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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Swastika Night

Murray Constantine
(Katharine Burdekin)

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Swastika Night

Title: Swastika Night
Author: Katharine Burdekin
Genre: Novel
Written: 1937
Length: 203 pages
Availability: Swastika Night - US
Swastika Night - UK
Swastika Night - Canada
Swastika Night - France
Nacht der braunen Schatten - Deutschland
La notte della svastica - Italia
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Originally published under the pseudonym Murray Constantine
  • With an Introduction by Daphne Patai

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Our Assessment:

A- : a very well-realized dystopia

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Science Fiction Studies . (14:1) 3/1987 Robert Crossley
Sunday Times . 8/8/1937 Ralph Straus

  From the Reviews:
  • "The central feature in Burdekin's dystopian nightmare, and what motivates its distinctive critical vision, is the "Reduction of Women" which occurred after the Nazi victory over its political enemies. (...) Swastika Night is a vision of great originality and terror-arguably more profound, and certainly fresher, than Orwell's derivative reworking of the themes of Zamyatin's We. It anticipates the subtler horrors of Margaret Atwood's near-future narrative of the degradation of women by fundamentalist gynophobes in The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and it should appear on anyone's short list of the essential works of dystopian imagination, as a novel with as much critical energy and point as either Huxley's or Orwell's more celebrated warnings, but built on a substructure more thoughtful, more deeply humane, more inspiriting than theirs." - Robert Crossley, Science Fiction Studies

  • "The picture it paints, of a world of the distant future almost completely Hitlerised, may seem at first sight to be equally fantastic, but behind Mr. Constantine's satire there is something like logic. (...) I do not say that the book will be to everybody's taste, but it is skilfully contrived and agreeably written: a weird story which if read with the attention it deserves must leave one thinking uncomfortably hard." - Ralph Straus, Sunday Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The most immediately striking thing about Katharine Burdekin's 1937 novel -- originally published under the pseudonym Murray Constantine -- is that already then, several years before the start of the Second World War the author imagined a world in which Adolf Hitler had conquered all of Europe (and a good bit of the rest of the world) and the Thousand Year Reich had not only survived but gone on to thrive for some seven centuries. The action is set in: "the Holy German Empire in this year of the Lord Hitler 720", the world divided between the German and Japanese Empires, with the Japanese ruling over much of Asia and the Americas.
       For all that time having passed, not much has advanced technologically: we're so used to science fiction that imagines continued rapid development, but the path Burdekin had history take is one where it quickly stalled and, in part, regressed -- another Dark Ages, where the world seems to stand still for centuries on end. There are aeroplanes, even gyroplanes, but not much else that is very modern; life seems closer to that of the nineteenth century than even the twentieth -- much less how we might imagine the twenty-seventh.
       One reason for the backward state of the world is that practically all books have been eliminated: there's nothing much to read but: "technical books and the Hitler Bible", as the powers that be had decided long ago:

All history, all psychology, all philosophy, all art except music, all medical knowledge except the purely anatomical and physical -- every book and picture and statue that could remind Germans of old time must be destroyed. A huge gulf was to be made which no one could ever cross again. Christianity must go, all the enormous mass of Christian theology must be destroyed throughout the Empire, all the Christian Bibles must be routed out and burned, and even Hitler's own book, hallowed throughout Germany, could only continue to exist in part.
       It was a huge undertaking:
     "And how were all the things destroyed ? Were there a great many books ?"
     "Millions. And records in stone and in paint and in architecture."
     "However was it done ? It must have taken twenty years."
     "More likely fifty or a hundred, and it must have cost as much as a small war. I don't know how it was done."
       History -- except the most carefully curated sliver -- , memory, and culture were obliterated, and so they now live in a time where:
No one has written anything for hundreds of years, except the most flagrant hash-ups and plagiarisms. You can't cut all culture off at the root and expect it to go on flowering at the top.
       In fact, illiteracy is widespread -- as also: "One didn't miss anything by not being able to read".
       Society does look rather different, however. Unsurprisingly, all Jews have been eliminated: "The German Jews were killed in various pogroms both during and after the Twenty Years' War", while, hauntingly (this was written in 1937, after all): "how the last remnants disappeared I don't know". Beyond that, Christians, too, are now reviled as the lowest of the low. The most significant societal change, however, is as to how women are regarded and treated. They are seen not as second-class citizens but rather second-class creatures, a lower order of life ("women have no souls and therefore are not human"), good only for procreation -- and then only if they produce boys, whom they only attend to until the infant is eighteen months old, after which they are taken away from the mother and raised in a proper and purely masculine environment. The women live segregated from the men, with their heads shaved to make them less attractive -- and: "The most important thing was to get it firmly fixed in the heads of the younger women that they must not mind being raped" (as, in fact: "there was no such crime as rape except in connection with children under age"). (Male homosexuality is, perhaps unsurprisingly, accepted and widespread -- as long as the men also do their duty to the Fatherland: as one character is reminded: "as you're a Nazi, if you haven't had any children at all by the time you're thirty you'll be punished".)
       The society seems stable and functioning but, in fact, as a local lord, Knight Friedrich von Hess, recognizes: "it is a stinking corpse, and its smell is coming through". Among the problems: while only the birth of boys is hailed, the empire does need a sufficient supply of girls as well and that's just not happening any more, as is made clear by: "every fresh statistical paper with its terribly disproportionate male births"", and so:
It was true that it was vital women should bear more daughters, true that every German of the literate knightly class had nightmare dreams of the extinction of the sacred race, but it was a truth that most [sic] not be spoken freely, above all not spoken to the women themselves.
       Venerating the "Holy One, the Hero-God" and "His phenomenal feats of strength", Hitler has grown out of all proportion in the present-day image of him -- down to him having reportedly been seven feet tall. But built on such a hollow -- and hollowed out -- base, the empire is beginning to look and feel very empty. Von Hess suggests about any alternative:
I mean warn them against accepting violence as a noble, manly thing. We Germans have done that, we have brought force to its highest power, and we have failed to make life good, or even, now, possible. So for God's sake warn them against all our bodily soldierly virtues, and make a new set of spiritual virtues, and preach them.
       He sees the German empire sustained by little else than its capability of conquest and subjugation, its subjects finding any sort of meaning only in crushing and dominating others:
I do not think, the nation can stand another fifty years without war. Perhaps they can't even stand thirty. Then the deep wretchedness which comes from being unable to adapt to changed conditions, permanent peace in this case, will make them do something.
       The main characters in the novel are Alfred, an Englishman (i.e. a member of a "subject race") on pilgrimage in Germany, and young Hermann, who knew him from the time he spent in England, several years earlier. Hermann is simple and hard-working, illiterate and unquestioningly loyal to the fatherland -- while Alfred glibly tells him of his fantastical dreams: "I m not only going to deliver England from the Germans. I'm going to deliver the world". Hermann is, of course, shocked -- both by the outrageousness of Alfred's claim, as it is unimaginable to him that anything could even shake the fatherland's foundations, as well as Alfred's audacity in saying something like that aloud. But he is devoted to Alfred, and pleased to be able to enjoy his company for a while.
       The other major figure is the Knight, von Hess. He recognizes that a lot is missing in this modern Germany:
We are stagnant. We're not exactly barbarians, we have technical skill and knowledge, we are not afraid of Nature, we do not starve. But in the rich mental and emotional life men live when they are going somewhere, aiming at something beyond them, however foolish, we have no part. We can create nothing, we can invent nothing -- we have no use for creation, we do not need to invent. We are Germans. We are holy. We are perfect, and we are dead.
       He also knows some of what has been erased, as he has in his possession a book written by one of his ancestors, recording otherwise lost history -- a book that he wants to entrust to Alfred, for him to bring to England, and to start preparing for what amounts to the coming (but not any time soon ...) revolution. Alfred insists that Hermann also be told about these truths, but Hermann can barely handle it, his world practically collapsing; the only alternatives he can soon envision for himself are suicide or being sent away -- abroad --, as an outcast -- the lowest form of degradation for a good Nazi.
       The story follows Alfred back to England, where he also visits Ethel, the woman who is his property (she has a white armlet on her jacket to indicate as much, so that other men don't have a go at her) and who, he finds, has borne him a daughter in his absence. His mind somewhat opened by his trip, Alfred takes an actual interest in the child -- worrying Ethel, who can't imagine why he would. Alfred can't immediately get a lifetime of considering anything female a lower form of life out of his system, but he does get an inkling that maybe there is something wrong with that view.
       A Christian figure, Joseph, also then figures in the story, as Alfred comes to learn more about Christianity.
       Burdekin keeps her story well in check, not promising or allowing for too much. The German Empire looks doomed to fail, but she doesn't pretend that after seven hundred years the change will come easily or quickly. Some of the action is a bit odd and forced, but most of it then comes together well enough. Sadly but impressively, far too much of the behavior is all too plausible, as the world Burdekin builds and presents seems a believable extrapolation of what-might-have-been if Hitler and his ideology had triumphed (as much here also reminds of the path modern Russia has gone down in recent years).
       Swastika Night is an all-too-convincing thought experiment that, despite a few rough edges and bits, is also a fine work of fiction, admirable especially also in its willingness to present this world fully in its harsh obscenity. (Indeed, among the few slightly annoying aspects are the soft spot displayed for things English, an unfortunate form of counter-nationalism.)
       Remarkable, of course, for when it was written, Swastika Night holds up well beyond just that.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 August 2023

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Swastika Night: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Katharine Burdekin, who also published as Murray Constantine, lived 1896 to 1963.

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© 2023 the complete review

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