Katharine Burdekin wrote Swastika Night under the pseudonym of Murray Constantine after hearing Adolf Hitler claim that Nazism would create a “Thousand Year Reich”. Amazingly, it was published in 1937 and talks about a Twenty Year War. After its conclusion, Germany and Japan divide the global spoils. This was two years before the Second World War broke out. Science fiction shouldn’t be seen as predictive, but its warnings sometimes come to pass. In 2016, Swastika Night seems as prescient as ever.
The edition I read was the 2016 SF Masterworks edition from Gollancz (Victor Gollancz published the first UK edition in 1937). As usual, I didn’t read the introduction so my reading of Swastika Night was untainted.
This is the story of an Englishman, some Germans and the truth. It is mostly told through a series of dialogues, as the world is explained to the reader, and Burdekin’s feminism is revealed. We’re 700 years into German dominance of much of the world. Alfred – no surname – is the Englishman. He’s a mechanic for the German Empire and based in Salisbury. He visits Germany on a holy pilgrimage despite being antagonistic towards his masters and their religion. The German protagonists are Hermann, Alfred’s friend, who is a farmer, and an old Knight called Friedrich von Hess. Knights are the priests of the Hitler religion. In Burdekin’s future, Hitler is portrayed as a 7-foot-tall, long-blonde haired god who single-handed won the Twenty Years War (by heroically flying to Moscow). It is said that Hitler wasn’t born of woman but “exploded” from the head of God the Thunderer.
Alfred and von Hess become friends, up to a point. The main section of the novel is the latter explaining the German philosophy to the former. He does this by revealing that at the age of 21, his father gave him a book of ‘real’ history and a photograph of the small, paunched Hitler. There is also a beautiful young woman in the photograph. Von Hess has an ancestor who knew Hitler and this truth has been the curse of his family. Alfred understands the lies the German Empire is founded on and determines to do something about it.
In this future, men are everything and women are barely animals. Men don’t spend time with women, and are mostly homosexual. They take wives, but the women are kept in baby-making factories, where they must produce sons. Christians are worse still than women, with Christian women at the bottom of the pile. Children have rights until they are taken from them at a certain age. Once they are the age of submission, men can take advantage of them, perfectly legitimately. This is a truly horrendous that has been built up on re-writing history and suppression of lies. In an allegory with Christianity, the Hitler religion was written a hundred plus years after the events (as the Gospels were). This is a completely made-up religion and history to keep up the fascist rule and oppress the ordinary worker. The world has not moved in any technological sense. Fixed telephones are still in use. Farming is a major industry, but food is limited for the underclasses. The German Empire has stagnated, because its oppression of others. There is no development. No evolution of thought. No art, no creativity, no drive. This explains why Burdekin has not moved society forward.
Von Hess gives the book and photo to Alfred who takes it back to England with the desire to return women to their places beside men. He where he hides it, while teaching his son its truth. Britain has been crushed, despite an attempted rebellion 100 years in the past from the protagonists’ perspective. The male population was been culled and a mighty German occupying army ensconced. He befriends a Christian and in further dialogues, we learn more of how this religion now works underground.
Swastika Night is a remarkable book in many ways. Not only is it superbly written, and for the most part, utterly engaging (the latter chapters not so much), it speaks of fascism, oppression of minorities, and the worth of women. It does this in a way that isn’t preachy. Of course, it’s not subtle. Almost all the world-building and future history is described via the dialogues, but it never feels forced or didactic. Although it is a very clear message from a British woman’s perspective following the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s. In Swastika Night, women have their rights taken from them by men. They are to have “no will, no character, and no souls” (p70). Women submit. Men also dictate what beauty is. This is a scathing attack on society, were women were only just getting suffrage (1928 in the UK). Burdekin shows that men are fallible, and their mistakes lead to oppression. Men can be dominated by a woman’s sexuality and this emergence was an affront to maleness. Keenly, she shows that the suppression of women was not a Nazi ideal, but was always happening.
Burdekin also brings up British Imperialism, showing how awful that was, and suggesting it was Germany’s jealousy of Britain that led to their behaviour. The Germans erased history which showed that empires fell so that they keep their ideology in focus. Von Hess tells Alfred that socialism was smashed, but Alfred realises he must be a socialist, and that it is a just path.
A brilliant and clever and engaging science fiction novel which shows a horrific future also comments onto today, despite being written 80 years ago. Burdekin explains the rise of fascism towards the end of the book which is scarily familiar. Individualism – as also shown in Rand’s Anthem – means government is difficult. We live in an entitled and selfish world. True democracy breaks down and authoritarian rule takes over, where strong-personality male-types manipulate everything including the truth. What you end up with a Fuehrer (Hitler) or an oligarch (Trump). Swastika Night is a nightmare vision of the past and future and present.