly obvious about it, the Imperials turned a blind eye to any Talos worship. Heck, you go to Whiterun and there’s a priest standing in the middle of the square, screaming about Talos! But when Ulfric and the Stormcloaks reclaimed Markarth in the name of the Nords, he demanded that everyone openly worship Talos, which gave the Thalmor an excuse to start forcing the No Talos Worship law. If Ulfric had just done his job, the Thalmor would have no reason to be patrolling Skyrim.
But things with Ulfric get more and more suspicious. As you follow the main quest, you have to infiltrate the Thalmor Embassy, and inside you can steal Thalmor dossiers. One of them is about Ulfric, and explains that Ulfric is basically a Thalmor asset. Not only that, but they had planned to save Ulfric had Alduin not attacked at Helgen. It’s also worth pointing out that the Thalmor have been secretly AIDING the Stormcloaks!
The more you look at things, the more you realise that most things Ulfric does benefit the Thalmor more than anyone else. What better way than to get a base in Skyrim than to have someone break a treaty? What better way to weaken the empire by having one of its provinces want to leave? What better way to destroy the empire’s rebuilding and recovery by forcing another war and funding the other side?
All the Civil War does is make life easier for the Thalmor. You can argue whether Ulfric is a willing asset or not, but you can’t deny that his actions help the Thalmor. Perhaps more so than they help the Nords. Because it’s not Thalmor being killed in these battles, it’s all Nords loyal to Ulfric and Talos.
But all of this could have been avoidable.
You see, the former High King, Jarl Torygg of Solitude, he may have been young, but he actually AGREED with Ulfric that Skyrim should be independent. Before the events of Skyrim, he invited Ulfric to Solitude in order to discuss how they could obtain Skyrim’s independence.
And what did Ulfric do? He killed him.
There could have been a peaceful resolution in Skyrim, but no, Ulfric wanted to be the high king, and rather than talk things through with someone who could have persuaded the other Jarls to join them, Ulfric decided to try and grab power for himself. The blood of so many nords are on Ulfric’s hands because he was incapable of sitting down and having a discussion.
The fight for independence and the right to believe what you want are one thing, but when you kill your own and believe that the ends justify the means, you’re almost as bad as those who oppress you.
And that’s completely ignoring the fact that Ulfric is a Thalmor puppet…