Michael Orion Deschamps
The Man in the High Castle is an Amazon.com series based on the 1962 book by author Philip K. Dick. The book has been out for half a century – it may seem strange that it’s only being adapted now, unless you consider the change in societal conditions that make the story unpleasantly relevant.
Movies about World War II in the United States tend to be one-dimensional. From the first onslaught of war movies during that period itself to more recent movies like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, Nazis are largely one-dimensional and amorphous blobs of pure evil while the Americans and allies who fought them are seen as fighting the ultimate, righteous struggle.
The Man in the High Castle wrestles with much murkier and disturbing questions, such as the appeal of fascism and what its long lasting success would look like. We see propaganda videos much like those of WW2, only with added talk about the “master race” and a swastika waving in place of the stars and stripes. Many elements of American society even seem to welcome fascism – Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith’s home seems to take on a real ‘Leave it to Beaver’ atmosphere, with the All- American Boy now being an All-Aryan Boy. In this world, Nazism not only appealed to people but succeeded with long-lasting appeal – the constitutional United States is a forgotten memory with the country split between a Japanese-ruled territory on the West Coast and a Nazi-ruled East Coast.
Adolf Hitler did not rise to power without the will of many Germans behind him – photos from the period show people waving swastikas with what looks like very, very fervent enthusiasm. Germany wasn’t a historically intolerant society – in fact, it had a large Jewish population in part because it was more tolerant than other countries in Europe. From Simon Kierkegaard to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany was the home of some of civilization’s greatest philosophers. A little over 80 years since the Nazis took power, Germany is once again a massive economic power with a population of close to 100 million that is one of Europe’s most diverse.
A society on the brink acts like it is on the brink, however. Germany bore the overwhelming brunt of World War One, despite not starting it. The Treaty of Versailles was filled with reparations and concessions on Germany, including one that bluntly said that Germany must “accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage.” At the same time that treaty was written and a young Adolf Hitler was recovering from poison gas exposure, the Soviet Union was established in Russia and surrounding countries. Ten years later, the stock market crashed, an event that hurt Germany, a deeply indebted country, the worst.
Germany needed someone to blame. Many of the Soviets, such as communist iconoclast Leon Trotsky, were Jewish. Jews likewise are long associated with banks and the banking system. Rejecting both American style capitalism and communism as Jewish conspiracies to keep down the true “Master Race,” an ascendant Adolf Hitler promised to fight against both fronts while offering a brand of socialism for Germans – national socialism. Nazism.
Chauvinistic nationalism is only an irritant until it has state support (just like Islamic fundamentalism, which seems to operate in very similar ways). From Timothy McVeigh in the United States to Anders Brevik in Norway, the hard right pops up regularly. In normal times, their intolerance seems bizarre, cartoonish and evil; but in really bad times, it takes on a whole new appeal. Other options didn’t seem to be working for the average German in the early 1930s. Germans during WW2 weren’t some abnormally decadent and evil people. The world seemed at odds with them – so they picked the option that promised to “make them great again.”
The United States in 2015 may be in a similar position. The Republican presidential primary has been dominated for half a year by a boisterous reality television star who is as close to fascist as American politics has ever seen. Donald Trump promises to “make America great again” and do it by removing masses of people from society – either by deporting them, as with millions of illegal immigrants from Latin America, or by blocking them from entry by religion, as with Muslims. He came into the political world in 2012 by actively questioning the birthplace of President Barack Obama – one can imagine that this inclination of Trump’s won’t stop or end with Hispanics or Muslims. Given the history of such ideas and our very recent memory of seeing militarized police in American streets (and under a president who at least on the surface is more tolerant than a President Trump would be), it would not be hard to imagine what those police would look like rounding up massive groups of people and herding them in to camps. It’s the sort of thing this country would try to live down forever.
That’s where “Man in the High Castle” becomes truly disturbing. Our heroes and protagonists are immersed in fascism. Joe Blake, a Nazi spy who infiltrates the resistance, becomes over time drawn to Julianna, a resistance fighter, questioning his beliefs more and more. We see that Blake isn’t a bad person – in fact, he seems to be filled with empathy for most of the people he encounters. Nevertheless, in his conversations with his boss, Smith refers to him several times as “very motivated.” He is a committed Nazi even if he is a good person.
While many of my more mainstream friends have insisted that the Trump phenomenon would die down or that Hillary Clinton would prevail, many on the Left, naturally more jaded about the nature of mainstream politics, see the real possibility of a Trump presidency. One article in Jacobin, appropriately titled “When Trump Becomes President,” interviewed several leftist academics and writers who listed all the very real reasons Donald Trump could actually be president of the United States.
It’s odd that it took so long for genuine fascism (and not just the hyperbole thrown by the left at right-wing politicians like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush) to sell in America. It seems to take a symphony of dynamics – humiliation in wars (the endless wars in the Middle East have certainly not helped American sensibilities), a depleted economy, rampant debt, and a lack of belief in a country’s institutions. Even during the Great Depression, people largely still believed in their country’s institutions and didn’t suffer from a feeling of humiliation or debt. The United States now is in unchartered territory for its history, but one we’ve seen before in other countries. For these reasons, “The Man in the High Castle” doesn’t seem as much like fictional, alternative history; but rather a portrayal of our near and possible future.