[Author’s note: Article will contain spoilers for Season 1 of The Man in the High Castle]
Ok, so recently I’ve been bingeing The Man in the High Castle, a show that details an alternate history wherein the Nazis won World War 2 and kerb stomped half of America into becoming a part of the Third Reich. In the series, we see that the Nazis controls from the east coast of America to the Rocky Mountains. Japan controls from the west coast to the Rocky Mountains, with the space in between being a neutral buffer zone. The show concerns the ongoing intrigue and power wrangling between the Nazis, the Japanese, and the Resistance.
Honestly, I very much enjoy the Man in the High Castle. Every character is working to their own machinations and every character feels the Sword of Damocles hanging over them. That creates a remarkable tension that gives each conversation meaning and weight. It’s what I wish season four of Game of Thrones had been, rather than the series just waiting to get to the next action scene.
The episode I want to focus on for this piece is episode six of season one, Three Monkeys. I’ll try to keep as spoiler-free as possible, but it will be tricky. Anyway, part of this episode concerns the celebration of VA (Victory over America) Day which feels like a combination between July 4th and Thanksgiving. We follow one of the antagonistic characters in his home life. Obergruppenführer Smith is a member of American Nazi High Command. During the course of the season, he has been relentlessly pursuing the Resistance and their anti-Nazi propaganda films. During this episode, we see the full scope of his home life.
Obergruppenführer Smith’s first name is John. With John Smith often being used as shorthand for the everyman, John Smith being one of the most common English names, this suggests that perhaps something is being implied by the mundanity of this Nazi’s name. Indeed, we see that John Smith has the quintessential 1950s American home life (The series is set in an alternate 1960s but culture has stagnated somewhat under the Nazis). He has three children, two daughters and a son. He has a loving wife, Helen, who is the ideal of the American housewife to a T.
If you were unfamiliar with the setting of the story, it would simply look like summer Thanksgiving. Then you’d spot the occasional swastika in a lapel, or a picture of an aged Adolf Hitler adorning the wall as opposed to Christ or the Virgin Mary. One scene even depicts two characters playing catch, something media often uses as shorthand for wholesome American fun. So, what is the meaning of all this? Why am I harping on about the smashing together of 1950s culture and Nazi imagery within this series?
I’m harping on about it because I highly suspect that it’s intentional. Behind the camera, and sitting at the keyboard, all manner of creative minds worked together to say something about America and fascism. They were also influenced by the environment around them, they created the series in 2015 and found enough success that season three is coming sometime this year. So, what does this Nazi domesticity say?
To me, it suggests that there’s some sort of connection between the pinnings of fascism and the atmosphere of 1950s Americana. Fascism is all about the destruction of all dissenting viewpoints, it’s about the casual militarisation and regimented order in service to the state. I’m no political expert but widely it is order above all else, including personal freedoms. This domesticity shows how this works on a micro level. The patriarch, John Smith, is respected above all in his home. His children do as they are told. His wife fulfils her role. It is all about fulfilling roles for the betterment of the state.
We can see the ideals of fascism mirrored in the culture of 1950s America. The family unit was paramount. The idea of the nuclear family being an ideal to strive to. Domestic peace above all else was prized. It’s hard to pin down when America decided it was the best country in the world but emerging as one of the premiere superpowers in the world might have been the start. This all-encompassing devotion to state is something it shares with fascist ideology. The way that America venerates it military above all else (America spends the most on any country on its military, almost tripling the budget of the country that spends the second most).
So, by now, you sort of start to see the threads that connect the two. It’s also worth noting the demonization that both systems engage in. With the Nazis, it’s kind of obvious who is targeted by their ideology. With 1950s America, we can see the McCarthyism of the era targeting marginalised individuals and intellectuals as suspected communists. I’ll stress that I’m not a history expert but if a history expert wanted to draw the lines, I’m sure they could.
Ok, enough of this, because I might run awry of some jingoistic folks who don’t agree with my America bashing by comparing them to Nazis. I think if that was my only point that they might have some legitimate ire with me. However, I make this point not to denigrate America, but to make note of the danger of fascism. That America could have been susceptible to fascism in that delicate period of history. That all nations are susceptible to fascism if they let it slip in. That we must avoid the trappings of hyper-charged nationalism and deification of political figures that begin the path to fascism. I suspect that the creators of the Man in the High Castle had a similar message. A simple message. We are not as safe from fascism as we believe we are.