Originally published in 1937, Katherine Burdekin’s dystopian SF novel depicts a future 700 years hence by extrapolating from the events of her time. In this future, the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Japan had won a world war and created a world divided into two equally powerful and mutually suspicious superpowers.
Burdekin’s future German empire is race based and, having read and considered the implications of Hitler’s speeches and writing, she sees a time where the Nazis committed genocide against the Jewish people. Though futuristic, the level of technological development depicted is little different to that which would have been familiar to contemporary readers, whilst the society is structured in a rigid class system. In fact, some aspects of it seem to draw on mediaeval class structures as much as anything contemporary to Burdekin.
The regime is interested in perpetuating itself rather than development which would explain the lack of development and even the regression. Widely educating people to be creative in any field could cause people to question the assertions of the regime. Through this system, the destruction of history and a mysticism based on the idea of Hitler – literally – exploding from the head of ‘God the Thunderer’ the German Empire has managed to sustain itself for over 700 years.
The plot of the novel follows Alfred (an Englishman) in his quest to end the occupation of his country. He believes, having learned that the depictions of Hitler as a seven foot tall god-like figure are false, that he can bring down the Thousand Year Reich. A German Knight, von Hess, possesses evidence (though much of it second hand and itself written hundreds of years ago from memory after the decision had been taken to erase the past) that Hitler was not as depicted and that women were once – though not equal – given more regard than they are by this time. The idea is that people will never overthrow the Reich through force, but if they can debunk the lies that sustain it, it will eventually fail through disbelief.
Much of this is probably familiar to anyone who has read George Orwell’s 1984 and, indeed, one might infer that Swastika Night is an influence on it. This novel is probably a little more hopeful than Orwell’s though. Winston Smith, it transpires, was never in any position to challenge the authority of the state. Having said that, Burdekin’s novel wasn’t unique in this period. This isn’t what interests me most about the novel, though. One of the main themes of the novel is the oppression of women. Through the extrapolation of a cult of masculinity in Nazism, Burdekin explores the dangers in the degradation of women for society.
In the novels past, the ‘Reduction of Women’ had seen women become little more than extensions of their wombs, shorn of identity and existing only to produce the next generation. Brutalised and not even afforded the pleasure of bringing up their male children – part of the god-hood of Hitler in the novel rests upon his never being contaminated by contact with women – these people are not even second class citizens. They are given no regard in law, not even protected from rape; this, I think, is given as an example of the interplay of power and masculinity in the novel. The novel regards rape not so much as a sexual crime but more as being an example of male power over women and the exercising of it.
The oppression of women is extreme in Swastika Night, but there is plenty that could be applied to society in 1937 and – unfortunately – even now. Treating women as mindless and without the capacity to make their own lives is inherently undesirable as I believe it is obscene to denigrate any group of people for any reason. However, Burdekin indicates another reason to resist misogyny and to seek to place men and women on an equal footing. So convinced are they of their own lack of worth, the women in the novel are starting to fail to produce male children in sufficient numbers to replace the population. This is a graphic means of depicting that male oppression is bad not just for women, by for men too.
She takes it further. Though martial prowess is key to the psyche of the Reich, it is clear that the men are weak and cowardly, despite their – often uncontrolled, such as the occasion where Hermann beats a youth to death – physical strength. This is one of the many aspects of the novel which I believe has value today. The reduction of women to domestic drudges is, in of itself, undesirable. Beyond the unpleasant disregard for women, I’m inclined to think that the granting of every whim to male children and holding them to be in some way superior when carried into adulthood – where their wives then continue to treat them in almost the same way as their mothers did – is infantalising. That is to say that the oppression of women is not only morally repugnant, it is actively dangerous for men who will become weakened by it.
There was one aspect of the novel that I did find more than a little troubling (and not something that I like to see nowadays). As relationships between men and women were reduced to little more than a patriotic obligation on the part of men to reproduce, women were no longer seen as attractive as partners. This leads to an increase in homosexual relationships. My problem with this is that Burdekin seems to imply that homosexuality is, along with all the ill to come of the Reduction of Woman, an undesirable consequence of the policies of the Thousand Year Reich. In the novel, Burdekin goes so far as to suggest that the older men spend much of their time lusting after young boys. At the opening of the novel, one of the characters has positioned himself in the Holy Hitler chapel that he can better view a fourteen year old chorister:
‘Hermann was sitting in the Goebbels chapel in the northern arm, whence he could conveniently watch the handsome boy with the fair silky hair, who had been singing the solos … He could no longer see the boy except with a side-long glance and though gazing at lovely youths was not conventionally condemned, any position during the singing of the Creed except that of attention-eyes-front was sacrilegious’
The novel, in depicting a a society where women were little more than breeding machines, is already an uncomfortable read. However, this is in a way designed to provoke thought in the reader about how their own society treats its women. Albeit by positing an extreme ‘what if?’ scenario. The early introduction of homophobia by Burdekin was unfortunate. One might argue that it was simply of its time; after all, in 1937 male homosexual acts were still illegal in the UK and it’s not clear that there was any public appetite for the repeal of these grossly offensive laws. Of course, any homophobia in the novel doesn’t dilute the righteous anger at misogyny, but it does leave one feeling a little uncomfortable at how a natural part of human relationships are misrepresented.
It’s possible that I am simply wrong with regard to authorial intent here. Or that I am being, in my own early 21st Century socially liberal way, overly sensitive to a relatively unimportant part of the novel. The problem is, when I try and rationalise it this way, I struggle. As noted earlier, one of the more forceful parts of the novel for me is that disregarding the rights of women is not only wrong, but impacts adversely upon men. The novels homophobia is a part of that, I think. Rather than regarding homosexuality as being something that exists regardless, it seems to me that it is being employed as a device to criticise the regime in the world. It is something that has been resorted to rather than anything else.
As it happens, homosexual relationships are integral to the plot. Alfred’s desire to bring about a revolution of the mind and bring down the Reich through non-violent means is aided in part by his being trustworthy (he is an extremely competent engineer) but also his affection for a German man, Herman. This, in itself, isn’t a bad thing; indeed, it could have been revolutionary for the time. When it occurs because men are seeking an outlet for their passions which are no longer served by female companionship and it is implied that this is an inadequate replacement, I am suspicious of the motivation of the author.
Burdekin’s novel is more than a little didactic, which could be off-putting to a lot of people. Though I haven’t read enough feminist SF, of that with which I am familiar, I do think that some more recent work (Joanna Russ being a particular favourite) is a more satisfying read. The Female Man, for example, is a much wittier novel; though, I grant you, a spiky wit. But I like that.
However, I do think that it is a worthy read for fans of dystopian fiction.