‘The Man in the High Castle’ Furore Shows Power Of History

It was hardly the most subtle advertising campaign ever launched, but although the Nazi-inspired imagery plastered on New York subway trains in an effort to promote Amazon’s new television series The Man in the High Castle ultimately had to be removed, the publicity that the posters generated would have far exceeded any marketing executive’s wildest dreams.

After all, anyone who was unaware that Amazon has produced a television adaptation of the American author Philip K. Dick’s dystopian novel, The Man in the High Castle(1962) which envisions an America divided under Nazi German and Japanese rule following defeat in World War II – now certainly is.

The advertisements, which wrapped seats in a corruption of the American flag emblazoned with Reich imagery as well as a separate stylized imperial Japanese flag, were condemned by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio as offensive to those connected with the conflict.

“While these ads technically may be within MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] guidelines, they’re irresponsible and offensive to World War II and Holocaust survivors, their families, and countless other New Yorkers,” said de Blasio. “Amazon should take them down.”

Amazon ultimately complied, undoubtedly happy to write off the cost of the promotion campaign in light of the publicity that de Blasio’s protest helped to generate. However, the controversy aroused by Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle subway ad has offered us a fascinating insight into the remarkable capacity of counterfactual history to provoke impassioned response.

Of course, a large part of the reason why The Man in the High Castle has touched such a nerve in America owes to the relative recentness of the events that the series revises. As de Blasio pointed out, many survivors of World War II are still living in the United States, and New York is home to one of America’s largest Jewish populations, a community for whom the Holocaust will forever remain a profoundly sensitive subject.

But it must be remembered that Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle is an adaptation of a 53-year-old novel. Dick’s work was published just 17 years after the war officially ended, at a time when the atrocities of the conflict were still being accounted for and when there was a real possibility that the world would lapse into a third major war in the space of 50 years.

Dick’s novel inevitably attracted controversy at the time of its release – as well as praise, winning the 1963 Hugo Award for Best Novel, among other accolades – but the fact that the themes explored in The Man in the High Castle continue to unsettle so many descendants of the allied victors is revealing of a deep-seated reluctance to ponder what might have happened had the war played out differently.

Works of imaginative fiction based on past events seldom tend to provoke such a strong response, and this perhaps owes to the fact that counterfactual history and historical fiction derive dramatic power from their ability to impress on an audience the fragility of our contemporary reality. Well executed, counterfactual history revises the past with a realism sufficient to persuade its reader (or viewer) that the reality presented could have come to pass.

The Man in the High Castle subway ad would seem to lend weight to this perspective.

Amazon, perhaps distastefully, but certainly light-heartedly, sought to give New York commuters a small taste of a mock reality in which World War II had ended differently and their country was divided under Axis rule. It is difficult to imagine a Lord of the Rings promotion campaign which plastered subway trains with images of Mordor, for example, provoking such a strong response.

The Man in the High Castle ad controversy thus speaks to the enduring power of counterfactual history to persuade us that history is never inevitable. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed in his Gulag Archipelago: “it is only because of the way that things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.”

The Man in the High Castle launched on Amazon Prime on 20 November.

[Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]