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The View from the High Castle: Philip K. Dick and World War II

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published under Front & Center Blog. Published Online: August 22, 2011 
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We've been discussing the accepted "narrative" of the war, the ways that we Americans have tended to interpret it. Others have their own "histories" of World War II, and they can vary wildly by era, by place, by perspective. To give just one example: Allied bombers flying over occupied France were "liberating" it; those on the ground being "liberated" might well have seen it in a different fashion.

When I'm trying to get this important point across to my students, I recommend that they read an unusual book. There are thousands of scholarly histories of the war (good research, not always a thrill-a-minute to read), and tens of thousands of more popular works (lacking in original research, but usually of higher literary quality). For this topic, however—the malleability of "the narrative" and, indeed, the malleability of history itself—I recommend a piece of fiction.

Sometimes it takes a novelist to nail down a particular aspect of the human condition. George Orwell once famously skewered the pretensions of the totalitarian leaders by turning them into beasts. A child can read Animal Farm, and get a lot out of it, but no one has ever written a more serious condemnation of Soviet communism. Likewise, graphic novelist Art Spiegelman took the most horrific episode of the 20th century and turned it into a comic book… er… "graphic novel" called Maus. It is a profound work indeed, dealing with both the historical event of the Holocaust and the way that the pain has worked itself out in succeeding generations.

When discussing the "accepted narrative" of World War II, I recommend a novel by the science fiction author Philip K. Dick. A prolific and troubled man, he was the author of numerous works: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which Hollywood turned into the film Blade Runner), Minority Report, Valis, and many, many more. The book at issue here appeared in 1962, and earned him the Hugo Award for science fiction a year later.

That's always struck me as a bit odd, because for my money, The Man in the High Castle isn't really science fiction at all. It explores an "alternate history," one in which the Axis has won World War II. The United States is occupied by the Germans in the east (a rump U.S., ruled Vichy-style), and the Japanese in the west (the "Pacific States of America, or PSA). In between them is a buffer region, the "Rocky Mountain States." We hear bits and pieces of what happened to cause the timeline to diverge from our own. The 1933 assassination attempt on FDR in Miami succeeds, the isolationist Republican John W. Bricker is elected president in 1936, and so forth. The U.S. is therefore hopelessly unready for the war that soon breaks out. The Allies lose it, surrendering in 1947.

It is fascinating stuff. All "counterfactuals" like these force you to assess the importance of particular events and people, and see them in new ways. It is what is happening in the Rocky Mountain States that gives the books its oomph, however. Here lives the author "Hawthorne Abendsen"—and he has written a very unusual novel. It has been banned by the German authorities on the east coast and in Europe, but it is already in wide underground circulation among the population of the occupied United States. It's called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and it, too, is an alternate history. It tells of a very different reality, one in which the Allies have won World War II.

Suffice it to say, if you haven't ever read this book… consider it an order!

More next time.

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11 Responses to “The View from the High Castle: Philip K. Dick and World War II”

  1. 1
    Chico says:

    "Allied bombers flying over occupied France were 'liberating' it; those on the ground being 'liberated' might well have seen it in a different fashion."

    Really? France was our ally. The Germans invade and occupied the country. The idea that they didn't feel "liberated" from a bunch of Nazis — although yes, there was a ton of anti-Jewish and pro-fascist feeling in France — is absurd. It's just childish contrarianism masquerading as intellectual analysis.


    And anyone who peppers their prose with "air quotes" is showing real historians that they're an "amateur" who is "not seriousness."

    Too bad, 'cause I enjoyed the Dick book. Like your book, he wandered around without really making a point, but that's because he was using I Ching and trying to make a point (as he usually did in his works) about the relative nature of reality.

    What was your point?

    • 1.1
      Woody Tanaka says:


      I think the point he was making was that if a bomb fell on your house, you wouldn't feel too liberated, even if you were anti-Germany.

  2. 2
    Mark Higbee says:

    Great introduction to Dick's great book, Professor Citino! History, like so much in life, depends on what vantage point you have. A Frenchman whose wife and children were killed by Allied bombers may well not have regarded that bombing as part of his "liberation," and strategic bombing does have civilian losses.

    What's the next best Dick novel to read, for an aspiring "Dickhead"?

    The war, and nearly all of history, didn't have to turn out as it did: that may be the most crucial lesson to gain from Dick's novel. History isn't the march of inevitability that some see it as.

  3. 3
    WE Martin says:

    I grewup during the depression and WW2 and watched my father,uncles, and cousins march off to an unknown fate. They grewup as patriotic citizens and did so voluntarily. The result they achieved was spectacular even with all the warts that have been exposed in hindsight. Therefore, I feel all these"what if" scenarios presented by wantabe historians and others detract from the lessons we should have learned from the war experience which we should be passing on to future generations with clarity.

  4. 4
    Shane Browne says:

    To be honest in response to the quote about France I think he was just making a point that to many French people the cost of liberation was high. Especially the French citizens living in Normandy… more civilians died in bombing raids on Caen than German soldiers.

    It's just ironic when he says "Allied bombers flying over occupied France were 'liberating' it", considering how many had to die in the process!

    I don't think he meant that as a whole the French were not glad to be rid of the Nazi's. It was just a high price to pay, not just from Allied bombing but also through mistreatment and reprisals by the Nazi occupiers.

  5. 5
    Cap'n says:

    Rob's initial thesis here is about the tentative nature of historical narratives – or interpretation of known historical facts. One of Dick's main themes in 'The Man in the High Castle' is the relative nature of the importance of historical events and the 'historicity' those events impart. Students of history who fail to consider the various levels of context and perspective will remain hidebound to 'popular' interpretations and generally be incapable of critical analysis. As is seen here, there will always be those who are uneasy with the notion of challenging the ideas that support a narrative they favor – even if those ideas are ultimately supported. The "lessons we should have learned" are hardly useful at all if they are based on incomplete or antiquated information or simplistic notions of events as one or another author chooses to present them. As Michael Howard says, history must be studied in width, depth, and context – Dick, and Dr. Citino, remind us that we need to continually assess our understanding of all three of these aspects. I look forward to the next installment.

  6. 6
    michael says:

    Thanks for the recommendation. Love SS-GB by Deighton too.

  7. 7
    Wild Bill says:

    The disparaging remark about "graphic novels" shows an elitist and biased viewpoint. Graphic novels may be distantly related to monthly superhero comics and the newpaper funnies, but sequential art is just as valid a means of expression as an online blog post.

  8. 8
    Wood Gas says:

    With all due respect to P.K.D. a simpler and perhaps more likely scenario: Dec 8th 1941 uncle Adolph sends a cable to Roosevelt and the major newspapers

    " The German people are appalled by the attack made by the subhuman Japanese and hereby declare a cease fire in Europe. The full might of the Third Reich will be mobilized to aid our Aryan brothers in America."

    With isolationism and racism being very present in the States in those years and the fear and shock of the Pearl Harbor incident, this might have flown. We all know how well Adolph treated his allies and kept his word, so we could very well have ended up more nazi than the Nazi's had we been allies. It was nearer than you might think as it did happen. Not to say we couldn't become fascists still.

  9. 9
    James DeWitt says:

    Actually, Orwell was a communist, he was writing on the dangers of socialism run rampant and/or fascism under the disguise of communism and not damning the Soviet Union.

  10. 10
    Larry C says:

    Politically, you are closer to the truth than most people care to admit.
    If the Japanese had stayed away from Pearl Harbor and the Philippenses it is unlikely that the USA would have gotten involved. They could have consolidated their gains in SE Asia and it is unlikely that they would have been challenged.
    In Europe, Hitler made the great error if starting a two front war. Had he listen to his generals, who were very competent, unlike him, the western front would have been consolidated by taking Britain. The British could not have repelled a German landing as they had not the manpower or resources to do so. They needed USA and Canadian help. Once England capitulated, there was nothing anyone in the West could have done to stop Germany from taking control of all Western Europe.
    Stalin was a coward and it is unlikely that there would have been a German-Russian war for some time. Once such a war started, if the Germans had treated the Russian people with respect, even temporarily, the Russian would have seen the Germans as liberators and turned against their murderous regime.
    Yes, history turns on errors – some great some small.

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