Don't Kid Yourself, Amerika: Thoughts While Watching "The Man In The High Castle"

There are some things about this show that strain credulity. A lot of it seems a projection of Soviet totalitarianism onto Nazism. Fully radicalized Nazism had an unrestrained manic cruelty to it, and an ethos of living for war. But perhaps that's only because we have no idea what Nazi totalitarianism would look like in peacetime. A fascist state at peace seems a sort of a contradiction in terms, given the centrality of war ideologically. But fascists are ideological opportunists, so maybe it would have deradicalized some of the violence-glory. I'll buy that.

Nazi America, which seems to encompass the eastern half of what is actually the US, does not quite seem like what a client or even puppet state of the Nazi Reich would actually be. The Nazis created several puppet regimes. We know what those looked like. Many of them aped a good deal of National Socialism. They took orders from Berlin, and had an independence that ranged from limited to non-existent. They generally pursued administrative and etho-supremacist policies in step with Germany's (racialist biopolitcs, some level of persecution of Jews and Roma, one-party rule.) But they didn't completely ape everything to a T. With some exceptions, dictatorial authoritarianism rather than actual mass-based fascism was the rule. Wherever possible, the Axis preferred to support a local administration to tow the line for them. Moderate pro-German authoritarians were preferable. But failing that, a suitably pliant local fascist movement would do as well. This was most clearly the case in the puppet regime of Independent Croatia.

Their symbols too, like the ethnonationalisms they coopted, were usually home-grown. Those that had their own police or para-military forces might have them organized along lines, and employing tactics, similar to the SS, but they had different insignias, local rank-titles etc. In cases like Quisling's Norway, a local puppet leader would answer to a Nazi Reichskomissar who answered to Hitler himself.

It's difficult to ascertain much about how Nazi America is organized in this show from what I've seen. So far it seems not like a satellite, client or puppet state of any kind. The Reich appears to have become an empire in the truest sense. The entirety of Nazi America is under military governorship, and behaves more like an overseas province of the Third Reich than anything else. The only law enforcement is that of the SS, complete with German ranks and uniforms, though with local recruits (this is in line with Nazi policy of local recruitment to the Waffen-SS later in the war.) There is no sign that there is any mediated control. No Pavelic, or even a Quisling, as a puppet Leader. Everything seems to be run more or less from Berlin via centralized dictatorship.

I could buy that the Reich's sphere of control was radically restructured and centralized in the aftermath of a victorious war in a manner vaguely resembling that of the Soviet Union. But other things in this show are more plausible as the workings of a puppet state, in which a national socialist brand of fascism has genuinely taken root, among a populace that does not even really see itself as subjugated.

One thing that rings a false note is the syncretic use of over-the-top Nazi trappings, with the English-speakers saying "Sieg Heil", the Red White and Blue merged with a Swastika, the Statue of Liberty making the Heil salute, etc. Such trappings were not employed this way even in closely micromanaged Nazi puppet regimes (even if many enthusiasts embraced them personally.) They give the sense, in this show, of having been more chosen for their visual shock value than their plausibility. Fascism was many things, but internationalist wasn't one of them. The Reich wasn't the Roman Empire or the Soviet Union. I have a hard time buying that the Reich would stick a swastika on the flag of a vanquished US the way Stalinist client governments did with the Hammer & Sickle. If following an imperial model, they'd probably replace the American flag with the Nazi flag altogether. Following the puppet regime model, they might keep it as is. They could of course plausibly replace the Stars and Stripes with something less threatening but equally "home grown." The swastika was generally used only in the Third Reich's emblems. Despite the fact that it was widely current throughout the world as a symbol before the war— it tended not to be used syncretically like this. Not officially, anyway. Private enthusiasts were another matter. It saw only very selective use in the distinct symbolic inventories of puppet regimes of the Reich, which if anything had reason to try and pass themselves off as locally organic and authentic symbolically.

Nazi America in this show is basically atheistic, and the Bible is outlawed. I know this is true to Dick's novel, but I flat out do not buy it. It doesn't fit in with the facts either about Nazism or about the US in the 40s. Dick had his reasons for having the American Reich operate this way in his novel, and it works well there given the textualist mysticism that forms the book's artistic core. But the portrayal in the show of Nazi America as an atheistic regime where the Bible is illegal seems not just implausible but rather chickenshit and pointless. The lines between Nazism and "Godless Communism" are blurred in ways that actually falsify both. (Even in Stalin's Soviet Union, Bibles per se were not illegal to own, although they were not easy for most people to come by.) It is as if Americans' religiosity gets a pass, as if we need to be reassured that Bible-thumpers couldn't be made this gladly vicious if you just let them keep on thumping. Don't flatter yourself, America.

German National Socialism was secular and basically anti-clerical, to be sure, but it was not atheistic. In the actual Third Reich, outright atheism (as opposed to mere irreligion) was not as a rule something that one could safely and publicly espouse. Its links to communism (branded the "Gottlosenbewegung" by none other than the Führer himself) had "tainted" overt atheism in the eyes of the Nazis. Even that notwithstanding, any purely materialist approach to the cosmos and the workings of the universe was suspect as "decadent." Irreligion was welcome, but atheist materialism was not. "I'm not religious, but I'm very spiritual" was a perfectly acceptable position. "I don't believe in God or any higher beings or powers" might make you seem untrustworthy or worse. Willingness to acknowledge and submit to "a higher power" was for a long time a prerequisite for joining not only a Twelve Step program, but the SS. Men like Himmler in particular just did not trust atheists to be disciplined. The ideal subject of the Reich was one who was "gottgläubig" i.e. professing a theism whose precise dimensions were indeterminate and not "spoken for" by a religious institution the Nazis did not control. Those registered as gottgläubig never were more than 1.5% of the Reich's actual population, of course. A sufficiently politically neutralized, culturally domesticated and morally spineless Protestantism proved far more tractable and practical. Outside Germany, things get even less atheistic. The racialist para-Nazi fascism of the Croatian regime (like some other European fascisms such as the Belgian Rexist party) was militantly Catholic. It was unquestioningly, if superficially, pious. Given the demographics of the US, it seems that a National Socialist American puppet regime would most likely take an instrumentalized Protestant coloring. The first and second incarnations of the KKK give an instructive example.

My guess is that a real Nazi puppet state with a National Socialism this wholeheartedly bought into by the local (white) population would have been even more overtly, flagrantly (white) American — especially in its symbols and trappings — even as effective control remained with men answering to the Führer. It would be something like a combination of the late Vichy and Croatian regimes, only stabilized in peacetime. It would be articulated in such a way as to make the mobilization of the subject populace into an asset rather than a liability, appealing to the local "mobilizing passions" in a way generally consistent with Nazism, and more specifically consistent with the Reich's interests. Like the fascism of the Croatian puppet regime, it would be something home-grown enough that even the more xenophobic of racially-obsessed whites (like H. P. Lovecraft) would be able to get behind it.

This is all worth bringing up because the aspect of this show that works so well, and so believably, is how it depicts not a Germanized America but an über-white hyper-America. It's a totalitarian Leave It To Beaver land. It's implied very effectively that Jim Crow racism merged and meshed seamlessly with Nazi ideologies of racial hygiene. (In Dick's novel we learn that slavery has been legalized again in the south.) The brutal head of the secret police in New York City is a loving dad with a white picket fence. It is American indeed. Sickeningly American. This is very much is in line with what some of the Reich's puppet states could be like.

Leaving aside what Dick did in the novel, if it'd been me creating an alt-history Reich-controlled puppet state in a vanquished America as a backdrop for a dystopic TV show, I'd have gone all in with its Americanness. Here's how I'd do it:

The NSSA (National Socialist State of America) would be not just an American but an All-American puppet totalitarian regime. Puppet "Leader" Lincoln Rockwell would take orders from the Reichskommissariat Amerika, and constantly remind the masses of Germany's salvific greatness as "Leader of the White World." It would fly a flag not with the Stars and Stripes, and not with a Swastika, but with the Stars and Bars — appropriate to an America where slavery was once again legal. There would be no brownshirts patrolling the streets either, but the whiteshirts of the Ku Klux Klan (with more practical uniforms, but recognizable as being modified from the familiar robes) transformed into a militarized arm of the puppet Rockwell regime, working in cooperation with the office of the local SS Station Chief.

The Reich-controlled NSSA wouldn't have the need to wipe out religion simply to wipe out autonomous religious power bases. American Protestantism would not be wholly forced underground. It would be warped, and made to serve the interests of the regime. Church rituals would be syncretized with secular rituals drawn from Nazi Lebensfeiern. Americans would be encouraged to pray to an expressly White Christ, martyred in a struggle with conniving Jews who proved themselves unworthy of even being servants to Him, thus giving the Führer a semi-divine role as their heroic eradicator ("But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.") Any who find this implausible need only remember or read up on what a brutalized and vicious thing the Christianity of slaveholding America was. The Nazis tried and mostly failed to create warped and Aryanized Protestant churches in Germany proper. It is hard to imagine how it might have succeeded there. It is far easier to imagine it working an America where religion is generally articulated with less sophistication to begin with, and which already has a long and proud tradition of setting pastor and pulpit in the service of racial slavery, Jim Crow brutality and white supremacist doctrines. In a Cold War with the Japanese Empire and its puppet Pacific State, subjects of the NSSA would be persuaded to see the Japanese as untrustworthy but formidable slant-eyed heathens, against which their White Christianity was a bulwark.

The obligatory Heil Salute would be rare. But you'd be taking your life in your hands if you didn't stand, put your hand on your breast, and loudly recite with everybody else when they proudly pledged allegiance to the flag of the National Socialist State of America, and to the white nation for which it stands.

In short, I'd have really gone for broke to show the perverse and undeniable Americanness of an American National Socialism. 

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