Series forces choice between bad and less-bad totalitarian regimes
Warning: this post contains minor spoilers for the series “The Man in the High Castle.”
Hooray for Hitler? The Amazon Studios series “The Man in the High Castle” put me in the awkward and unexpected position of thinking that.
Before you write letters angrily demanding my dismissal, let me explain. The series, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, is an alternate-history science fiction story in which the Axis won the Second World War.
It takes place in 1962, mostly in a conquered America, which, east of the Rockies, is part of the German Reich, and, west of the Rockies, is part of Imperial Japan.
There’s a resistance movement, of course, and be assured that my sympathies are with them and not the Nazis. The main plot concerns a young woman who is drawn into resistance activities when her sister is murdered by the Japanese Secret Police. But one of the other interesting conflicts in the story is actually intra-Nazi.
Hitler is very old now, so there’s some intrigue about who will assume power when he dies. To complicate matters, while Hitler has maintained a peaceful co-existence with Japan, there is a faction within the Nazi leadership that seeks to attack and conquer Japan. In a sense out-Hitlering Hitler, these Nazis see the Japanese as racially inferior non-Aryans who stand in the way of total global domination by Germany. Their usefulness as partners in the Axis now ended, the pro-war faction works to engineer conflict between Germany and Japan.
Meanwhile, some hyper-militarist Japanese generals are working towards war with Germany, because they see the Germans as racially inferior barbarians who have unfairly gotten the better of their previous cooperation. More sensible officers (both German and Japanese) understand that this will kill many millions more people, and so try to work to preserve the peace. The primary engineer of war on the German side is Reinhard Heydrich. In the real world, Heydrich was assassinated in 1942, but in both worlds he is an absolutely ruthless fascist. In the story, he is so committed to Nazi ideology that he sees the détente with Japan, and even Hitler himself, as insufficiently Nazi. Once the viewers come to understand that Heydrich is even worse than Hitler and wants to kill millions more people, we find ourselves pulling for Hitler—hoping that he will overcome Heydrich’s treachery. We hope that the seemingly-traitorous Japanese officials will hinder the war-mongering on their side.
Besides the German and Japanese soldiers who would die in a new war, we realize that Japanese civilians now living in California, and millions of Americans living under occupation, would be killed. Of course, Hitler’s Germany is as unspeakably horrible in the show as it was in the real world. But would Heydrich’s rule be an improvement? Hardly. The regime would be even more harsh under Heydrich, a new war would start, and millions more people would be killed. It’s a cleverness of the story that has the viewer in the uncomfortable position of rooting for Hitler, because the alternatives are much worse.
Of course, this is a science fiction story. In the real world, it’s not clear what follows from our reaction to the story. Should we vote for Politician A, whom we dislike, over Politician B, who is even worse? Should we, as was received wisdom in the ’70s and ’80s, support authoritarian dictators because their regimes would be less bad than totalitarian regimes which might replace them?
As we know, such tactics tend to backfire. The enemy of our enemy is not always a friend. When the officially atheistic U.S.S.R. sought control of Muslim nations, the West pursued a policy of enabling religious fundamentalist resistance. It’s safe to say that that did not work out nearly as well as intended.
Voting for horrible politicians because of a perceived incremental improvement over another similarly only makes sense if we could predict the future. Obama voters who opposed U.S. military activity under Bush soon discovered increased military activity under Obama. The “compared to what?” question is always important to ask, but it requires either knowing something about the alternatives or a frankness about not knowing.
Watching a TV show, we tend to know what we need to know in order to ask that question, which is why I found myself hoping show-Hitler would prevail over show-Heydrich. But when it comes to real-world meddling in other people’s lives, in other countries’ politics, we typically lack such knowledge.
Subscribe to the Fraser Institute
Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.