A History Major Watches 'The Man in the High Castle'

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German troops enter Poland after a "blitzkrieg" of 1.25 million men and six armored divisions swept into Poland, Sept. 1939. AFP/Getty

Kids play the "what if" game to dream up ridiculous scenarios for their friends: What if aliens invaded Earth? What if the sky were green and the grass blue? What if you could fly?

Well, what if adults played the same kind of game to think critically about—and engage with—history?

Amazon's pilot episode of "The Man in the High Castle," based on Philip K. Dick's novel of the same title, tackles a "what if" thought experiment that might appeal to a much broader swath of viewers than just admitted history nerds such as me.

Though the episode leaves many of the details in question, it's quite clear that history's trajectory has unfurled in a drastically different direction than we've experienced it.

The title sequence prefaces the alternate reality that viewers are about to enter: a dim and menacing world in which the Axis powers defeated the Allies at the end of World War II. Hitler dropped a nuclear bomb on Washington, D.C., and the U.S. is no longer the land of the free (it has been partitioned between Japan and Germany). The opening shows a map of the "Pacific States" that lie to the west of the neutral zone, and the "Greater Reich" area to the east of it.

As the episode gets under way, viewers learn that an aging Hitler still stands at the helm of his empire in 1962, but that Parkinson's is taking its toll on the fuhrer. Himmler and Goebbels wait in the wings, each vying for leadership and seemingly secretly plotting to do away with the partition and to take over all the territory once and for all.

"They deny it in public, but both men think the partition of the Americas was a mistake," says a German official posing as a Swedish businessman and speaking confidentially to his Japanese counterparts. "They've dropped the bomb before, and they won't hesitate to drop it again."

Jewish ancestry is mentioned once, in hushed tones: A young man and his girlfriend discuss the implications of his roots on marriage and children.

A police officer with a swastika on the arm of his uniform and a homegrown American accent casually mentions a hospital that on Tuesdays burns cripples and the terminally ill. As he speaks, flakes of what looks like ash float down from above.

A member of the resistance in New York is apprehended by Hitler's Nazis in America and beaten savagely, tied at the wrists and dangled from the ceiling. On the other side of the neutral zone, a young girl is shot on the streets of San Francisco for carrying a prohibited film reel as part of her resistance work.

Viewers are obviously not getting a straightforward history lesson, but are seeing what could have happened. Conjuring and playing out the what ifs is perhaps an even more instructive and impactful exercise.

It was one such professor-sanctioned game of "what if" during my sophomore year of college that helped me put an end to my indecision—hemming and hawing between psychology, economics, and a handful of other prospective departments—and declare myself a history major.

In a course about Germany and the world wars, from its unification in 1870 through the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequent reunification, my professor assigned each student an identity. Every week, as our readings described a certain period, we would write the next chapter in our character's lives.

Mine was Oskar Monzel, born to two Protestant agricultural day laborers in East Prussia at the turn of the 20th century. Building on those basic details, I had to write his trajectory from his childhood in the early 1900s to old age, when the Iron Curtain's most concrete manifestation began crumbling.

Every week I would mull over his decisions. What would he do when faced with the political turmoil of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s? Would he be swayed enough by Hitler to vote for the future fuhrer in the 1933 election? What would happen if he met some of the other characters whose lives my classmates were writing?

By stepping into Oskar's fictional shoes, I was forced to think about past as present. I'll admit I have always loved history, but the thought experiment was thrilling in a way that few of my high school history classes had been. I'm certain the choose-your-own-adventure-type assignment left me with a fuller, richer take on the facts and chronologies.

Just as taking on a fictional identity helped open up a three-dimensional view of history, so can an alternate reality, in which one must gain a deep understanding of the real events and figures at play to extrapolate alternative outcomes.

To ponder how Hitler might have ruled over the Greater Reich, viewers have to think about how he built the Third Reich. To debate what American society would have looked like had the Allies lost the war, viewers need to understand the pre-war Depression era and all that led up to it.

"The Man in the High Castle" is also visually engaging, with landmarks like Times Square reimagined (think swastikas in place of Disney billboards). Even such background details succeed in pulling the viewer into the imagined world, similar enough to our own to feel familiar but also unequivocally different.

It all makes for a lesson that demands critical thinking skills not always summoned in the classroom. And one that's far more enrapturing.

A History Major Watches 'The Man in the High Castle' | Culture