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Raising Questions

I’ve noticed an uptick in alternative history stories. Maybe this is connected to “alternative facts.” Then again, people have always enjoyed alternatives to reality. Is fiction preferable to reality? A historian friend of mind was surprised to learn that I enjoy reading fiction. Why would you prefer fake history to real history, especially as a historian? she asked. Good question. I’m still working on the answer to that one. I like a well-crafted tale, and more often than not, real history is comprised of too many loose ends and questions that remain. Then again, I like the loose ends, for they allow for interpretation and differences in that interpretation.

Last year I mentioned watching the Amazon series, The Man in the High Castle, in a post about why Americans like WWII so much. I finally got around to watching season two, and enjoyed it. If you haven’t seen it, The Man in the High Castle is set in the 1960s, in a world where the Axis powers won. Most of the western part of the US is ruled by the Empire of Japan, a neutral zone exists along the Rockies, and the Nazi Reich controls the Midwest and eastern part of the United States. The viewers do not yet know how this happened, only that it happened. Most of the series follows characters that are part of the ruling Japan and Third Reich, as well as the ‘underground’ resistance movements in both the Japan-controlled and Reich-controlled parts of the US.

A good series, film, book, sermon, speech, lesson raises good questions. Some are meant to be answered, but others are rhetorical and others are meant as larger questions to frame the larger course, storyline, unit, arc. Not all questions need to be answered. As I’ve written here before, we tend to like and create neat and tidy stories about the human experience when the reality is always much messier. For me, a good series/film/book/story/speech/sermon/lesson raises questions, answers some, and leaves some unanswered for us to puzzle over. After all, if there are no lingering questions, why re-watch/re-read/re-visit anything?

For me, one of the reasons I liked the second season of The Man in the High Castle is because the story lines are more coherent. I understand the ‘in media res’ form of storytelling, but that doesn’t mean I don’t become a little tetchy when there are too many story lines with little resolution or clarity. The second season begins to balance these story lines and provide some backstory.

Spoiler alert – I may give away some of the plotline of the second season:
The Man in the High Castle raises some good questions that it doesn’t necessarily answer. I’m okay with these questions as a way to keep watching and to ponder. For example, Is Juliana the heroine in this story? Why is she the one that gives hope to the man in the high castle? How did Obergruppenführer Smith, the American who fought in WWII as an American, become a high ranking Nazi? Why is his name, of all things, the generic “John Smith”? Why does Joe Blake assume the woman he loves, Juliana, is dead without really making sure? And why, when people are shot or blown up, do some survive with barely a few scratches and some die? Medical community – is this randomness true or a ploy by writers to easily dispose of characters?

However, there are some historical issues I have with the series as well. For example, given what we know about the Nazis, are we really expected to believe that they had no way of monitoring nuclear testing by Japan or other nation-states? Seems quite unlikely, in the early 60s, to imagine the Nazis used the atomic bomb in the 1940s, but had yet to develop any sort of reliable system of monitoring the development of nuclear weapons, particularly in their frenemies, Japan.

Given the Nazi concerns with the master race and eliminating the ‘defective’ aspects of the human race, which includes not just certain races and ethnicities, but also medical conditions, are we really to believe that the Nazis have not noticed any correlations between the use of nuclear weapons and the resulting health and sterility/genetic mutations? It is hard to imagine that the science of genetics seemingly halted in the 1940s and failed to consider the role of the environment, particularly with regard to fertility, if the women of the Reich are expected to be [only] housewives and mothers to raise ‘superior’ children in the Reich. I hope this interesting plotline will be investigated in subsequent seasons.

I have previously referenced the crisp clean efficient fashion of the Nazis. This is very evident throughout the second season of The Man in the High Castle. I was struck by how ‘cool’ the swastika is, for a variety of reasons. It is symmetrical, and looks a bit like a gear or some sort of rotating, efficient symbol. It is too bad that symbol is ruined by its use by the Nazis and literally stands for Hitler, the SS, and the Nazi’s Third Reich so effectively. Such a simple yet powerful symbol imbued with such a strong message. I couldn’t help but wonder about the production company/ies that created the props, costumes, etc. for the series and kept ordering all the swastikas on EVERYTHING. “No really, it is for a television series!” Sure. Can I get the skinhead discount?

Now I realize the show cannot answer ‘everything’ or satisfy everyone or accurately portray every aspect of the past. However, if it is to be a believable alternative history, it needs to have a thorough knowledge of the real history before it “skewed down into this tangent, creating an alternate 1985,” in the words of Doc Brown, Back to the Future, Part II. Nevertheless, the other missing element in The Man in the High Castle is the idea of religion and belief. I was a little surprised to notice that religions are not evident, which may mean they are outlawed (an impromptu funeral is performed by a “defrocked” priest), but there is no evidence of spiritual questioning or interest. Is that realistic? Even in empires and nation-states where religion is outlawed, the ‘religion’ of the state or civic religion becomes the religious practice and belief of the day. Knowing a little about US history and the firm grip of Christianity, as a cultural practice or a serious meaningful faith, I am skeptical that it would disappear without a trace so quickly.

Or maybe I just need to stay tuned for season three.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

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