‘Nazi’ adverts pulled from New York subway
New York didn’t take too kindly to seeing its trains decorated in fascist symbols. Why were they there? And can we learn much from imagining a world in which America is ruled by Nazis?
Commuters on the New York City Transit subway line last week had a choice: they could sit facing either the rising sun emblem of the former Japanese Empire, or a US flag emblazoned with the Nazi symbol of an iron eagle.
The designs – which covered the seats and walls of the trains – were part of an ad campaign for The Man in the High Castle, a new TV series that imagines a world in which the Nazis and the Japanese won World War Two. But to many, they were just an insult.
Upset to see their trains decked out in the insignia of their country’s former enemies, citizens complained in droves. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio weighed in, calling the adverts ‘irresponsible and offensive to World War Two and Holocaust survivors… and countless other New Yorkers’. Finally, on Monday, Amazon – the show’s producers – agreed to get rid of them.
Did Amazon mean to offend? The subway’s governing body doesn’t approve adverts that publicise a cause or political party – but these passed muster, because they were clearly promoting a product, not Nazism or Japanese Imperialism.
The Man in the High Castle examines what America might have looked like under Nazi and Japanese occupation, and the adverts were in this spirit.
But those who don’t know the plot of the show might have missed this, and critics say that Amazon should have considered how the fascist symbols would appear on the subway. The lack of context is the problem.
After all, people aren’t complaining about the show itself, which contains shots of Times Square daubed in swastikas and scenes in which cinemagoers are treated to reels of Nazi propaganda. In fact, reviewers have noted how ingeniously the script uses this hypothetical past to comment on our society today, praising it as an excellent example of the burgeoning ‘alternative history’ genre.
If and only if
Some see counterfactuals – situations that could have happened in the past, but didn’t – as gimmicky, a distraction from the task of history: to describe what actually happened. And it’s all too easy to fixate on a single event, ignoring the broader historical forces at work. If Columbus hadn’t discovered the New World, someone else would have – same difference.
Others argue that by imagining what might have been, we learn a lot about what actually is. With its bleak portrayal of a racist, totalitarian state, The Man in the High Castle brings home the (relative) freedoms that Americans enjoy today. And, deployed well, counterfactuals can be fun. Can you think of a more gripping premise than ‘America, but with Nazis’?
- What is the best advert you’ve seen this year, and why?
- Did the advertising campaign, and the ensuing scandal, work in Amazon’s favour?
- Design a poster for The Man in the High Castle which would be suitable for display in public.
- Describe five key differences between life in Nazi Germany and 1930s America.
Some People Say...
“The role of history is to describe, not speculate.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- World War Two happened a long time ago. Why are people still touchy about it?
- As de Blasio pointed out, some veterans of the war are still alive, and the adverts could evoke nasty memories. More generally, in an age when brutal, repressive regimes still exist in many places, some think that the use of fascist symbols to sell a product is insensitive.
- Why doesn’t the New York subway accept political advertising?
- In April, the subway’s governing authority voted to ban political adverts, claiming that they often lead to expensive and time-consuming lawsuits. Free speech advocates have criticised the decision, arguing that the subway is a public space and therefore a good forum for political debate.
- Rising sun
- The flag of the Imperial Japanese Army (1870-1945) featured a red sun emitting red rays. It is the precursor to the modern Japanese flag, which keeps the sun but drops the rays.
- Iron eagle
- For centuries, the coat of arms of the German nation — from the Holy Roman Empire to the Federal Republic — has featured a black eagle. The Nazi Party incorporated it into their iron eagle symbol, in which the bird stands atop a swastika wreathed in oak leaves.
- Alternative history
- A genre of fiction involving worlds that differ from ours, because history took a different course than in reality.
- Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was an Italian explorer who discovered and established settlements in the New World – most famously the Americas – on behalf of the Spanish monarchy.