We asked a historian what counterfactual stories like 'The Man in the High Castle' can teach us about the rise of populism in 2016.
Politicians have said some fun things recently. That child refugees seeking entry to the UK should have their teeth age-checked. Or that flag burning in the US should be met with a revoking of citizenship. And slowly, these ideas have come to replace what we thought was normal with a new kind of politics.
By now you've probably seen that meme, where any comparison drawn between Hitler and something in the present day is met with a colourful scoff. But with right-wing authoritarianism on the rise in Europe, and law-and-order fan Trump president-elect in the US, might there be more to the way people sling the term "Nazi" around online? And people have thrown around the word "Nazi" a hell of a lot this year – but is there any foundation to their worry?
Amazon Prime show The Man in the High Castle's onto a second season of exploring that ever-present – and increasingly pertinent – question of what may have happened if Hitler had won the war. We asked counterfactual 20th century historian Professor Gavriel Rosenfeld, about whether he thinks Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Marine le Pen really are ushering in some kind of fourth Reich, or if we are all just overreacting a bit.
VICE: Hi Professor Rosenfeld, why do people like imagining that England is run by Nazis so much?
Professor Gavriel Rosenfeld: There's a basic psychological tendency to wonder "what if" in our personal lives, depending on how we feel about the present. If you feel content and grateful about the present you might construct nightmare scenarios where, 'boy if you'd made a different decision, things would have turned out worse,' so it's it great that things are the way things are.
Unlike "what ifs" about us losing a war, in reality can a singular pivotal event really radically change the course of history?
The basic disagreement in history is whether it's the "Great Man" theory, where the Jesuses and Napoleons change history, or whether change derives from deep structural and economic forces. Counterfactual history often revolves around political assassinations happening or not happening, or military battles going one way or another way. But when historical events seem to be the result of very, very close calls where it could have gone the other way very easily, it is easy to imagine that chance contingency could have played an important role. Not everything is inevitable.
But then sometimes you have to have long lead-ups to make situations possible. The strength of European democracies today isn't what it was 40 years ago when their economies were booming, so they're more easily toppled by right-wing or left-wing extremists. Or take the decline in the standard of living of huge swathes of people in England or the US' Rust Belt. A Donald Trump 30 years ago wouldn't have gotten anywhere but today he can get further because of deeper structural changes.
Do you think people will be writing about 2016 in the future as a pivotal year?
The key years in history we only appreciate looking back on them, but 2016, depending on what happens in the next few years, could easily be seen as a turning point. Just like how we look now at 9/11 as the start of a new era in Western history.
What kind of parallels can you draw between now and the collapse of democracy at the end of the Weimar Republic? An obvious one feels like is the scapegoating of a particular group during a time of economic difficulty.
Of course, it's the usual bait and switch routine - distracting people from their deeper sufferings and projecting that dissatisfaction onto scapegoats who have nothing to do with it. Whether with traditional forms of antisemitism or racism, or Islamophobia, there is usually some group that's going to be blamed for the plight of others.
The problem in inter-war Europe in the 1920s and 30s was that the liberal, Parliamentary democratic order of the 19th century was more or less discredited by World War One. And a lot of people became skeptical of that world, so they turned to the political extremes. I would usually make the case that people don't tend to gravitate to the political extremes and outlandish solutions if the centre works for the majority of people. And I think the analogy today is that, certainly since 2008 with the world's financial crisis, and with the worsening problems of terrorism and a general breaking down of the world order, people are losing faith in political elites.
But the idea that outsiders can automatically make things better often tends to be naive. So while in the 1920s and 30s while it was hard for people to imagine things getting worse by voting for left- or right-wing extremists, that is in fact what happened. Things did get worse. And even though the Great Depression was a huge problem and most people abandoned hope in the liberal system, they probably should have stuck with it, because what ended up happening was a catastrophic alternative.
But are the events and main players of today really that similar to the Nazis?
I think one of the reasons why people study history is to make sure the mistakes that led to World War Two are never repeated. That's led to someone sounding the alarm bells every time there are rumblings of a new Hitler emerging, to make sure it doesn't turn into what everyone is afraid of. But by invoking the Nazi analogy, we often end up going down the path of alarmism.
There have been countless people who were compared to Hitler and never turned out to be anything like him, like Nixon. Some comparisons are alarmist, and some are more on target, but the peril is to be naive and think "everything is going to continue as it always has". If you aren't on guard against the erosion of democratic norms and traditions you can find yourself one day waking up with the world not as you imagined.
So what's your advice to people tempted to look back at history for guidance today?
I would say that making historical comparisons is always a good intellectual exercise, but it gets debased when it is merely to score rhetorical points against your opponents, or to smear someone. That's when people tune out, because people are just like "here's someone trotting out the Nazi card, which has been used so many times and hasn't panned out, why should we pay attention anymore?"
I would personally like to think that we should have a stance of eternal vigilance to protect democratic norms. It should always be our default position, but not only when those norms are being threatened. The tendency to take democracy for granted, and to engage in protest voting because you assume things will always more or less be fine, that's a pretty reckless mode of behaving. I don't blame people in the UK or America for voting to junk the system, if they feel that they have no other way of getting attention than by acting out.
On the other hand we have to see that as a sign. When someone develops a fever that's a sign that there's a deeper sickness in the body. And I think that when we see political outsiders being voted in, it's a sign that political bodies have some problems. We need to deal with the source, rather than just ring alarm bells like "look who's coming back."
The Man in the High Castle Season 2 is available on Amazon Prime Video now.
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