An Alternate-History Expert Assesses Amazon's Nazis-Rule-the-World Show
Amazon's latest original series, The Man in the High Castle, depicts a parallel reality in which the Allies lost World War II and the United States is controlled by Axis powers. The visually stunning adaptation of Philip K. Dick's dystopian 1962 novel boasts positive reviews and standout performances by its ensemble cast, but how does it hold up as alternate history? Thrillist spoke with Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, an expert in counterfactual history and the author of The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism, for his take (as best as science fiction can be fact-checked) on the plausibility and execution of several key scenarios in the series.
Hitler and the Nazis conquer the United States
“The possibility of it is pretty much nil," argues Rosenfeld. "The historical consensus at this point is that the Nazis may well have had long-term intentions of having the US as their final enemy, and there were plans to develop long-range bombers that could fly from the Azores over to the East Coast [of the US]. But of course, the Nazis simply didn’t have the resources to win a war in Europe or North Africa, let alone take it to North America.”
High-level Americans collaborate with the Nazi Party
"The fact that there are American collaborators with the Nazis [in Castle] tells us as a general message -- which is something [author Philip K.] Dick wanted to do in the late '50s and early '60s -- that Americans themselves were not above collaborating with fascist regimes, and maybe these domestic tendencies could be a sign of some worrisome trends," Rosenfeld explains. "It’s a pretty bleak vision."
The Japanese seem more friendly (sort of) than the Nazis
"Dick wanted to use the comparatively humane Japanese as a foil for underscoring the evil and demonic capacity of the Nazis. In the novel, by portraying the Japanese as pretty traditional imperialists, but at least cultured people, comparatively the Japanese come off much better. And the Nazis have a much more racially extreme ideology. And I think the series isn’t being soft on the Japanese even if they come off a little bit better. They’re not above some pretty nasty stuff as well."
Underground rebels work to overthrow the dictatorship
"Because the premise of the series is that the Nazis had the military strength to conquer the US, I think the viewers can take for granted that resistance would have been very, very futile," asserts Rosenfeld. "The silver lining is since this is a pretty heavily armed country, where every single person apparently has stowed away dozens of rifles, the notion that there wouldn’t have been an effective Nazi-resistance movement with all these weapons I find hard to believe."
Bibles are banned
"I think Hitler certainly had as his long-term vision a final battle against the Protestant and Catholic Churches," says Rosenfeld. "He of course had his initial enemies being leftists, Jews, trade union people, and he had a kind of co-operative detente toward the churches initially, but he was cracking down on them as the war dragged on. His vision ultimately would have been a completely secular anti-Christian world that would have been established. So it’s not implausible for Bibles to be banned. But how that would have gone over in America, which is very devout, is anyone’s guess."
Monolithic Nazi structures tower over American cities
"The Nazis have become such a cliché in Hollywood films that every time you see a swastika or leather boot the viewer thinks: oh, I’ve seen this 50 million times," says Rosenfeld. "But the series, architecturally, does a really good job of taking what would have been '60s-style skyscrapers and melds them with Albert Speer’s monumental neoclassical Nazi iconography and the buildings that he had designed for Berlin. The sweeping urban scenes of New York and San Francisco with these Nazi monoliths punctuating the skyline is really well done and gives you a new way of seeing how the Nazis might have parlayed their victory into more aggressive, pompous gestures."
The Nazis take over pop culture
"Aesthetically, the production values are so high," says Rosenfeld about High Castle. "There are incredible details you can find if you’re really paying attention, like photos on a dilapidated building advertising a Marx Brothers movie that clearly is no longer politically correct to show. There’s also a TV show playing in the background called American Reich. It’s like The Simpsons in that if you’re really a devotee of that show you’ll see a lot of details that flesh out the world. To me, it’s the most impressively developed alternate world that I’ve seen thus far."
Hitler's increasingly poor health leads to a power struggle
"Hitler was already in such terrible health, probably with Parkinson's disease, [and he was] addicted to countless narcotics and drugs," says Rosenfeld about the dictator's final days. "He himself believed he only had a few years to live when he proclaimed war in 1939, so the idea of him surviving into the early ‘60s is kind of ludicrous." That said, Rosenfeld adds that, "There have been a lot of alternate histories that have had as their premise Hitler being assassinated at some point between 1933 and '45, and the question always ends up being: what sort of a power struggle erupts after he’s done away with? The idea that is typified is if Hitler was removed from office, there would have been a struggle between someone like Hermann Goering, who was very closely tied to the military and relatively flexible in terms of ideology, versus someone like Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, or Joseph Goebbels, the head of the propaganda ministry, who would have been very much committed to implementing the Nazi racial ideology. So the question would have been: Which party would win out?"
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Anna Silman is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertaiment and an alum of Vulture and Salon. One time, she wrote a feature on Nazi art theft. Find her on Twitter: @annaesilman.