Swastika Night: Book Review
Swastika Night was written by Katharine Burdekin and published in 1937 under the pseudonym “Murray Constantine”.
It is remembered primarily as the first novel to portray a world after a Nazi victory—remarkably, Burdekin wrote it before World War Two. It was also one of the first novels to portray a world where misogyny had been taken to the extreme.
Swastika Night: Title
The title uses a figurative reference to the antagonist archetype, as the swastika is the symbol of the Nazis, whose victory is the premise of the novel.
(For more on titles, see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel)
Swastika Night: Logline
Centuries after the victorious Nazis replaced all historical records, an Englishman discovers a book containing the true history of the world and tries to use it to start a revolution against Nazism.
(For more on loglines, see The Killogator Logline Formula)
Swastika Night: Plot Summary
Warning: my reviews contain spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s 2609 or, on the new calender, Year of Our Lord Hitler 720. The Nazi German and Japanese Empires dominate the world. The world now worships Hitler as a god, co-equal with his ‘father’, God the Thunderer.
The victorious Nazis organise the rest of society on a strict hierarchical basis with the current Führer at the top, below only the god, Hitler. An order of Knights is below the Führer. Next are German men and below them are foreign men. At the bottom of society are women and Christians, who the Nazis regard as no better than animals.
Hermann, a German Nazi, is worshipping in a Hitler Chapel when a choirboy catches his eye. He follows the boy outside, where he loses him but spots an old English friend, Alfred. Despite his indoctrination that he is far superior to any foreigner, Hermann recognises Alfred is a much cleverer and better-educated man than he is, which confuses him.
Hermann and Alfred
Alfred is ostensibly on a pilgrimage to the Holy Places of Nazism, but tells Hermann that he is secretly planning the overthrow of Nazism. Hermann scoffs and says that is impossible and unthinkable.
Alfred then claims he has identified the Achilles heel of Nazism: its falsified history, which claims that all other nations were uncivilised barbarians who fell easily before the god-like Hitler. Without the world’s belief in Hitler’s divinity, the Nazis can’t hold the other nations in thrall forever. Therefore, Albert plans to start a rebellion of disbelief.
Alfred also claims Germans can never really be men, because real men can better themselves through talent and hard work. Nazism, in contrast, is captive to the idea that certain people (Knights, Germans) are born better than others. So, Alfred claims, no Nazi can ever be a man, because they can never improve themselves.
Alfred and Hermann argue until Alfred says he is tired and is going to have a rest. Hermann considers killing Alfred for his blasphemy, but finds he can’t. His softness and his failure to uphold his religion make him feel ashamed.
Shortly afterwards, Hermann spots the choirboy attempting to have sex with a Christian girl. Already angry because of his failure with Alfred, and furious that a German boy would defile himself with a Christian girl, he attacks the choirboy.
Alfred hears the noise and intervenes to stop Hermann from killing the choirboy. The girl disappears and they carry the boy to the nearest village where the local Knight, Von Hess, wants to know who attacked the choirboy and why. Hermann tells Von Hess that the boy was defiling himself, which justified beating him. Von Hess queries Hermann’s story and suggests he withdraw it, but ultimately agrees with Hermann’s request to make a deposition justifying his violence.
Alfred talks with Von Hess, who’s impressed by him and offers to let him fly them both in his private plane, despite Alfred never having flown a plane before. Alfred handles the plane effectively, but whilst landing again, he attempts to avoid some people on the runway and crashes the plane into a hangar. Both men survive the crash and the Knight orders Alfred to report to him in the morning with Hermann.
The next day, Von Hess explains his family has a curse: they know the truth about Hitler. He shows them a picture of the real Hitler, who is small, dark and paunchy. To Hermann’s horror, the Hitler in the photograph is looking lovingly at a young woman.
Von Hess tells them that a few hundred years after Hitler’s life, the Knight’s Council decided that a Hitlerian religion and a hatred of women should replace all historical records.
One of Von Hess’s ancestors opposed this plan but was unsuccessful. For the rest of his life, he secretly wrote everything he could remember about the genuine history of the world. The Von Hesses have been guarding the manuscript, the photograph of the real Hitler and the knowledge of what women were really like ever since.
Hermann can barely accept this information, but it energises Alfred. Hermann says he can hear no more and wants to kill himself, as everything he believes is a lie.
Von Hess and Alfred discuss why women didn’t resist their de-humanisation and how that has led to the current crisis of fewer and fewer women being born. Alfred suggests women abased themselves to please men, but men despised them even more for it. Allowing themselves to be treated like animals has crushed womens’ souls, which is why they don’t give birth to girls.
Von Hess says that, as far as he knows, the Japanese Empire has followed the same path and as a result has the same birthrate problem. Unless something changes, humanity is doomed.
As Von Hess has no remaining sons—they were all killed in a plane crash—he proposes to hand the record of the world’s history to Alfred. Alfred and Hermann should leave Germany with the book.
Von Hess tells Hermann that the only way he can leave Germany without arousing suspicion is to say that he lied in his deposition that he caught the choirboy attempting to have sex with a Christian. The courts will then find him guilty of trying to destroy the reputation of a German and exile him in disgrace.
Von Hess gives Alfred the history book. Alfred finishes his pilgrimage, then returns by boat from Hamburg to Southampton with it. He hitches a life to near Stonehenge, where there’s a hidden underground shelter he can keep the book in. After hiding it, he returns home, goes back to work and tells his son about the book. Alfred finds Hermann a job as a farm labourer and the three spend most evenings reading the history book in their hide.
Alfred visits his children’s mother, who has just given birth to a girl. He wonders if he could bring the girl up to be a free-spirited woman, but decides it’s impossible.
Alfred also befriends some Christians who tell him their knowledge of history. Their understanding broadly fits with the history book, although the Christians can’t read and so have passed what they know down verbally, leading to their history becoming garbled.
Months later, some German soldiers are walking near the hide when they spot a Christian poaching rabbits. They grab him and he tells them a story about ‘ghosts’ in Alfred’s hide. The soldiers force the poacher to show them where the hide is.
Hearing the soldiers coming, Alfred tells his son to flee with the book while Hermann and he delay the soldiers…
Hermann [blackout]fights the soldiers, who kill him. Alfred tries to talk his way out, but ends up fighting too.[/blackout]
Alfred [blackout]wakes up in hospital, severely beaten and without long to live. His son visits him and tells him the book is safe. It’s hidden with the Christians, who can’t read it but who the Nazis never bother with.[/blackout]
Alfred [blackout]dies, hoping that eventually the knowledge in the history book will spread and his non-violent revolution of disbelief will save humanity.[/blackout]
(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)
Swastika Night: Analysis
Swastika Night has a Mission plot (see Spy Novel Plots) although there’s no specific ‘Antagonist’ just Nazi-dominated society, and the background to the mission is the bulk of the novel.
The ‘Mission’ Plot
- Is given a mission to carry out by their Mentor.
- Will be opposed by the Antagonist as they try to complete the mission.
- Makes a plan to complete the Mission.
- Trains and gathers resources for the Mission.
- Involves one or more Allies in their Mission (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to carry out the Mission, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
- Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
- Narrowly avoids capture by the Antagonist (or is captured and escapes).
- Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and completes (or fails to complete) the Mission.
Is Swastika Night actually Alternative History?
Although it reads like an alternative history to a modern audience, and although the story’s setting is still in the future, Swastika Night is in fact an example of paleofuturism. To the reader, the differences between paleofuturism and alternative history are small, but:
- Paleofuturism is an author looking forward to imagine what might happen in the future. Reality has now overtaken that imagined future.
- Alternative history is an author looking back and imagining what might have happened if the past had gone differently.
See What is Alternative History? for a more in-depth discussion of the definition of alternative history.
The History of the World in Swastika Night
There is no detailed discussion in Swastika Night of what has happened over the six hundred years since the Nazis won the war. However, these points become apparent:
- Technology doesn’t appear to have advanced much, if at all.
- People use landline telephones and ‘speaking tubes’ to talk, and pen and paper to write.
- Most of the population, and all the women, are illiterate.
- Only people with technical jobs learn to read.
- The Hitler Book and technical manuals are the only books available.
- There is no creative entertainment, only news broadcasts.
- Men hold women like cattle and use them purely for reproduction.
- The men take all male children from their mothers at eighteen months of age and teach them to hate and despise women.
- Male ‘friendship’ (implied to be homosexual) is the norm, and the male characters find women physically repulsive.
- The Nazi empire is on the verge of collapse because a hugely disproportionate number of boys are being born.
- The novel explains the reason for this collapse is a natural response to women internalising the misogyny that the Nazis have subjected them to.
- The Japanese Empire is the only independent area. There have been several inconclusive wars between the two empires.
- The British were the last people (apart from the Japanese, who are still independent) to submit to Nazism.
- The last British rebellion was a hundred years ago, but the Nazis easily crushed it.
- After the last rebellion, the Nazis executed a tenth of the British male population in retaliation.
- People believe Hitler:
- Was seven feet tall, had long golden hair and an impressive beard.
- Was capable of feats of miraculous strength and tolerated no women in his presence.
- Did not eat meat, smoke or drink.
The hierarchy in the world of Swastika Night is:
- God the Thunderer, equal with Hitler, who is the son of God and whose birth was miraculous.
- The current Führer
- An inner ring of ten Knights, descendants of the Knights created by Hitler.
- Other Knights
- German men
- Nazi men of other nationalities
- Other foreigners
The characters in Swastika Night are extremely thin. They are only there to deliver exposition about the world to each other. The writing is also very dialogue heavy, which is another consequence of the volume of exposition.
The only interesting point of characterisation is that even the relatively sympathetic protagonist, Albert, is still incapable of imagining women as equals. He feels no affection for the mother of his sons and dismisses the idea of caring for his daughter.
Burdekin’s analysis of Nazism extrapolates its sexism to the extreme: women treated as animals, capable only of breeding.
Swastika Night is an utter dystopia. Even if—somehow—you regard the triumph of Nazism, destruction of knowledge and subjugation of women as a good thing, the collapsing birth rate has doomed humanity to extinction. There seems very little chance that the world will survive.
It’s a bleak future, and unlike many dystopian novels, the ending leaves barely a glimmer of hope that human civilisation will recover. The Christians who end up with the true history of the world may not treat women like cattle in the way the Nazis do, but they still treat them like pets, not equals. They are also illiterate, and so the history book means nothing to them. The only faint hope is that Albert’s son might use the book to spread his father’s ‘revolution of disbelief’.
Reality: Women in Nazi Germany
The Nazi regime was certainly anti-feminist. They regarded women as inferior, emotional creatures and expected them to be primarily housekeepers and mothers. Officially, no other positions of responsibility were open to them. Later, as wartime necessity dictated, the regime lifted some restrictions, and women worked in factories and as military auxiliaries.
The Nazi regime also officially discouraged women from university-level education, however this had little effect, with the numbers of female students only dropping slightly.
However, a far-future Nazi regime taking its misogyny to the point of encouraging homosexuality seems far-fetched, given the regime’s murderous frenzy against homosexuals.
Swastika Night: My Verdict
A novel to read for its remarkable prescience, and the questions it raises, rather than for entertainment. Worth a read though.
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