Utopias Module Week 5: Murray Constantine, Swastika Night (1937)

* by Mr Andy Sawyer

Swastika Night was first published in 1937. "Murray Constantine" was in the 1980s revealed to be Katharine Burdekin (1896-1963) although some reviewers guessed that the author was a woman. (Daphne Patai's introduction to 1985 Feminist Press edition)

Reissued in July 1940 as a Left Book Club selection -- one of its few works of fiction -- with a note by the publisher stressing its "symbolic" (rather than "prophetic") nature. Not known (see Patai) whether Orwell knew Swastika Night -- but a number of internal similarities (noted by Patai):
* Stratified society: Knights are privileged (Inner Party), Christians are Untouchable (Proles). It is with the Christians that the hope of social change lies.
* Rebellious protagonist (Alfred/Winston) with symbolic name who is approached by a man in a position of power.
* Given a secret book.
* Attempts to teach a lover/friend by reading from the book (friend falls asleep).
* Secret opposition called a Brotherhood.
* Leaders to be loved, enemies to be hated in ceremonies which are almost or actually religious.
* Deliberate rewriting/forgetting of history. The use of authoritative texts (the Times: von Wied's book proving Hitler was God ("Fear of Memory", Ch 5)) to change history.
* Distortion of sex ("Anti-sex league" / "Duty to the Party" in Nineteen Eighty-Four; degredation of women in Swastika Night).
* Death (physical in one case, spiritual in the other) of protagonist.

But Swastika Night offers a different analysis of power than Nineteen Eighty-Four does.

* Cult of masculinity. Fascism = masculine domination. Nazi view of women as inferior (Patai overlooks the element of romanticism in Nazi view of women as mothers of Aryans, although the potential for distortion is clearly there.) Only men have significant command over language. (See Ch 1 where the women are mistakenly ordered to have girls rather than sons.) Also see the description of the murder in Ch 5, retold from von Hess's account:
Next day he learned that it was the body of a girl who had laughed at a band of the new "von Weird Women", a pretty young girl who didn't mind Hitler being God but couldn't see why women should be ugly. That was the temper of Germany in hysteria. If the women were like that, how would the men bear opposition in their blown-up pride of conquest?
* Nationalism. The difference between "German" and "English" is important, as is the way resistance to the Nazi state passes from the German von Hess to the Englishman Alfred and his descendants.

* Violence: Winston agrees to commit terrorist atrocities in the name of the Brotherhood. Von Hess tells Alfred "warn them [resistance movement] 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." (Ch 7)

The "book" is different in each novel. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, "Goldstein's" book is a fake: partly written by O'Brien. Although it gives us what we interpret as a factual analysis of the Party, it is designed as an act of entrapment. (McKay also notes the children's history book Winston reads, and flags "How could you tell how much of it was lies?") In Swastika Night von Hess's book is an attempt to combat the destruction of all other books, but von Hess himself is not in a position to be objective: "You must remember that when Friedrich von Hess lived Hitler was already a legend. The records of his personal life, if there were any, were lost or destroyed." (Ch 4)

Only Alfred moves (and with difficulty) to a position where women can be seen as individuals, influenced by the photograph of Hitler with a young woman (Ch 4). Von Hess assumes the Nazi viewpoint on women. Women are inferior in Christian ideology.

Alfred is not in possession of truth: he merely knows that some of what he "knows" has to be lies.

Russell (Foundation 55) suggests that part of the "game" of truth in the novel might be the male pseudonym under which Burdekin hides her identity (is the publisher's attribution of "he" in the note to the 1940 second edition part of this debate or an imposition/projection of the publisher?)

* The "Hitler wins" theme a common subgenre of alternate history sf: see the anthology Hitler Victorious. Also Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream, the novel Hitler would have written if he had emigrated to USA and become a pulp science fiction writer.

See also:
George McKay, "Metapropaganda: self-reading dystopian fiction: Burdekin's Swastika Night and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four" in Science-Fiction Studies 21 (1994)
Carlo Pagetti, "In the Year of our Lord Hitler 720: Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night" in Science-Fiction Studies 17 (1990)
Elizabeth Russell, "Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night: the search for truths and texts" in Foundation 55 (Summer 1992)

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