As the end of World War II recedes in time and the generation that experienced it dwindles, something strange is happening on television: The good guys are losing the war. Amazon’s The Man in The High Castle and HBO’s The Plot Against America both portray an alternate reality in which the United States succumbs to Nazism. Similarly, in Amazon’s Hunters, Germany loses WWII but Nazi war criminals embed themselves in the United States, where they conspire to establish a Fourth Reich.
Television critics view the popularity of such shows as a sign of the zeitgeist: Audiences have gravitated to a vision of a dark and dangerous alternative America that appears all too plausible and timely. Yet as disturbing as such fictional representations may be, the depiction of fascist America’s built environment in The Man in the High Castle arguably falls short—and actually leaves viewers less alarmed than they should be.
Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), The Man in the High Castle imagines what the world might have looked like if Germany and Japan had won WWII and split the territory of the United States. The show has received Emmy nominations for its production design, which vividly brings to life a fascist version of 1960s America. Overlaying the visual cultures of National Socialist Germany and Imperial Japan onto a still-recognizable American landscape, the designers evoke a postwar nation that appears at once familiar and terribly wrong. However, as world history has shown us, fascism did not always show up in the obtrusive forms that we expect. We must be on guard for more mundane incursions and erosions as well.
The Man in the High Castle's America
Alternate Versus Real Worlds: Setting the Stage
In crafting the alt-world, The Man in the High Castle production designer Drew Boughton introduced elements of Midcentury Modernism as it developed in Eastern Bloc countries and the United States. He also integrated features of actual Nazi-era buildings in Berlin and incorporated proposed historical designs for the radical transformation of Berlin into Germania, a showpiece capital for the Greater German Reich. Construction of Germania, which was laid out by Albert Speer, Hitler’s appointed General Building Inspector for Berlin, was scheduled for completion by 1950 and was well under way by the time WWII began in 1939. In the show, the scenes that take place in victorious postwar Berlin draw on Speer’s designs, including a gargantuan Volkshalle (People’s Hall) that would have held an audience of 180,000 people.
Although the show’s architectural and urban spaces feel true to the narrative, their accuracy, particularly those of the American Reich, is debatable. Evaluating the veracity of a fictional world conjured for the small screen may seem like an exercise in folly, yet the reality that The Man in the High Castle explores is not entirely an alternative one. The Nazis left behind a good deal of evidence about what they had intended to build if they had won the war. Indeed, they had already begun to move those plans forward within Germany’s occupied territories. Norway, in particular, offers insights into Hitler’s vision.
The Nazi notion of a racial hierarchy placed Norwegians at its apex, superior even to Germans in the supposed purity of their “Aryan” blood. In order to convince Norwegians of their shared Nordic brotherhood and interests, Hitler courted them with propaganda and incentives—a stark contrast to his use of mass extermination and slave labor in Eastern Europe. From 1940 to 1945, Nazi architects and engineers converted the Scandinavian country into a vast construction zone, paving the way for a postwar Aryan empire that would stretch beyond the Arctic Circle. With ambitious architectural and infrastructure projects, Hitler sought to literally and figuratively build bridges to Norway’s citizens, bringing them into the fold of his Greater German Reich.
What The Man in The High Castle Gets Right
If Norway serves as a historical model for the Nazis’ intended development of occupied nations deemed worthy of partnership in the Greater German Reich—as the United States is portrayed to be in The Man in the High Castle—we can determine what the show’s creators got right, and wrong, in fashioning the built environment of their alt-America.
I began watching the show in the midst of researching a book on Hitler’s architectural plans for occupied Norway. In archives in Oslo and Berlin, I uncovered vast Nazi building schemes meant to transform Norway into a model “Aryan” society. Fascinated, and with a sickening sense of déjà vu, I saw some of these projects reappear in the alternative world of The Man in the High Castle. (What follows is spoiler-free.)
For example, the show depicts the specially designed maternity centers for the Lebensborn program that SS (Schutzstaffel, or Protection Squad) leader Heinrich Himmler founded in Germany in 1935. Aiming to harvest the Norwegians’ supposedly superior genes to improve the racial health of the German population, the Nazis established more Lebensborn maternity centers in occupied Norway than in any other country, including Germany. Cruelly treating the “Aryan” children born in these institutions like other natural resources in Norway that could benefit the Fatherland, the Nazis devised a pipeline that sent hundreds of babies from Norway to Germany during the war years. Thousands more remained behind in Norway.
The show’s reference to the closure and subsequent conversion of churches into National Socialist gathering places faithfully draws on Nazi ideals of urban planning. Newly built towns in Third Reich Germany sometimes had no churches at all, reflecting a broader effort to shift collective life away from religion and toward the Nazi party. The demotion of churches also held true in the Nazi redesign of Norwegian towns damaged during the 1940 invasion (more on this later).
The glamorization of technology and transportation on the show—with its imagery of high-speed trains and supersonic jets—also had its counterpart in Norway where Hitler ordered his engineers to build an autobahn that would link Trondheim to Berlin and a polar railway that would traverse mountains and tundra. Hitler viewed such new technological and transportation systems as vital to keep the peripheries of his growing empire securely tethered to its center, Berlin.
The Man in the High Castle features advanced Nazi transportation forms, such as this supersonic jet.
Occupied Europe also gives us countless examples of the Nazis’ real destruction of monuments for the purposes of rewriting history, which The Man in the High Castle echoes in its fictional destruction of American landmarks. But as the show deftly portrays, the ephemeral forms of resistance and memory are harder to quash. In occupied Norway, these symbols of resistance appeared everywhere: a red woolen stocking cap worn in winter, a paper clip worn on a lapel (“we hold together”), or a matchstick broken into a V-symbol (“we will win”).
The accurate elements of the Man in the High Castle’s alt-world derive in large measure from the show creators’ historical research on Nazi Germany. Where things start to go off track is in the realization of Hitler’s vision for his expanded Aryan empire. Here, occupied Norway offers an invaluable corrective.
What The Man in The High Castle Gets Wrong
Let’s begin with a big mistake. The show makes New York City the capital of the American Reich, a departure from the novel, which alludes to Washington, D.C.’s continued role as the center of federal government. Hitler admired many things about the United States, including its Jim Crow laws, but New York was not among them. In his 1925 political autobiography Mein Kampf, Hitler expressed hostility toward large cities in general, which he believed ground people down and alienated them from the Volk, or the racial nation. In later years, Nazi propagandists continued to decry the soullessness of the modern city and its degeneracy, evidenced by the mixing of races, so-called Jewish department stores, and jazz. The victors’ choice of New York as the capital of Nazi-controlled America in The Man in the High Castle —and especially the shabby version of the city depicted by the show—sounds a distinctly false note.
An alternative Times Square in New York in 1962 as reimagined by The Man in the High Castle
In reality, the way that the Nazi occupation of Norway unfolded suggests a different scenario. After invading the country in April 1940, the Nazis set up an occupation regime led by Reichskommissar Josef Terboven. As Norway’s capital and largest city, Oslo was the logical pick for his headquarters—its location is also in relatively close proximity to Germany. But in their propaganda, the occupiers made clear how much they disliked the city, which they considered degenerate and alienated from its Nordic roots. In particular, they disparaged the functional-style buildings, the American cultural influences, and the surplus of women among its residents—women who, as some German propagandists argued, indulged in cocktails and so-called Jewish psychoanalysis while neglecting their duty to the Volk.
Even before the Nazis had fully occupied Norway, as the battles continued, they had begun to make far-reaching plans to physically transform its towns and landscapes. Hitler believed such changes were necessary for the incorporation of Norwegians into his Greater German Reich and to secure the long-term presence of German rulers in this northern land. The astonishing scale of these projects is exemplified by New Trondheim, a city for Germans only, which Hitler instructed Speer to design from scratch. (Knowing this settlement would provoke the Norwegian resistance, the Germans carefully hid their intentions.) As he told Joseph Goebbels, Hitler envisioned New Trondheim as the “fabulously built” German cultural capital of his northern empire, replete with institutions celebrating German art and music. This, not Oslo, was to be the representative city of the Greater German Reich in Norway. Located on the Trondheim Fjord alongside a massive new German naval base, the city’s proximity to (old) Trondheim added another layer of desirable cultural associations: Trondheim had once been the capital of the Vikings, a heritage the Nazis sought to appropriate for themselves.
Hitler’s sensitivity to the symbolism of place suggests that had the Nazis won the war and conquered the United States, they would have searched for a capital with positive associations from the standpoint of Nazi ideology—and that was not New York. If the Nazis, for the sake of expediency, had chosen New York as their capital, their historical building plans for the postwar years indicate that they would have thoroughly rebuilt the city by the 1960s, when the show is set, and erased any traces of its “degenerate” past. As proposals for Germania make clear, Hitler believed that even Berlin—the Nazis’ Gomorrah—could be redeemed through the power of urban design.
The desire to create model cities in occupied Norway, whether for the German rulers or the subjugated Norwegians, reflects a longer preoccupation with urban planning for Hitler and his architects. Already in the 1930s, Nazi planners in Germany designed and built towns to act as virtual stage sets. In these spaces, town residents were expected to perform, in everyday behaviors and collective ritual events, their identities as members of the Volksgemeinschaft, the racially unified community that was a cornerstone goal of the National Socialists. In occupied Norway, the Germans invested vast sums to create the physical context necessary for a new social order that they believed could not thrive in just any built environment.
With this in mind, the depiction of New York in The Man in the High Castle rings hollow. The neighborhoods are rundown, a result of the United States never having experienced the postwar economic boom that followed the Allied victory. Harlem, which viewers learn witnessed the deportation and murder of its African American residents, is portrayed as an empty wasteland. The genocide is shocking and entirely believable, but the proximity of the ruins to Nazi headquarters is not. Historical records reveal that Hitler did intend to let some Eastern European cities decay, if they were not destroyed outright, but Germans would have been forbidden to enter them. These deteriorating cities would have been far from the new German settlements that Hitler foresaw for the conquered eastern territories. The New Order demanded gleaming cities for the conquerors and would have pushed despair and suffering into the unseen, distant margins.
Of course, the fact that New York is recognizable in The Man in the High Castle—despite a skyline that, absent familiar postwar skyscrapers, seems frozen in time—deepens the show’s uncanny feel. The addition of a gigantic Nazi headquarters, towering over Manhattan, heightens the viewer’s disorientation. This colossus is visual shorthand for the Nazis’ absolute political dominance, a point reinforced by its siting on what is today the location of the United Nations building, which is itself a symbol of the desire for peaceful international collaboration following World War II.
View of Nazi Headquarters in New York as depicted in Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle
But does the evidence we have from occupied Norway suggest that the Nazis would have adopted such a dominating and alienating approach to architecture in the expanded territories of the Greater German Reich? The answer is yes and no. Although the occupiers did plan monumental projects for their northern colony, their strategy for intervening in Norwegian towns focused more on coopting existing environments rather than on erecting edifices that would contrast sharply with their context.
This approach clearly informed the Nazi-influenced reconstruction schemes for 23 Norwegian towns damaged during Germany’s 1940 invasion. Speer instructed his selected Norwegian architects on Nazi planning principles; he even invited them on a research trip to Germany to see new Nazi settlements firsthand. The urban plans produced under his supervision blended novel architectural types such as Nazi Party buildings, with older traditions of Norwegian town planning. Rather than focus on the extraordinary, these reconstruction schemes derived their ideological power from embedding Volksgemeinschaft ideals into everyday spaces and everyday life. This more subtle intervention—harder to resist precisely because it appeared so ordinary—is arguably more terrifying than the monstrous tower looming over Manhattan in The Man in the High Castle.
Even so, Nazis were willing to blend themselves into existing environments only to a certain point. The functionalist look of the show’s Nazi headquarters building in New York is consistent with postwar architectural developments in the real United States, but it strikes a jarring tone from the perspective of Third Reich history. Hitler, who as a young man dreamed of becoming an architect, had strong opinions about architectural style. He considered functionalism inappropriate for ceremonial and state buildings, preferring instead a stripped-down classicism. In occupied Norway, German leaders similarly rejected the functionalism that had been popular in prewar Oslo. They particularly detested the then-new city hall in Oslo, which reminded them of New York skyscrapers; today it is the site of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. The Nazis intended to repurpose the structure as a commercial building—a use they considered more fitting for its style.
Perhaps the most glaring deviation in The Man in the High Castle, judged from the perspective of occupied Norway, involves the presence of the German occupiers—or lack thereof. In the show, Nazi leaders from Germany make frequent visits to the American Reich, but their physical base remains Berlin. Americans not killed outright because of their race, religion, or disability still reside in the territory formerly known as the United States.
The history of Norway foretells a different world under the swastika, one in which the Nazis occupiers do not go home. Despite Hitler’s reassurances to Vidkun Quisling, head of the puppet Norwegian government, that Norway would soon regain its independence, the Germans secretly planned to stay. Beyond New Trondheim, the construction of other exclusively German spaces reveals that the occupiers were settling in for the long term. These included 100 Soldatenheime, cultural and recreational centers commissioned by Hitler for German troops stationed in Norway. Generous in size and furnishings, the Soldatenheime boasted theaters that played German films, restaurant and pubs that served German food, and walls decorated with German art. Norwegians were forbidden to enter these self-contained German worlds, which were meant to reinforce the soldiers’ national identity. Norway suggests that the Germans planned not to rule from afar, but rather to embed themselves within their occupied territories, wrapped tightly in their own spatial and cultural cocoons.
The Not-So-Alternate Universe
The extraordinary care with which The Man in the High Castle’s designers fabricated the visual landscape of a postwar Nazi America makes watching the show a disturbingly immersive experience. As an architectural historian, I wonder if this alt-world would have been even more frightening had it adhered more closely to the Nazis’ manipulation of everyday spaces, which are easily overlooked and yet deeply powerful in the maintenance of nationalist ideologies.
As more recent history has shown us, a campaign promise to build a “big” and “beautiful” wall grabs headlines, but more subtle walls can arise with less fanfare—and be equally effective at dividing people. Nor can we write off the past depicted in The Man in the High Castle as pure science fiction, despite the fact that the Allies actually won the war. As the history of occupied Norway reminds us, the construction of the world explored in the show was already well underway in the 1940s—and closer than we think to having been our reality.
Read the author's other articles in ARCHITECT: "The Invasion of Memory: Hitler’s Attempt to Rewrite the History of World War I" and "Nazi Architecture Bros: The Young Men in Albert Speer’s Office."