Killing Hitler: #Reviewing “The Man in the High Castle”

In examining another’s ethics and morals, the question often comes up that given the possibilities of time travel, would you be capable of killing Hitler in his youth or prior to his rise to power? The simple answer is yes, while others try a more nuanced approach of convincing Hitler of his promise as an artist, to the inane of stealing his wallet to make his life just a touch more uncomfortable. Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle takes an alternate approach.

The premise of The Man in the High Castle is based upon the book with the same title by Phillip K. Dick. In both the book and series, President Roosevelt never survived his assassination attempt in 1933. Subsequently the United States failed to prepare for a conflict with Japan and Germany, nor did the United States support the Soviet Union or Great Britain. Germany and Japan win the war and divide the United States with the Eastern side of the Rockies under Nazi rule, and the West Coast under Japanese rule. A neutral territory splits the two. The series takes place in 1962, and the global showdown emerging is not the United States and the Soviet Union, but a bi-polar international environment dominated by Japan and Germany who are locked in their own Cold War.

Within this bi-polar world order, Germany is the more advanced state. Germany possesses nuclear weapons, and an aviation industry that produces rocket planes that travel from Stockholm to San Francisco in 45 minutes. While the Nazis travel on rocket ships, the Japanese traverse the globe on ocean liners.

However, the plot diverges from the book in a number of areas. First, there is an alternate history within the alternate history with a series of films showing an allied victory in the war, different from the book, which uses a fictional novel, titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Further, the character development of each member of the cast is given significantly more time due to the extended nature of the series.

A chilling image of an alternate history

The weakness of the series lies in the acting. Certain characters such as Obengruppenfuhrer John Smith, played by Rufus Sewell, and Joel de la Fuente as Chief Inspector Kido of the Kempeitai steal their respective scenes, offsetting the sometimes painful and slow character development of Frank Fink and Juliana Crain. To make up for some of the below par acting, and deviations from the original plot lines, the series takes on a number of more serious ethical and moral questions.

The Man in the High Castle delves deep into the heart of its characters. Each character must balance his or her obligations to their individual loved ones (wives, children) with a cause they perceive greater than themselves. We see this when Obengruppenfuhrer Smith’s son is diagnosed with a terminal illness, putting him at odds with Nazi ideals (the sick are exterminated under Nazi rule). Simultaneously, the human instinct to protect one’s own children and family, often a source of individual strength becomes a weakness. Both the Nazi state and the Japanese government use the threat of violence on innocent family members to extract information or action from people under their control.

As counterfactual history, the show allows the audience to look in the mirror and ask themselves if what they see could actually happen. Within The Man in the High Castle, everyday Americans easily fall into line under both Japanese and Nazi rule. An early illustration of the moral slippery slope is a chilling scene where a highway patrolman brushes off ashes falling from the sky, informing Joe Blake that it is the hospital removing the ashes of cremated undesirables. In the series, the undesirables range from Jews to the terminally ill. With this scene, the series forces upon the audience the question of who could be an undesirable today.

What if Reinhard Heydrich, the “architect of the Holocaust,” ran the Nazi regime?

Culminating with a struggle for power in the Nazi regime, the possibility of an assassination of Hitler comes to the fore. This is where the show brings nuance to the question of killing Hitler. As any strategist or policy maker knows, prior to acting, one should always ask: What is next? Moreover, with the increased use of targeted killings with precision guided munitions and drones, we must ask if the devil we know is better or worse than his replacement. Even asking ourselves this one question is not sufficient. Certainly strategists understand that any organization, be it a network or a large bureaucracy, operates under the conditions of a line of progression. But strategists must also reference the additional counterfactual question beyond ‘what is next’ with: how can we know if an alternative is, a priori, worse than what we have now? The former question without the latter is a case for paralysis by analysis, but the latter provides strategists with little comfort for most decisions.

Strategists must continually ask “then what?” in relation to any geopolitical action. Indeed, history is fraught with the replacement of one evil by a greater evil. The rise of Carlos the Jackal and ISIS followed the removal of their predecessor. In the latter, it is prudent to consider the status of the world had the United States not acted on the policy of regime change in Iraq. However, balancing these considerations against the risk of doing nothing is just as paramount. History isn't linear. Action and inaction alike can cause outcomes ranging from best case to most dangerous.

Had an assassination of Hitler succeeded, one must entertain the possibility of a Nazi regime led by the likes of Heydrich, Himmler, Braun or Goebbels. History is not linear, it is possible going back in time to kill Hitler could lead to a Nazi regime with a capable strategist as chancellor, and the long term survival of the Third Reich.

In The Man in the High Castle, a greater Nazi Reich led by Heydrich means a high probability of nuclear war. Similar to modern day geopolitical objectives, stability reigns supreme. This is where the series reaches its powerful zenith; this fictional world, and its audience need Hitler to survive.

The series is available at amazon.com, and is free for Amazon Prime members.


Daniel Sukman is a strategist in the U.S. Army and a member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the DoD, or the U.S. Government.


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