We imagine different pasts in order to imagine a different present. That's one reason that alternate histories involving the Nazis are so common and so popular. Thinking about how we could have avoided a Holocaust before is a way to figure out how to avoid another Holocaust now. Whether musing about pre-war time traveling with Captain Kirk, or contemplating the pros and cons of killing baby Hitler, we're really trying to figure out what we should do today to prevent the worst tomorrow.
Thinking about how we could have avoided a Holocaust then is a way to figure out how to avoid another Holocaust now.
As an alternate history about Nazis, Amazon series “The Man in the High Castle” hasn’t always been as present-minded as you'd expect. For three seasons, the show has often been less interested in challenging us to do better now, and more interested in encouraging us to pat ourselves on the back. The fourth and final season does better in this regard. But the Nazis still are treated less as a warning and more as an opportunity for self-congratulation.
"The Man in the High Castle" is very loosely based on a 1962 novel by Philip K. Dick. Like the book, the series is set in the early 60s, in a world where Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated, Hitler developed the atomic bomb and the United States was conquered by the Axis. The eastern U.S. is ruled by the Nazis, the Pacific coast is part of the Japanese empire and the mountain states are what's left of a tenuously free America.
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The story focuses on Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), a resident of the Pacific states who learns that the anti-Nazi resistance is distributing film reels which show a world in which the Allies won the war. Over the course of the show, Juliana discovers that the films come from a real, alternate earth — our world. And at the beginning of the fourth season, she uses psychic powers to travel there. Meanwhile, John Smith (Rufus Sewell), an American who has risen to a high position in the Nazi hierarchy, works on building the technology to travel between the two worlds in hopes of conquering our universe, and every other alternate dimension, for the Reich.
Juliana uses the films of an allied victory to try to inspire people in her world; imagining a defeated Germany suggests that resistance to fascism is possible. By the same token, watching a television series about a Nazified America is meant in part to remind us that freedom is tenuous. To watch "The Man in the High Castle" is to reflect on how easy it could be for authoritarianism to gain a foothold here.
The fourth season is overall better at driving this point home. It does this in part by substantively engaging with America's homegrown racism for the first time. The African-American organizers of a black Communist movement, led by Bell Mallory (Frances Turner), repeatedly point out that the racism and abuse they face under Axis control is not much different than the racism and abuse they faced during Jim Crow. Fascism may be a novel dystopia for white Americans, but it's long been the status quo for black people.
The series also emphasizes America’s potential for evil by delving into the backstory of John Smith. Smith fought the Axis as an American soldier; but after the Nazi victory, he switched sides to protect his wife and new baby. Along the way, he had to betray Jewish friends and convince himself that American ideals like freedom and equality were ultimately not worth fighting or dying for.
The series contrasts the Nazi John Smith with the John Smith living in the other reality, our reality — an unexceptional traveling salesman. Salesman Smith lacks the worldly power of his Nazi counterpart. But he has a much happier home life, and a much stronger moral compass. Our John Smith is a good man. But given the right circumstances, he could have been a bad one.
The problem is that the show is much too certain that the John Smith in our world would have inherently become a righteous antiracist. It's heavily implied that our John Smith would have stood up for black civil rights protestors — though support for the Civil Rights movement was hardly the default for middle-aged white men in Virginia in the early 1960s.
This lack of real introspection is a missed opportunity. “The Man in the High Castle” could have used the two John Smith's to show that white men who tolerate fascism thrive in our world already.
This lack of real introspection is a missed opportunity. “The Man in the High Castle” could have used the two John Smith's to show that white men who tolerate fascism thrive in our world already; you don’t have to create an alternate Nazi universe to find them. Instead, it suggests that Nazi Smith is the product of an entire alien ideology — one imposed on America, rather than one with roots here, too.
The show pulls its punches with the black resistance fighters as well. The movement is centered, not in the Reich, but in the Pacific states, where rebels fight the Japanese. The black Communists even have to be convinced by white people to lend aid to the antifascist, mostly white, resistance in the Reich.
The narrative becomes about how much more racist a foreign, non-white government is, rather than about how white people in America have always behaved.
Thus, ultimately the alternate fascist America in "The Man in the High Castle" serves mostly as a way to congratulate ourselves on our luck. In the series, the only Nazis we have to worry about are those improbable villains trying to invade us from another world. Unfortunately, in reality, racism and authoritarianism don't need to leap dimensional barriers to reach our homeland. Imagining different pasts can help us choose a better future. But only if we're honest about our present.