Fascist Tinted Glasses: The Man in the High Castle
Studying the Contemporary Politics of Using Nazis in Fiction
A study of the contemporary politics of using Nazis in fiction, alternate history in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.
It’s tempting at times to call various groups “Nazis” without taking the time to qualify that. While the events of recent years might… er, merit that noun, or adjective, or adverb…
Okay, let’s back up.
I grew up with a mom who watched a lot of Limbaugh. I mean, a lot of Limbaugh. Back in the 1990s, he popularized the term “feminazis” [ 1 ]. He aimed that term at Hillary Clinton. A lot. I don’t doubt that’s part of how she lost the 2016 election, but that’s also how the philosophy and aims of actual fascists got the foothold they have now—at least in part.
We live in a world where people hate to be called fascists. Seriously, ask yourself: who’s been happy to accept that label since Mussolini died? Been a while, huh? It’s amazing what displaying the headless corpse of the founder of a fascist state hung by his feet can do as a warning [ 2 ]. But here we are in the 21st century, and little bits of Il Duce’s philosophy are becoming popular again. Since I live in Illinois, you can guess which country I have in mind when I think of wannabe dictators.
No more mincing words: I lean to the left on most things, and I can see a lot of the country I’m in leans to the right. The November 2020 elections weren’t long ago, and the man who will not be remembered kindly by history got 74,222,593 votes as of the last count I read [ 3 ]. While there’s a lot more I could bring from that election season into this article, I’ll go ahead and stop examining it here. I don’t think I’d be able to shut myself up…
So let’s go to what these articles are supposed to focus on: entertainment. You know, bread and circuses? OK, distractions aside, people are out there making art that looks at the modern world and makes commentary on what could happen or is happening in the field of autocratic regimes. Not a lot of advances there as far as development goes, but, you gotta admit, it’s learned to advertise itself better. So what do modern artists do? Vivisect modern fascism and put it under a microscope for public examination. Not everyone might come away with the same conclusions, and some might not really put much thought into the “exercise” at all. Still, looking at Nazi Germany—post mortem—has been done through fiction ever since the movie Germany, Year Zero [ 4 ], the earliest piece of fiction depicting Nazism that I can think of.
Yes, I know the Stooges went after them earlier than that. But we’re talking post-World War II.
The Lessons of Evil
In its purest form, art is saying that there are only short-term winners in being evil. No matter how big and powerful they may have become, men of an evil mindset are always eventually destroyed. History classed try to do a service in showing us that. However, very few of us like to sit through these lessons. Not to mention: the “artist” may be evil himself. There have been many propaganda films both in favor of and against being evil for profit.
American artists and educators with ulterior motives created a lie so big that it still stings the whole of the United States. It’s blatant, enshrined in Southern history books, textbooks, and government documents. The United Daughters of the Confederacy—also responsible for erecting and defending a great many of the public monuments to Confederate figures—have been its primary proponents [ 4 ][ 5 ][ 6 ][ 7 ]. But the lie that slavery was generally good for slaves and was a much kinder, gentler slavery than what most people believe has never been more obviously revealed than in the grand lie known as The Birth of a Nation [ 8 ][ 9 ].
Full of misinformation, this film showed the South as the genteel and cultured sophisticates they dreamt of being but never once addressed of the costs to the people who kept that gentility and culture afloat: the children of enslaved women and their nominal owners recounting rapes and coercion; scars, hobbling, and amputations (not to mention a federal law requiring the return of escaped enslaved people) to stop slaves from running away [ 10 ][ 11 ]; and of course, the lynchings, documented by white families happily showing up and taking huge numbers of photos, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt who they were and what was going on [ 12 ].
This, too, is a culture of evil; it doubles down on ignorance; tells Black people to “get over it”; waves “the Confederate flag” (yes, we know that that flag was not the Confederate flag; no, we’re not going down that rabbit hole right now); and tries to tell us that this is just “heritage, not hate”—rather than accepting that these things were indeed done and that, in many instances, their parents and grandparents were the ones doing them. There is no wonder that white nationalists, racists, and actual Klan members would identify with Nazis, as they came closer to the goal of a “white paradise” than any of them ever did.
One of the most contemporary and timely works about Nazis is the adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, a series detailing an alternate timeline in which the Axis won World War II, from a novel written several decades earlier [ 13 ][ 14 ]. The titular “man in the high castle” who gives information against the Reich is compared to several contemporary political figures, including Julian Assange, the “unlawfully detained” runner of WikiLeaks.
Assange published a series of leaks of classified information to the public that he deemed it needed to know, including, among other things as detailed by a Newsweek op-ed by members of his legal team: “In the United States, recent leaks that show that the DNC subverted the presidential primaries to favor Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders have drawn particular ire from key actors and media outlets that have been implicated.” The members of his legal team directly compare Assange to the titular Man, stating that “Assange is a writer who disseminates work providing critical insight into readers’ political reality and their collective history. Powerful actors go to great efforts to silence him” [ 15 ].
If a man tells a great lie and is found out, history tends to remember him as human. Humans are not perfect; they make mistakes. But let a man be known as a teller of truths and he is reviled as an enemy to all. Tell the world that the first copy of the Bible ends with Jesus’ death and nothing more and they will hate you. Tell them that their DNA mostly matches that of a primate and they with hate you. Tell them that 2,000 years of burning wood, coal, and oil hurts the environment and you are a menace. Most humans don’t like the truth; they fear it like the most horrible thing their puny dreams can imagine.
The 2015 television adaptation of The Man in the High Castle, which has received high critical and commercial acclaim, might then be expected—almost demanded—to be a commentary on the current state of affairs, to be the foil to the ever-complicating political situation here in the U.S. If it were not consciously a commentary on current events or an active political player with what cultural power and status it is given, then surely it would by necessity be a signifier for the subconscious understanding of the current political situation and would be interpreted thusly by academics.
However, according to some of the show’s actors and producers, the current political climate was not on their mind when making the show. They claim that they exist in a bubble and that the show is meant not to be involved with the current political scheme but as an escape from it. Rupert Evans, who plays budding resistance fighter Frank Frink, hoped that viewers might find the show to be an escape, rather than a commentary. “When they watch this, they can immerse themselves in the lives of these people. I hope that people can absorb and escape from their world if that’s what they want, and just watch this new world and these characters and how they deal with their lives in the very different environments they’re in” [ 16 ].
Of course, given the number of people watching and their varying degrees of both knowledge of and interaction with the political situation, as well as their particular agenda or interests may find this dubious and this is acknowledged as well. Some might even call the idea of creating a bubble away from the current climate at best naïve, and at worst intentionally avoiding or ignoring the problem when given a platform to speak.
One can even draw direct comparisons to what made the original novel such a provocative piece. The Nazi regime of the novel was not made up of of comical supervillains, but simply a culture of willing intolerance and atrocities that became normalized from a lack—or the effective crushing—of opposition.
Noah Berlatskly argues in his review for The Atlantic that the novel was significantly superior to the television adaptation specifically because in the series, the evil of the Nazis was direct, empirical, and constantly reminding the viewers of it, while in the book, it was subtle and reflected in nothing more than the ways people interacted with and considered each other:
Dick’s book has little of the pulp melodrama of the TV pilot; there are no torture scenes, no supervillains, and not even a single scene set in the repressive Nazi-controlled region of the former U.S. Instead, the action occurs in the independent Mountain States or on the Japanese-controlled Pacific areas and most of the characters go about their daily lives just as most of us do now… The frightening thing isn’t the dystopia. It’s that the dystopia is so familiar it doesn’t really feel dystopian at all.
This is nowhere more clearly seen than in the novel’s treatment of race. In the TV pilot, the bad guys are racists, and the good guys are not. Frank’s wife, Juliana Frink (Alexa Davalos), makes it clear that she opposes the racial laws that threaten her husband and that she harbors no racist feelings toward the Japanese conquerors. But in the book, things are a lot murkier. Juliana and Frank are estranged, and in her internal monologue she sneers at him for liking “Japs” and for being “ugly” with “large pores” and a “big nose.” Another character who doesn’t appear in the pilot, the salesman R. Childan, vacillates between obsequious paeans to Japanese racial superiority and resentful, vicious Orientalist stereotyping. Even Mr. Tagomi, the Japanese official who is the moral center of the book in most respects, lapses occasionally into racist invective—“white barbarian, Neanderthal yank. That subhuman…” [ 17 ].
He regrets it almost immediately. It seems plain that the overall lesson to learn from the way both the show and the book are put together is that the table of kids who only care about appearance will eventually become Nazis. Or maybe they already were and just had to discover that part of themselves.
Moral Obligations of Storytelling
Does a TV series have any moral obligation to address and combat the troubles of the current political climate? It’s obvious that they are glossing over the worst of the Nazi atrocities by ignoring them. Creating a work of fiction purely as an escape is a denial of the chance to use one’s cultural capital to engage with reality and make a difference. Perhaps it is unfair to demand a show to be the one to drag people out of their current state of being and push them in the direction of making a change. But by all that is good in the universe that is what is right to do.
On the other hand, Adi Robertson writing in The Verge implies that its current depiction of the fascist regimes is horribly irresponsible at the very least, tantamount to downplaying the seriousness of fascism:
Joe and Juliana are effectively The Man in the High Castle’s protagonists, and the ones with the most dramatic narrative shifts. But they’re also some of its most aimless characters, too indecisive and inscrutable to feel truly motivated by anything… Dick’s book, and much of the show’s first season, depicted a totalitarian system that felt unassailable and omnipresent—the only way to break it would be to destroy absolutely everything in the process, whether by force or by rewriting reality. If someone manages to slip their political shackles, there’s nowhere meaningful to go.
The show becomes strangely focused on nuclear weapons as the ultimate evil, ignoring the mass Nazi ethnic cleansing and political repression the first season hinted at. It’s not just that characters have normalized these atrocities, which is an important theme of the show. It’s that at times, the writers seem to forget they exist [ 18 ].
The show runs at the thin edge of both racist wish fulfillment and a cautionary tale. With the occupiers’ level of control, there must be concentration camps in this world. The death toll must be staggering and yet we see or hear nothing of it. At their height in World War II, the total number of death camps in Germany-controlled territories exceeded 40,000, with the number killed approaching nearly 6,000 a day in Auschwitz alone [ 19 ].
Imagine America’s greater size and greater population density and then extrapolate. Combine that with an extension of the Aktion T4 plan (which from January 1940 to August 1941 gassed about 70,000 so-called “unfit”) to the occupied U.S., and the death toll would have to be well over 10,000 a day per camp. Hence the wish fulfillment—but also several words of caution about what would in all likelihood have happened if the “bad guys” had won. But there is a whole lot more of “show the bad guys having all they want doing what they want and looking good while doing it” going on than anything about them suffering or regretting their choices. While the show focuses on nuclear weapons, their use is one thing that did actually happen in this timeline.
From a certain philosophical standpoint, maybe it doesn’t matter whether an empire that starts a nuclear holocaust is good or bad because everyone ends up dead either way. But TMitHC barely addresses the fact that its world is stuck in a permanent, ongoing non-nuclear holocaust. The idea that “the bomb” inherently dwarfs every other form of destruction is dated in a way that Dick’s book wasn’t even in the 1960s—and a way that doesn’t make sense in the series’ horrific reality.
More Questions Than Answers
TMitHC’s first season had plenty of problems in its own right, but it left too many questions unanswered. Season two has its own high points, particularly its subplot with John Smith’s son, a true Nazi believer who is slowly becoming aware of his “defective” condition. After discovering his degenerative genetic condition, he realizes he will only get progressively worse and worse before he dies. Being a good Nazi, he turns himself in to be purged. And the cast, particularly Sewell, gives consistently solid performances, but this is a show based on world-building, and the less invested characters are in its society, the less interested we are in watching what they do. The Man in the High Castle’s fascist societies come closer to mutual destruction than ever in season two, but they feel paradoxically less threatening—and ultimately, far less real.
Ostensibly, the lack of consequences for all the characters in power leaves us to believe that this is a relatively safe world for the average white Joe. Based on the Nazi cultural structure of the 1940s, this world is a world of isolation; indeed, this is a world where very few people know how or where the sausage is made. The general populace may well be unaware that most, if not all, of this is going on.
However, one thing the series certainly does do that addresses a contemporary political issue is to depict the universality of the underlying psychology that leads people or entire states into fascism. It is a very simple concept; if you don’t feel empathy for another being, it is so much very easier to kill them. The inability of massive numbers of white people to feel empathy is a serious problem. The medical terms for a lack of empathy include sociopaths and psychopaths. This is the case in America. For a group of people who claim to be Christians and are supposed to help the poor, to vote someone into office who is pandering to Nazis, Neo- Nazis, white supremacists, and skinheads makes perfect sense if they feel no empathy. Vote to get rid of something that helps people: not a problem. Take away that core ability to empathize with others and you create a state that can do any evil act and justify it with a smile.
One of the most traumatic establishing scenes in TMitHC is in its first episode, when the policeman says, “Yeah on Tuesdays they burn the cripples and the terminally ill… drag on the state.” It’s creating a culture of monsters.
Meanwhile, the Aktion T4 plan also added old people to its list, making it a plan that would eventually come for everyone at one point or another: injured war heroes, victims of car accidents, rape victims that couldn’t move past their trauma, those who did poorly at school (you have dyslexia? They don’t fix it; they fix you). Think of the immense list of people with learning disabilities, genetic conditions, mental issues, physical trauma that can’t be fixed, or are just a little bit off. These are the people that get killed off before they look at skin color or nationality or religion.
It is too easy to understand fascism as being the product of a single unique cultural moment. However, one of the major problems in combating fascism is that, as an ideology, it’s much more universal than is commonly understood, and that it can come from people of any culture or philosophical bent. Shant Shahrigian, writing in Deutche Welle, asserts that “Once you get over the shock value of High Castle … the series offers fascinating insights into today’s headlines—and how xenophobia can become the status quo before we even take notice,” and says:
[Illya] Somin, a law professor who has written about the politics of sci-fi and fantasy, said that [the series] seems to contend that “People in virtually any society in the right circumstances could go along with an oppressive and unjust regime.” He noted that idea is at odds with a school of thought holding that Nazism was the product of flaws and culture unique to Germany. Somin added, “There’s been an ongoing debate among historians and popular culture as to what extent Nazism and other forms of totalitarianism are a product of a particular culture and to what extent the product of human nature” [ 20 ].
Summary and Conclusion
It’s 2020 as I write this, and John Q. Public seems afraid to declare that Nazis are bad. At least, the public as a whole. It’s a polarizing time to be a U.S. citizen, and I don’t think I’d ever have expected this, growing up in the 1980s. Not long ago, the imagery of this somehow-not-abolished creed got reawakened with an image of angry, young, white men… carrying tiki torches. Many have managed to convince themselves that they are in danger of extinction, somehow (yes, I’m aware those were two separate sections of that march; they were still part of the same march). We’ve somehow woken up to an era where, while the word “fascism” is bad, its actions and mindset, the tribalism it embraces in an effort to normalize itself, and the insidiousness with which it approaches are often embraced.
“If the last and the worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and the smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked. If, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next” [ 21 ].
Here’s the “tl;dr” version: You don’t see it until it’s too late. Let’s not let it be too late.
Right now, series like The Man in the High Castle are fiction, but they serve the purpose of showing people what a fascist society would look like. People need to look to their democratic-republic and keep it in check at all times, lest it become autocracy with the serial numbers filed off.
- “Philip K. Dick’s haunting narrative was adapted into a 4-season saga on Amazon Prime.”
Source: Percival, Daniel. Man in the High Castle. Prime Video, 5 Oct. 2018, www.amazon.com/Man-High-Castle-Season-3/dp/B086VWQF67
- “The imagery of the show never fails to be haunting.” Source: Percival, Daniel. Man in the High Castle. Prime Video, 5 Oct. 2018, www.amazon.com/Man-High-Castle-Season-3/dp/B086VWQF67
As SFS’s Chief Administrative Officer, Mr. Cardinal has found his editorial duties at Steam-Funk Studios often reconnect him to parts of fandom he’d have otherwise overlooked. Andrew has DJed, catered, and run travel logistics in the goth scene as DJ Rasclin. Other credentials include staffing for Anime Central and work for the US Census Bureau. As the second of our Senior Editors, he advises on strategy for both The Unconventional and The Living Multiverse, remaining a steady guiding hand.
- Rudman, Chelsea, “‘Feminazi’: The History of Limbaugh’s Trademark Slur against Women,” Media Matters, 12 Mar 2012. mediamatters.org/rush-limbaugh/feminazi-history-limbaughs-trademark-slur-against-women. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Klein, Christopher, “Mussolini’s Final Hours.” History Channel, 28 Apr 2015. history.com/news/mussolinis-final-hours. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Wasserman, David, et al, “2020 National Popular Vote Tracker,” Cook Political Report, cookpolitical.com/2020-national-popular-vote-tracker. Accessed 28 Mar 2020.
- Holloway, Kali, “7 things the United Daughters of the Confederacy might not want you to know about them, Salon, 6 Oct 2018. salon.com/2018/10/06/7-things-the-united-daughters-of-the-confederacy-might-not-want-you-to-know-about-them_partner. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Huffman, Greg, “TWISTED SOURCES: How Confederate propaganda ended up in the South’s schoolbooks,” Facing South Magazine, 10 Apr 2019. facingsouth.org/2019/04/twisted-sources-how-confederate-propaganda-ended-souths-schoolbooks. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Turner, Karen and Jessica Machado, “5 things people still get wrong about slavery,” Vox, 22 Aug 2019. vox.com/identities/2019/8/22/20812883/1619-slavery-project-anniversary. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- “Civil War Primary Sources: The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States,” American Battlefield Trust, updated 18 Dec 2019. battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/declaration-causes-seceding-states. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- NPR Staff, “100 Years Later, What’s The Legacy Of ‘Birth Of A Nation’?” NPR, 8 Feb 2015. npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/02/08/383279630/100-years-later-whats-the-legacy-of-birth-of-a-nation. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Clark, Alexis, “How ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Revived the Ku Klux Klan,” History Channel, 29 Jul 2019. history.com/news/kkk-birth-of-a-nation-film. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Roper, Moses, “How He Was Punished After Trying to Run Away” in Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, London, 1837. Reproduced at digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=501. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Office of the Missouri Secretary of State, “Missouri State Archives: Missouri’s Early Slave Laws: A History in Documents,” Missouri Digital Heritage, 2021. sos.mo.gov/archives/education/aahi/earlyslavelaws/slavelaws.asp.
- EJI Staff, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror 3rd ed., Equal Justice Institute, 2017. lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Krajewski, Bruce, Joshua Heter, et al., directors. The Man in the High Castle. Performances by Alexa Davalos, Rupert Evans, Luke Kleintank, D.J. Qualls, Joel de la Fuente, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Rufus Sewell. Amazon Prime Video, 2017–2019.
- Dick, Philip K., The Man in the High Castle. New York: Putnam, 1962.
- Kunstler, Margaret Ratner, Melinda Taylor, and Stella Moris, “Is Julian Assange Finally on the Path to Freedom?,” Newsweek, 23 Aug 2016, newsweek.com/julian-assange-wikileaks-legal-team-lawyer-man-high-castle-491396.
- Miller, Liz Shannon, “‘The Man in The High Castle’: What It’s Like to Make A Show About Fascism in The Age of Trump,” IndieWire, 12 Mar 2017. indiewire.com/2016/12/the-man-in-the-high-castle-season-2-amazon-philip-k-dick-fascism-nazi-interview-1201758225/. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Berlatsky, Noah, “The Man in the High Castle: When a Nazi-Run World Isn’t So Dystopian.” The Atlantic, 22 Jan 2015. theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/01/man-in-the-high-castle-when-a-nazi-ruled-world-isnt-so-dystopian/384708. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Robertson, Adi. “The Man in the High Castle Loses Its Political Edge When We Need It Most,” The Verge, 22 Dec 2016. theverge.com/2016/12/22/14061794/amazon-man-in-the-high-castle-season-2-review. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- USHMM Staff, “Nazi Camps,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2021. encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/nazi-camps. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Shahrigian, Shant, “Why ‘The Man in the High Castle’ is more relevant than ever,” Deutsche Welle, 12 Aug 2015. p.dw.com/p/1HIhF. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Mayer, Milton. They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45. University of Chicago Press, 2018, p. 170.