I’ve got a new review out on Strange Horizons today, this time for the TV adaptation of The Man in the High Castle that Amazon put out last year. Suffice to say, the show has a lot of problems, both as a television program and as a depiction of Nazism. As I’ve come to say, when your oppressive fascist characters are more compelling, sympathetic, and humane than the people they are oppressing, you may have made a serious mistake. Mind you, I am perfectly willing to follow the jackbooted thug if he has some interiority, but sometimes even I have to wonder, you know?
As an addendum, I’d like to blather on a bit about something I was thinking about while I was watching the show but wasn’t really able to articulate in the review.
A lot of my thoughts about the show, and about the use of the Third Reich in alternate history, are influenced by one book: The World Hitler Never Made by Gavriel Rosenfeld. It’s a wonderful book, surveying about 130 works of various media (and varying quality) written between the late 1930s and the beginning of the 2000s. Rosenfeld spends the majority of the book looking at British, American and German sources, and over the sixty-some years he covers he examines some interesting trends. Immediately after the war, of course, no one’s interested in speculation, but works begin to appear in quantity throughout the 1950s, culminating in a spike in the early 1960s at around the time of the Eichmann trial. Most of these early works tended to skew very moralistically; Hitler and the Nazis were malevolent; their victims were virtuous. However, with the advent of the “Hitler Wave,” a term Rosenfeld uses to describe a period stretching from about 1965 to the end of the 1980s of renewed interest in the history of the Third Reich in the West, the types of stories written began to change. Writers were more willing to depict Nazi characters with human complexities, and many of the stories began to use Nazis less as images of pure evil and more as metaphors about particular national concerns. The British stories worried about Britain’s place in the world following the end of the empire, American ones worried about the effect of the Cold War on America, and the German ones worried about modernity as a whole. In the decades following the end of the Cold War, the depictions of Nazism have shifted back towards the old moralism, with the Nazis once again becoming malevolent creatures of nightmare. We’ve gone from the crumbly Brezhnevian-inspired Nazi Europe of Fatherland to demonic super-warriors of Wolfenstein: The New Order. However, while the modern works have returned to the earlier binaries, they don’t quite have the same enthusiasm as the earlier works. It’s an issue that worries Rosenfeld throughout his book, but for my part I see it simply as the natural progression of time. As we get farther and farther away from the Second World War, and as the people who lived through it pass from public life, the memory will inevitably fade. For most of us these days it isn’t something we know about, it’s something we heard about from someone who heard it from someone.
That said, we can still argue between different interpretations of Nazism. For myself, I’ve come to believe that there was something deeply unhinged at the center of the movement, and while it was certainly possible that it could normalize to a degree in some allohistorical scenario, I’d be more willing to imagine a victorious Third Reich eventually tearing itself apart in a particularly horrific fashion. Here in North America, people often ask why we don’t speak of the Soviet Union in the same breath as Nazi Germany. It’s a question with a very subtle and complicated answer, but I have long believed that part of the reason for this difference is that, in spite of everything, the Soviets were operating off of the same playbook we were. You can dig through Western and Russian philosophy and history and understand what they were trying to do. I still don’t know what the fuck Hitler wanted. Hell, I don’t think even Mussolini knew what Hitler wanted. One of the reasons I find fascism so fascinating is that at times it feels less like an ideology and more like a political manifestation of something from “the underground,” some collection of trends and currents in modern thought that may not be embodied in particular schools, but continue to influence us in every age. Maybe at its heart, Nazism is a desire for transcendence, expressed as a raging fury against the world.
I don’t know; I’m just speculating out loud. With regard to The Man in the High Castle, it is to Dick’s credit that he tries to grapple with this issue, and it is to the detriment of the adaptation that the writers don’t seem to realize that there is even something to get. Suffice to say, I will not be tuning for the second season whenever it appears.