Erstwhile: A History Blog

The Imaginative History of “The Man in the High Castle”


This week, friends of the blog, Daniel Carney and Katie Randall (M.A. students, CU Boulder) evaluate the historical plausibility of Amazon’s new series The Man in the High Castle. Also see the follow-up on the meaning and purpose of alternate histories.

The New World Order, 1962. Image courtesy of Amazon Advisor


A haunting rendition of “Edelweiss” chills viewers to the bone as they are introduced to the world of Nazi domination that characterizes Amazon’s new series The Man in the High Castle. In this live action adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel of the same name, the series explores an alternate history premised around the question, “What if the Axis powers had prevailed in the Second World War?” This question provides fertile ground for stories of international intrigue, assassination, torture, and, of course, love. In this alternate universe, the United States was defeated by the Axis powers and is divided along the Rocky Mountains by the Third Reich and the Japanese Empire.

As the 10-episode season progresses, viewers receive clues as to how the Axis powers came to dominate the Allies. The alternate timeline presented in The Man in the High Castle begins with a successful assassination attempt on President Roosevelt in 1933. This, followed by years of poor leadership, lead to an economically weak and isolationist United States. With the addition of what was apparently a far more effective attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States was never able to turn the tide of the Pacific War, while Nazi forces dropped a ‘secret weapon’ – apparently a bomb similar in destructive force to the atomic weapons the Allies used – on the American capital in 1945, forcing the United States government to capitulate. The domination of the former United States took a further two years to complete, which the victors commemorate with an annual VA celebration. When the series takes place in 1962, the Japanese find themselves in an uneasy détente with the Third Reich, their grasp on their territories weakening, and technologically lagging behind the Germans.

Tackling the historical plausibility of a work of fiction, let alone one that presents an alternate timeline, presents an interesting challenge for historians. Alternate timelines and “what ifs” are necessarily rooted in counterfactual imaginings and cannot easily be debunked without likewise utilizing such methodology. This problem is magnified by the early point of historical divergence that The Man in the High Castle takes. For instance, it is difficult to argue against the idea that Japan would permanently occupy Australia and New Zealand, let alone half the United States, when their stated ambitions in reality never actually extended far beyond China and the South East Asian colonial holdings of the West, without knowing in what way these historical points of departure reshaped history.  However, what we can do is look at what we know from this time period and judge the likelihood of these outcomes.


What lacks plausibility in The Man in the High Castle

Katie: If the Nazi forces managed to drop a bomb on the United States in 1945, they would have certainly crippled the Allied powers. However, if they were to successfully lead a campaign across the American continent, German wartime production would have had to have increased exponentially in order to maintain the ammunition and supply levels needed to reinforce Nazi forces on the other side of the Atlantic. The Germans would also have needed to establish a stronger logistical network in order to maintain control of their supply chains and provide their forces with basic necessities while they were subduing the United States. In this alternate history, Josef Stalin was assassinated as the Third Reich successfully completed their Russian campaign, which may have been when they turned the full force of their military prowess to the Allied forces in the West. Although the Nazis have achieved world domination in this imagining, without significant revisions to their logistical network and supply production there is no possible way they could have overtaken the Soviets, especially if the German forces had to maintain two or more fronts in this version of World War II.

After the enslavement of the African continent and the eradication of the Jewish race from Europe, the Third Reich opened concentration camps in North America to cleanse the population of any racial blemishes and resistance. The pervasiveness of anti-Semitism and attitudes regarding race during the early twentieth century could have minutely increased the palatability of work camps in North America, but Americans would have detested the presence of industrialized centers of death in their backyards, especially if the demographics of these concentration camps included significant populations of POWs and partisans. The patriotism exhibited by Americans and their dedication to democracy and American values during World War II could not have been easily broken or washed away, which is why the incorporation of Nazi symbols onto classic American icons would have been incredibly significant to the continued success of the Greater Nazi Reich after the conquest of America.

Daniel: One of the core elements that The Man in the High Castle requires its viewers to believe is that the Japanese were capable not only of defeating their Asian neighbors as well as the Allies, but also that they would have had the manpower to control these regions. This is a highly dubious assertion. Even at the height of Japanese military power, the size of the Japanese army barely exceeded six million men. The Japanese home islands at the time boasted a population of roughly seventy million – impressive for the size of the island nation, but small in comparison to some of their neighbors, specifically the Russians and the Chinese. While Japanese military power was certainly sufficient to overcome both in the first half of the 20th century, it is arguable to what extent the Japanese were capable of carrying out large scale military occupations over such large geographic regions.

This is not to say that nations with relatively small populations can’t come to dominate regions that are far more vast and populous. The British Empire is an excellent example of this. Yet outside of Korea, Taiwan, and the puppet state of Manchukuo, Japan was never really successful in its efforts to colonize Asia. Following the Marco Polo Bridge incident which initiated the second Sino-Japanese war (1937-45), the Japanese were able to secure much of the Chinese coast, pushing the Chinese Nationalist forces inland. Yet, while the Japanese hold on the coast proved solid, they were never able to pacify the mainland, nor finish off the Nationalist and Communist resistance, in part due to lack of manpower. Coetaneous to this the Japanese, needing resources to continue prosecuting their war in China, launched a war of “liberation” to drive the Western colonial powers from South Asia. That the Japanese happened to simply replace the former colonial masters did not go unnoticed, and resistance movements were not uncommon. In short, the Japanese lacked even the manpower necessary to accomplish their goals in Asia, let alone Russia, Australia, and America. That the Japanese, freed from a war of attrition with the United States, might have eventually been able to completely conquer the East is a possibility, but for them to hold those territories, as well as expand further, the conquered peoples of Asia would have had to accept their role in the Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere with much greater alacrity than they ever did in reality.


Where The Man in the High Castle succeeds (historically)

Katie: Obergruppenführer John Smith rules the Greater Nazi Reich with an iron fist, successfully eliminating most of the resistance network on the east coast. His methods are brutal, yet effective, and like most Nazi officials he works tirelessly for the Führer and the Fatherland. True to the original Nazi hierarchy, Smith has to thwart attacks and search out double agents from other Nazis, particularly Reinhard Heydrich. As the Führer’s health declines, Joseph Goebbels and Erwin Rommel vie for power in Berlin, while Heydrich makes his move from the other side of the Atlantic in New York. The rampant scheming and manipulation among high-ranking Nazi officials is just one example of Dick’s noteworthy attention to historical detail.

The ultimate domination of the United States can be most clearly seen through the desecration of its national symbols. A large, white swastika has replaced the forty-eight stars that dotted the flag during World War II and the Statue of Liberty no longer holds her torch, lighting the way for tired, weary immigrants seeking hope and democracy. Instead, Lady Liberty stands in salute to the Führer in the Fatherland and the superiority of National Socialism. These distortions force viewers to grapple with the concept of Nazi domination and the fall of the United States and the Western idea of democracy, just as they would have served as vigilant reminders to former Americans in this alternate history that they are now the rightful subjects of the Führer.

Daniel: While The Man in the High Castle is perhaps more illustrative of an early Sixties understanding of the Japanese nation and people than it is an accurate depiction of wartime and actual 1960s Japanese, that is not to say that the show doesn’t also get much right, and it would be unfair to ignore it when they do. For instance, fashion is depicted rather accurately. Beginning in the late 19th century it became quite fashionable for men to don the business suits of the West, yet women retained their more traditional attire. Additionally, the look of occupied San Francisco does an excellent job of recreating the look of Japanese streets and markets. Credit should also be given to the show over the acknowledgement that the Japanese have a tenuous hold over their colonies, which somewhat ameliorates complaints about the runaway success of Japanese empire.  Finally, the show does give a glimpse of the kind of internecine conflicts that were common to late Imperial Japan, specifically between more cautious civilian leadership and more hawkish militarists – though this largely occurs in the background.

San Francisco under Japanese occupation. Image courtesy of Paw Emit.

An Alternate Cold War?

Daniel: Finally, we turn to the question, and it is certainly more a question than anything else, of the framework that The Man in the High Castle uses for its setting. In 1962 the Cold War was in full effect, and the competition and threat of war between the Soviet Union and the United States was very much in the public consciousness. It would seem that to Philip K. Dick, this was the obvious outcome of WWII, as he uses this same setting for his story. In some ways, The Man in the High Castle can be taken as less of an alternate timeline in which anything could have happened and more as a retelling of the Cold War with different players. Instead of the Americans and U.S.S.R. butting heads in Germany, we instead see Germany and Japan, with America standing in as the new Berlin, despite the lack of clear ideological differences that drove the Cold War in reality. This is arguably yet another way in which the world that Dick was living in was projected into his imagined alternate timeline, just as is his understanding of the Japanese. 

Katie: A standoff between the winning forces of World War II may appear inevitable in any historical supposition, but the likelihood of a Cold War erupting between Germany and Japan seems very unlikely in Philip K. Dick’s alternate history. While the United States and the U.S.S.R. dominated international politics in the second half of the twentieth century with their arms race and not-so-passive aggressive policies, the Third Reich and Japan would be more likely to launch a full-scale war over the desecrated remains of the United States. After the unsuccessful attempt on the Crown Prince and the plans for the ‘secret weapon’ finally reach Japanese hands, the Japanese make no secret of their aggression toward and animosity for the Third Reich. They do, however, understand the significance of building their forces and utilizing the valuable new information (of the ‘secret weapon’) before launching an attack against their very powerful enemy. Unlike the United States and the U.S.S.R. who stockpiled weapons and lived in fear of mutually assured destruction, neither the Third Reich nor the Japanese Empire appear concerned with the possibility of mutual destruction or the desolation of their newfound territory in North America.


Final Thoughts

Katie: Philip K. Dick’s vision of a fallen America is dramatically brought to life through the artistic direction of Ridley Scott’s production studio and the creative writing of Frank Spotnitz. I highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys history and has an eye for the detail involved in creating a whole new world.

Daniel: As stated towards the beginning, arguing against a fictionalized counterfactual history presents challenges, not the least of which is answering the question “Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?” The Man in the High Castle is a good story, but also a relic of its time. The series and novel are set in 1962, but are also very much a recreation of Dick’s 1962, just with a new coat of paint. In imagining an alternate timeline, The Man in the High Castle is remarkable not in its differences, but its similarities to the political landscape and popular attitudes of its time. That lends the series both a sense of history, as well as an air of wrongness.

Be sure to read our follow-up on why we tell alternate histories like The Man in the High Castle.