Alternate history is fun, no matter the subject, but only the best make us think about our own world in a more complex way. Amazon’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s amazing story The Man in the High Castle does just this, and would be worth your time even without a 73 year old Hitler.
The Man in the High Castle is the original “Nazis won World War II” story. We follow an ensemble cast in an alternate 1962 as they struggle to survive in a post war United States that has been split between the Nazi Reich in the East and the Japanese Empire in the west. What many people will note from the first ten minutes of the show is the brutal life of living under violent, racist oppressors. San Francisco’s white population is designated as second-class citizens. The Jewish population and Black population of America has either been exterminated, forced into the small neutral territories in the deep rocky mountains, or in deep hiding.
But even with all of this horror, life goes by with amazing normalcy.
One character works in a machine shop making fake guns as knick-knack tourist schlock. A Nazi family celebrates the victory over the Americans like real Americans celebrate the Fourth of July. Yes, there are spies and global political tensions, but after more than a decade of foreign rule, these Americans mostly just go about their lives.
What truly interests me, is that this America really is only slightly worse than the one we actually had in 1962.
When we see a shopkeeper in Japanese dominated San Francisco bowing and scraping and using their language, our first instinct is to look down on him for capitulating to his new masters. In the real America, the dominant white population consistently looked for subservient and broken spirits in the minorities.
We see the black population living in the Neutral territories to escape oppression and raise our fists at the Nazis. In the actual 1962 there was still no Civil Rights Act (passed in 1964), there were still poll taxes to stop poor people (mostly Blacks) from voting (repealed 1964), and it was still illegal for Whites and Blacks to marry (overruled 1967).
When we see the Nazi doctor telling an SS officer that he needs to execute his son because he has a neurological disease, our first instinct is to feel the injustice of a system that has no compassion. Real world doctors long held the belief that “incurable” patients should just be left in mental wards for the rest of their lives. American mental wards, instead of looking to help, put patients to work as slave labor until 1973. Being committed to one of these centers was as good as a death sentence.
America does not get a get-out-of-jail-free card because the Nazis were worse. America does not get to pat itself on the back because we were comparatively lenient to our prisoners, minorities, and enemies. The Man in the High Castle forces its viewer to see everyday racism in a world where it has become the new normal for a generation, and allows people to scrutinize our own failings with a bit more intensity.