The Difficulty of Not Being a Nazi
Or why reviewing the themes of The Man in the High Castle lies heavy
By MARTIN REZNY
WARNING: I will get into major SPOILERS of the underlying nature of the world of this show, so you should watch the thing first before you read anything I write about it. Or don’t watch it at all, if you don’t think you can stomach people constantly shouting “Sieg Heil!” and doing the Nazi salute while all kinds of atrocities are being shown or implied. Then again, I think you should try it regardless. There aren’t many shows with this much to say.
On the other hand, don’t expect this to be your kind of show if you are the kind of person who would look forward to seeing constant “Sieg Heil!”-ing. In something not far short of a magic trick, binge watching the second season of The Man in the High Castle is like an actual trip to an alternate reality where things have gone outrageously different, and yet, not very different at all. While the first season firmly established the otherness of a world dominated by the Nazis and the Japanese, the second one draws troubling parallels.
A Fiction That Hits a Little Bit Too Close to Home
I’m not gonna lie, this season has left me quite sad and unsettled, even more than the first one. In a good way though, if there is such a thing. It hadn’t occured to me previously why that was, but now I understand what, to me at least, is so powerful about it. The thing is, while to Americans it may seem outlandish, over here in Central Europe, this was absolutely real. Props to the author of the novel this is based on and the screenwriters of the show, their research into Nazi culture and history is immaculate. You have no idea.
The Nazi breeding program called Lebensborn was real, it was conducted also in the then Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. We made a pretty good movie about it too, years ago. Ours was the first non-German-speaking territory the Third Reich invaded. It formed a “Protectorate” here, a nightmare of a police state just like you see on the show in America. Remember that sneaky Reinhard Heydrich fellow from the show? He ran it. Believe it or not, we actually managed to assassinate him. Remember how razing of a whole city was suggested on the show? Two towns were razed here in a brutal reprisal.
I believe it was Dumbledore who said that just because something exists only in one’s head, it doesn’t mean it’s not real. I was also told something along those lines by a professor of media studies who helped me write my bachelor’s thesis when I needed to figure out how to differentiate a documentary, propaganda, and mystification from fiction and, well, the truth. Turns out the lines are pretty blurry and fiction can be an excellent vehicle for telling truth.
Until this show, unbeknownst to most English speakers as well as the rest of the world, the best films about Nazis had decidedly been the Czech ones. Not necessarily because we were so much better at filmmaking in the second half of the 20th century, but precisely because until this show, the nightmare of living under the Nazi shadow had not been properly realized with such attention to detail in movies of nations without this actual experience.
We even made a film in 1977 where Adolf Hitler is shown film reels by a time traveler of a Germany defeated by Allied forces, more than a decade before The Man in the High Castle was first published in Czechoslovakia. Secretly. You see, it took so long because the Communists, who had been in power from almost immediately after WWII until 1989, also didn’t like that novel very much. Along with the Third Reich and the Japanese, it unmasks all empires.
The Reality of Nazis
However, I believe the crucial part of the magic trick is not actually the historical accuracy of how Nazis operated as an empire, it’s the realness of the depicted characters. Most of the people on the show, Nazi or otherwise, are fully realized three-dimensional persons. Nazis do love their families and struggle every day with meeting the insane requirements put on their behavior and biology, while rebels hold personal grudges and make deadly mistakes.
There are next to no clear good guys and bad guys, and I’m putting this qualification in here only because Heydrich may have actually crossed the line into real villainy, but perhaps in real life as well. Even rotten ol’ Adolf gets a little bit of sympathy as the ironic force for peace between the German and Japanese empires. And this is what makes this show so appropriately unsettling for observant viewers — who would you be in a world such as that?
It’s easy to sit on our high horses here and now in a world where, arguably, the least of the evils had won the biggest war in human history. But even so, we may still end up destroying our world in a mutually assured destruction scenario, as the show hints at with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Moreover, the Acting-Chancellor’s rationale for launching a nuclear war echoes eerily the logic behind the real world nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Philosophically, it’s the problem between realism and idealism. Does it make more sense, or to be more precise, is it more ethical to make decisions grounded in current reality, however awful it might be, or to hope against hope and bet on the unlikely chance that something better may come to be? Do you eradicate your enemy to the last man to ensure the end to all wars, or do you spare your enemy and allow yourself to hope a peace is possible?
It’s not an easy choice for anyone to make, and it is the centerpoint of most of Philip K. Dick’s work. It’s not just a theoretical exercise, it’s something that most people wrestle with every day, and it seems that it certainly wasn’t just something to think about for Dick. Based on some of his more strange opinions and experiences that he shared in interviews, he may have actually believed that the very nature of reality is tied to dilemmas like these.
Which, of course, is pretty much the big idea behind the more mystical aspects of the world of this show — treating the physical possibility of multiverse as something that gives significant ethical dimension to reality. Not only in this Dick’s story, one can use their mind to literally travel between happier and gloomier, more free or more hostile realities, making the material secondary to the spiritual, but with no need for a deity. It’s us who shape the world.
To Be a Singularity
It’s here that Philip K. Dick deals a fatal blow to realism. Just because things exist in a particular way at the moment doesn’t in any way justify them. World can be wrong, and when it’s wrong, it must be opposed by what Dick calls an authentic human being. Like Juliana with her most unnaturally coherent mind, one needs to reject any world that is unwell. Not out of arrogance, ignorance, or naivety, but still. How else do you ever get a better one?
A mind capable of that is like a singularity — unmovable, indivisible, distorting reality around itself so that all surrounding objects inevitably fall into its orbit. In a very real way, albeit abstract, personal integrity has gravity. It falls on one with integrity to be an example, a leader that others look up to. It is one with integrity who cannot help but be a rock to others that they can lean on at a time when their strength is failing. It must also be one with integrity who becomes a centerpoint of important events, a target of tragedy.
Such a person doesn’t need to wield any worldly power whatsoever in order to accomplish being the first pebble of an avalanche, or the last straw that breaks the back of the pharaoh. A grasshopper that lies heavy. In fact, an apparent physical weakness and social disadvantage only serve to amplify the effect of this inner strength by contrast. After all, to kill a mighty adversary is easy to see as a sign of strength, while the slaughter of the weak brings only shame.
Add chaos theory into the mix, and a single person can become the catalyst, a nexus of world changing events, be it anyone from your regular Untermensch, through a rich Nazi hippie, to a “useless eater” among the Hitler Jugend. Such an unpredictable Black Swan is exactly the worst nightmare of any centralized power, since that kind of control requires events to behave predictably (a concept developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, my favorite statististican, who happens to blog here on Medium — I cannot recommend his work enough).
In the end, The Man in the High Castle is a show that really makes one think about how things not only could have been different, but also could now or in the future be different, especially in connection to one’s own decisions. In my opinion, it’s great and completely worth watching for that reason alone, and for its splendid worldbuilding alone, but it of course also has great, well portrayed characters, and a decent plot with some good twists. But more importantly, with some interesting character arcs. What does this you think?