“We wipe them out, yet they keep coming back like lice,” laments a frustrated Nazi in Amazon’s new series, “The Man In the High Castle,” the tale of a 1962 America where the Axis powers—not the Allies—won World War II.
Here, the East Coast is ruled by the Third Reich, while the Japanese hold the West Coast. We’re told that one Jewish character’s parents were “exterminated in the Cincinnati camp,” and that there are periodic attacks by “Semites” on various targets in Europe. Meanwhile, over in San Francisco, a couple is reluctant to get married because, as the man accuses, “You’re scared because my grandfather was a Jew.” A Japanese commander helpfully explains that his government doesn’t really care about Jews—“After all, we have none in Japan,”—but their “racial laws are now aligned (with Germany).”
By the way, Zyklon B is still the killer drug of choice. Although we learn that the Germans both developed the hydrogen bomb and a plane that can fly from New York to California in two hours (one character sighs, “German technology—we Japanese cannot compete.” Get the joke?), they’ve apparently made little progress on the mass killing front. Then again, why mess with a good thing?
“The Man In the High Castle” opens with a mournful rendition of “Edelweiss,” which sent me down the following rabbit-hole: Despite what many people (including Austrians) believe, “Edelweiss” is not a classic European folk-song translated, but a show-tune written (in English) in 1959 for the Broadway hit “The Sound of Music” by Rodgers and Hammerstein. But Rodgers and Hammerstein were East Coast Jews. In this version, they too would have been exterminated (in Cincinnati or elsewhere). So who wrote “Edelweiss”?
My husband was more intrigued by the idea of Germany and Japan co-ruling the US, since each believes the other to be vermin to be disposed of or, at least, subjugated. And, sure enough, before the first episode is over, we learn that the “partition of America was a mistake. There will be war.”
And yet, neither of the above proved to be the most pressing question raised by “The Man in the High Castle.”
That came from outside of the show when, Thanksgiving week, New Yorkers protested about a subway train being decorated with promotional Nazi and Japanese imagery. Even the mayor and the governor got into the act of demanding it be taken down, which it promptly was.
I don’t think anyone could have missed the fact that we live in an age of heightened sensitivity, with trigger warning being required lest anyone be offended, college students demanding safe spaces from others’ conflicting opinions, and each public utterance on social media and beyond parsed every which way, then shamed when it fails to meet a constantly moving target of acceptable standards.
I’ve written before about my belief in free speech—yes, even for anti-Semitic activists–but the show’s aborted advertising campaign made me think even more deeply about the topic.
I remember going to school—and we’re not talking college, here; we’re talking high-school, even middle-school—where we read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and learned about the Holocaust, complete with pictures (quick, raise your hand if you can’t instantly recall the shot of the little boy with the backpack and the rifle pointed at him). No one stopped to wonder if the history lesson might be disturbing to Jewish students who had relatives with numbers on their arms. (And I can assure you, going to college in San Francisco, nobody gave a nano-second of thought to whether extolling the virtues of Communism might offend the city’s large Soviet Jewish refugee population.) I also went to a high school that was heavily Asian, where we learned about the Korean and Vietnam wars (bet you can also recall the picture of the naked little girl running down the road after her clothes had been burned off by Agent Orange). Nobody got any trigger warnings for anything.
Because the subjects we were learning were supposed to be disturbing. For everyone.
It’s been 70 years since the end of World War II. It’s mostly a dim memory now. Why not take advantage of a show like “The Man In the High Castle” and, yes, its posters in the subway, to open a conversation—preferably a disturbing one. So disturbing that the idea of launching another World War and/or the extermination of an entire people might, in the future, be met with a horrified, “No,” rather than, “That sounds intriguing… I can’t imagine any way that might go wrong.”
After the brouhaha with the subway train, I asked my (African American) husband if he thought the mini-series “Roots” could be made today. After all, it features very disturbing images of slave ship revolts, floggings, the auctioning of people, rape, and cock-fighting (why do I think the biggest objections now would come to the cock-fighting?). Surely, someone would be offended by the entire story. But wouldn’t it be more disturbing if they weren’t?
Slavery is abhorrently wrong. But if you hide its victims’ stories for fear of upsetting the sensitive, how will the next generation ever learn that? How will they become sensitive to atrocity if they’re never exposed to it? (And let’s not talk about erasing already marginalized people by erasing their narratives under the guise of protecting… whom? Them? You? Won’t somebody think of the children?)
So should you watch “The Man In the High Castle”? Yes, you should.
Will you be disturbed by it?
One can only hope.