As a young and hopeful historian, one thing I am commonly asked by friends and family is whether or not their favorite historical drama or “period piece” is “historically accurate.” Most of the time I have only a vague idea. As a scholar of early twentieth century radical politics, my expertise is rarely evoked—though I will admit getting some satisfaction from giving my opinion on Tom Branson, Downton Abbey’s ornery Marxist chauffer turned aristocrat. However, when asked to write a historically minded review of the second season of Man in the High Castle, I was immediately intrigued by the task.
The Amazon Original Series is something of a period piece (it takes place during the sixties), but it is best described as an alternate history. It is rooted in a timeline similar to our own: everything prior to World War II happens identically as it does in our reality. The show’s timeline, however, takes a dramatic turn when Nazi Germany drops an atomic bomb on Washington D.C. forcing an American surrender. By 1960, the former United States is divided in half between the contesting world powers of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. While a small and largely ineffectual resistance exists, most of the United States has been subdued. On the east coast, the Nazi program of ethnic cleansing was a success; school children are taught to worship Adolf Hitler; and most American workers appear content enough with their access to jet planes and economic security to resign their ambition for independence.
This piece should be considered a historical review. This means I will make no extended consideration of the series’ quality in this article. I will allow critics more experienced with cinematic conventions to offer their opinions in this regard. Instead, I will examine the historical considerations MITHC sparked in me. Before I do so, however, I should note that I will be focusing mostly on the Nazi side of occupied America. This is primarily for two reasons: 1.) I know precious little about Imperial Japan and 2.) The show has provided almost no information of how the Japanese Empire is structured. It is presumed that the Emperor is still the head of the government while the military exercises most of the control. Still, New York City and Berlin are the most detailed sets the show provides. San Francisco makes for an expanded setting, but little is explained regarding its position in the Empire or who exactly is in charge of administering the city. That being said, the show’s second season succeeded in bringing two themes to my mind: namely, the history of American “fascism” and the nature of youth rebellion during times of prosperity.
Could it Happen Here?
Clearly, the Nazis could never have invaded the United States and the German government was not even remotely close to building an atomic weapon. Also, both scenarios are dependent on the Wehrmacht not stalling in the Soviet Union early in 1943. The only way that a fascist government could have come to power in America is with massive public complicity. To its credit, MITHC does present a fair degree of local participation in the Nazi regime—a portrayal I find deeply disturbing, yet thought provoking. The most obvious example of American-Nazi collusion is through the character Obergrüppenführer John Smith [Rufus Sewell], a red-blooded American and former army officer, who by the fifties appears to be in charge of the American Reich. In a less obvious example, NYC’s main airport is named George Lincoln Rockwell International (Rockwell founded the American Nazi Party in 1959).
The series does a chillingly effective job of showing American life under fascist rule. In New York, Nazi government officials live with their families in high-end Long Island suburbs complete with white picket fences, manicured lawns, and block parties. In the city itself, workers live quietly in newly built efficiency apartments. The parks are maintained, jobs are provided, and the infrastructure is reliable. Smith’s son, Thomas, is deliberate in espousing the regimes ‘contribute or else’ philosophy. Even when faced with the knowledge of his own degenerative spinal condition, he voluntarily turns himself in for euthanizing. Though subtle, the message is clear: Euro-Americans adapted to, and accepted, fascism and a two-tiered hierarchy of power in exchange for some semblance of a set standard of living. At one point, OF Smith recalls initial resistance to occupation, but claims it was quickly put down. Historically, this is an interesting interpretation. Though a neglected and uncomfortable topic, during the 1930s many Americans were intrigued by fascism and millions more showed little interest in preventing its rise.
Generally speaking, liberal democracy was on its last legs during the Great Depression. Countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and France devised broad social programs to combat the economic slump, but ultimately failed to substantially reduce unemployment and increase wages. Indeed, the Weimar Republic’s failure to alleviate economic suffering in Germany was key to the rise of Nazi leaders promising jobs under the auspices of ethnic nationalism. The Soviet Union also succeeded in attracting thousands of foreign workers through a propaganda campaign claiming that Stalin’s command economy had solved the economic crisis.
Some Americans looked enviously upon countries that had supposedly “beat” the Depression. Indeed, as late as 1938, half way through his second term in office, FDR urged American citizens to stay vigilant, warning that “ if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, then Fascism and Communism, aided, unconsciously perhaps, by old-line Tory Republicanism, will grow in strength in our land.”
Historian and political scientist Ira Katznelson convincingly argues that Roosevelt’s New Deal was an attempt to consolidate faith in country without the “terrible price” of authoritarianism. It certainly did drastically expand the size of the federal government (though FDR never abandoned his belief in a balanced budget and smaller bureaucratic state). This cautiousness opened a space for individuals like Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin to operate. Long, a governor and then senator from Louisiana, and Coughlin, a Catholic radio personality, mobilized millions to seek more radical redress than the Roosevelt administration was willing to offer. As historian Alan Brinkley notes, “to their supporters…Long and Coughlin offered a message of real meaning.” “They provided,” he writes, “an affirmation of threatened values and institutions, and a vision of a properly structured society in which those values and institutions could thrive.”
Long, the inspiration for Sinclair Lewis’ dystopian It Can’t Happen Here and the 1949 film All the King’s Men, was undoubtedly corrupt and dictatorial. In one particularly petty moment, he drilled a hole in the Louisiana State House above the head of one of his political opponents so that rain would pour on him during meetings. He also spent a great deal of energy creating monuments to commemorate his own political career. But he nonetheless rose to national prominence as a result of his “Share Our Wealth Clubs.” These clubs backed Long’s lofty wealth redistribution, which sought to give every American family a $5,000 dollar allowance, a minimum yearly income of $2,500, and a cap on personal fortunes of $5,000,000. As unrealistic as these schemes might have been, they carried Long’s booming popularity far and wide across the United States.
Father Coughlin had a similar appeal. His radio sermons preached for the creation of a society based upon “social justice;” he decried equally the power of industrialists, bankers, politicians, and communists. He decried both capitalism and socialism. If the dichotomy seemed at all contradictory, most of his Catholic supporters thought otherwise. Indeed, much of Coughlin’s message was derived from Pope Pius XI’s encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, which encouraged Catholics to form labor unions and seek reform as long as it avoided secular socialism (129-130). Coughlin’s popularity waned after his third party, the Union Party, failed to deliver significant results. His supporters tuned in and nodded along with his call for a government more serious in enforcing economic equality, but at the end of the day, still voted for FDR (whose turn further to the left in 1936 stole much of Coughlin and Long’s thunder).
Long and Coughlin were certainly demagogic figures. Both were rash, impulsive, and self-aggrandizing. But were they ever faces of a potentially fascist threat? Unlikely. Coughlin took a dramatic turn toward anti-Semitism after his decline in popularity—echoing the international banking conspiracy favored by Henry Ford (the only American to receive a favorable spot in Hitler’s Mein Kampf). But by this point, far fewer Americans were really listening to him. It is difficult to say how Long would have fared had he not been assassinated in 1936, but he almost certainly would have been undercut by the New Deal Coalition. Regardless, both men received attention because they offered radical solutions during a time of depression and slow economic growth.
When discussions over FDR’s Lend Lease Program—which would have increased military aid to Britain—began in January of 1941, organizations like the America First Committee garnered significant sympathy for their cause of keeping America out of the war. While most of the 800,000 dues-paying members of the Committee were not Nazi sympathizers, Charles Lindbergh, the famed transatlantic pilot and “America First” spokesman, was at least mildly appreciative of Nazi Germany. Indeed, in a September 1941 speech in Des Moines, Iowa, he targeted the Roosevelt Administration, the British, and the Jews for dragging America into an unwanted and devastating war. The Jews, Lindbergh argued, had substantial control of “our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government” and deserved a substantial portion of the blame. His incorporation of the Jewish conspiracy was something the Nazi government, and its American boosters, the German-American Bund, would have clearly supported. Ultimately, only the few thousand members of the Silver Shirts (an openly Nazi-sympathetic political party) and Gerald K. Smith (a far-right Christian organizer who got his start building Share Our Wealth Societies in the wake of Huey P. Long’s death), ended up filtering into the America First Party (an openly anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi party that objected US entry into the war even after Pearl Harbor). The AFP won almost no votes when they ran against FDR in 1944, though Smith continued to publish and run Christianization campaigns (including the construction of the “Christ of the Ozarks”), into the 1960s.
We should not forget about the Americans who initially campaigned to keep America out of the European war, but neither should we forget the few thousand Americans who fought (and the hundreds who died) in the Spanish Civil War [1936-1939] against General Francisco Franco and his open allies, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. It’s also worth remembering that the beloved Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) spent his thirties penning political cartoons condemning the Firsters. I strongly believe that most Americans would have followed in the footsteps of their heart-hurt compatriot, Rick Blaine, and told the house band to play “La Marseillaise.”
Still, it is worth noting that many America Firsters had less sinister, albeit still misguided, reasons for not entering the war in Europe. Many believed it would lead to a curtailment of civil liberties at home—leading to a Roosevelt dictatorship. This was already a controversial issue, considering FDR had broken a century and a half of precedent by running for a third term in office. Others, like Montana Senator Burton Wheeler, believed the war would “plough under every fourth American boy.” Those on the far left, like Socialist Norman Thomas, believed the war was a brawl between imperialist powers. The left argued that if it were truly a war for democracy, then the US had no reason to come to the aid of the openly dictatorial Soviet Union and the colonial superpowers of France and England. In short, what united many Americans before the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was the belief that defeating Nazi Germany was not worth dying for. Combating the debilitating effects of the Great Depression was still the top concern for many by the beginning of the 1940s.
Does this mean that the MITHC portrayal of a docile public under Nazi rule is probable? Likely not. While the American public may have been initially meek in facing the fascist threat, there were those who actively resisted this tendency long before Pearl Harbor. The so-called “Popular Front” of the mid-thirties helped bond a broad coalition of liberals, socialists, communists, and other erstwhile anti-fascists. For a time, it rivaled the size of America First. We should not forget about the Americans who initially campaigned to keep America out of the European war, but neither should we forget the few thousand Americans who fought (and the hundreds who died) in the Spanish Civil War [1936-1939] against General Francisco Franco and his open allies, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. It’s also worth remembering that the beloved Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) spent his thirties penning political cartoons condemning the Firsters. I strongly believe that most Americans would have followed in the footsteps of their heart-hurt compatriot, Rick Blaine, and told the house band to play “La Marseillaise.”
Still, The Man in the High Castle takes an interesting view of the American people. Certainly, the show acknowledges the dedicated few that never gave up the revolution, but it ultimately looks pessimistically upon the groveling masses. The interpretation is cynical, but so are the times we live in.
A second aspect of the show that piqued my interest was broody Joe Blake’s (Luke Kleintank) time in Berlin. It is revealed midseason that Blake is the product of Heinrich Himmler’s Lebensborn project—a government backed effort to produce a league of pure Aryan children. Upon discovering this information, courtesy of his father, the fictional power-hungry Reichsminister Martin Heusmann, he seeks refuge with his socialite love interest Nicole Becker (Bella Heathcote).
In the episode “Another Earth,” Becker takes Blake to a party of upper crust Germans on the outskirts of the capital. Most of the attendees are the children of top Nazi officials; some of them are descendants of the Lebensborn program as well. Joe, however, is surprised when many of the attendees openly criticize the government—especially in regard to the Nazi’s abysmal environmental policy. One partygoer takes specific aim at the bizarre, but unfortunately historical, “Atlantropa” program to dam the Mediterranean Sea for power and increased arable land. Hours later, Joe drops LSD with a few others and spends the rest of his evening in an introspective “road thus far” moment. Blake’s experiences were clearly meant to parallel Japanese Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi’s arc in the same episode. Tagomi travels to an alternate dimension in which the United States did win the war and encounters his son, in this universe married to Juliana Crane, organizing protests against the test of nuclear weapons.
The parallels between the Port Huron Statement authors’ language of dissatisfaction and the melancholy encountered by Joe Blake in Berlin are obvious. Though the comforts of modern life may have subdued the older generations, the youth of both realities carry the torch of rebellion. Perhaps this is the only example of optimism in the ugly, desolate world of MITHC.
The connection is clear. In both realities, the young are leading the movements for change. This is very much in concert with the writings of British historian, Eric Hobsbawm. Hobsbawm explained the rise of student protest movements during the 1960s as the result of generally increased prosperity. As the global economy rebounded after the destruction of World War II, incomes on both sides of the Iron Curtain increased, goods became cheaper and more available, and consumerism reached soaring new heights. As a result, industrial workers became less likely to lead massive strikes, and more young people attended college. Given the opportunity to advance their education, dissatisfied with the “phony” society around them, and encouraged by dramatic third world revolutions—especially in Cuba—the “New Left” rose not out of the toiling masses, but the middle class.
Take for example one of the opening lines of the Port Huron Statement. Port Huron was the opening shot of the New Left in the United States. The manifesto was written in 1961, years before the escalation of the War in Vietnam turned Students for a Democratic Society from an organization a few thousand strong to the vanguard of a revolutionary movement representing millions of young Americans.
“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit…
As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract “others” we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time.”
The parallels between the authors’ language of dissatisfaction and the melancholy encountered by Joe Blake in Berlin are obvious. Though the comforts of modern life may have subdued the older generations, the youth of both realities carry the torch of rebellion. Perhaps this is the only example of optimism in the ugly, desolate world of MITHC.
Man in the High Castle is not explicitly historical. While it is technically an alternate history, the series should more rightfully be categorized as science fiction. Indeed, the show collapses history, jumping realities and blending different universes. It holds high the notion that there is no linear timeline, but a multiverse of possibilities. That being said, MITHC offers interesting historical commentary on the nature of rebellion, the values of the masses, and the possibilities for change even in the darkest circumstances. The series has the potential to spark important discussions in the era witnessing once more the rise of demagogues and fascists.
* * *
Our collected volume of essays, Demand the Impossible: Essays in History As Activism, is now available on Amazon! Based on research first featured on The Activist History Review, the twelve essays in this volume examine the role of history in shaping ongoing debates over monuments, racism, clean energy, health care, poverty, and the Democratic Party. Together they show the ways that the issues of today are historical expressions of power that continue to shape the present. Also, be sure to review our book on Goodreads and join our Goodreads group to receive notifications about upcoming promotions and book discussions for Demand the Impossible!
* * *
We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.
 I believe this was in Episode Ten, when they debate razing the city of Savannah, allegedly the hotbed of dissent after Hitler’s death.
 Koppel S. Pinson, Modern Germany: Its History and Civilization (New York: Macmillian Company, 1959), 452-453; Richard Breitman, German Socialism and Weimar Democracy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), 4-5.
 Ibid; Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013), 44-45.
 Anthony J. Badger, The New Deal: The Depression Years (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), 111.
 Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin & the Great Depression (New York: Vintage, 1983), 143.
 Ibid, 143.
 Ibid, 24-29.
 ibid, 269-271
 Glen Jeansonne, “Huey P. Long, Gerald L.K. Smith and Leander H. Perez as Charismatic Leaders,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Society Association vol. 35 No. 1 (Winter, 1994) pp. 5-21.
 Republican Wendell Willkie came the closest candidate to unseating Roosevelt by winning about 45% of the popular vote. (Only a slightly lower percentage than Donald Trump!)
 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 444-446.