Swastika Night by Murray Constantine
Originally published by Gollancz, 1937
Price I paid: $3.99
SWASTIKA NIGHT takes place seven hundred years after Nazism achieved power, by which time Adolf Hitler is worshipped as a god. Elsewhere, the Japanese rule the Americas, Australia, and Asia. Though Japan is the only rival superpower to the Nazi West, their inevitable wars always end in stalemate. The fascist Germans and Japanese suffer much difficulty in maintaining their populations, because of the physical degeneration of their women.From the text on Amazon.com store page
I sure hope a bunch of Nazi chuds don’t find my blog because of this post. Let me get this over with, while I’m still thinking about it:
NAZIS FUCK OFF
Hey folks, it looks like I’ve stumbled across another Very Important Book! It wasn’t so much an accident this time as it has been. I was browsing the old ebook store and found this one amongst the Gateway/Orions, who are doing a real semi-bangup job getting things like this into print and digital print. I say semi- because, well, this was another case where it was clear that they OCR’d the book and then didn’t proofread it. Their later efforts seem to be better about it, but this one had some glaring mistakes that were sometimes legitimately confusing. If anybody from this publishing house is reading, I’d suggest doing a ctrl+f in your manuscript for “greed” and then replace it each time with “creed.” For starters.
But none of that detracts from the fact that this book is Very Important. Or, at the very least, Very Interesting. I’m having some trouble deciding which category it fits into at the moment. Let’s talk first about some of what makes it so interesting.
Swastika Night was first published in 1937, two years before Hitler invaded Poland and got WWII started. That makes it, and I’ll quote the SFE here, “the first Hitler Wins tale of any significance.” I don’t know if that’s a controversial statement in any circles, but it sure seems like they’re right to me. He’d been in power for four years at that point, which isn’t an awful lot of time for oppositional literature to really take flight in those days. I’m probably wrong about that.
I feel like the Germans might have produced some Hitler Wins tales of their own but I am neither interested in them nor willing to discuss whether or not they are distinguishable as fiction or propaganda or whether there is in fact a difference or anything like that. It’s late and I just read 204 pages of powerful ugliness.
Knowing me I’ll get into it later anyway.
So the other interesting thing about this book is its author. “Murray Constantine” is in fact Katharine Burdekin, who wrote several novels under that pen name, many of them dealing largely with anti-fascism. Her Wikipedia page says that she adopted the pseudonym to prevent possible retribution from fascists, but does not cite a source on that. Another unsourced line on the page says that she was a Communist, which is pretty cool, if true.
What does seem to be verifiably true is that “Murray Constantine’s” true identity was a mystery to the public until the 1980s, leading to a renewed interested in her works and a reprint of this book by The Feminist Press in 1985.
In a 1934 review of her novel The Proud Man, the Manchester Guardian suggested that “Constantine” was actually Olaf Stapledon, which is kind of funny. I don’t know anything about that book, but from reading Swastika Night, I can kind of see how someone could reach that conclusion. They share a certain bleakness, a certain panache for worldbuilding on a massive historical scale, and a certain dedication to writing a book with absolutely no plot. For anyone who has not read one of my reviews where I just gush about Stapledon for a while, let me say that I think that’s just fine.
But Burdekin was also her own self, and quite distinct from Stapledon as far as I can tell. Unlike anything I’ve read by Olaf (correct me if I’m wrong!), this book was mainly a dialogue with a few bits of action. It was on a much more personal scale than something like Star Maker or First and Last Men. It consisted of a lot of sitting and talking about the True History found in a forbidden manuscript, with a touch of dialectical back and forthing to add some flavor and to, well, here’s a thing. I’d say that it was to introduce the author’s thoughts and beliefs more directly into the narrative, but I don’t know that. There’s a lot I don’t know, and there’s a lot of weirdness with characterization going on as well. It was sometimes a little bit gross, or at least perplexing, to my modern sensibilities, but always fascinating.
Our story takes place about 700-ish years after Hitler single-handedly achieved victory over everybody else in the world. At least, that’s what everybody is told. They’re also told that Hitler was seven feet tall, blond, had a rockin’ beard, was born when God (“The Thunderer”) exploded him into existence, and finally achieved a full apotheosis after a long and distinguished rule, ascending to heaven to be co-equal-with-but-not-the-same-as The Thunderer.
We learn quite a bit of this from the point of view of a young German fellow named Hermann, who is tall, handsome, not especially intelligent, and totally gay. It’s kind of wild how gay this book is and I’m not at all sure how to take it. For me, a straight, cis man in the 21st century with pretty progressive beliefs about stuff like that, I thought all the gay stuff in this book was sweet and adorable. Y’all, these dudes are outright fawning over one another. Basking in one another’s presences. Just sitting in silence looking at the moon and smoking cigarettes. It’s kind of aspirational. That is…when it’s between consenting adults.
I don’t think that Burdekin wanted me to see the homosexual and homosocial relationships in this book in that way. I don’t know that for certain, but I think that making the descendants of today’s hated enemies all be gay says a lot about one’s view of homosexuality, and I don’t reckon that’s meant to be taken positively. The other thing is that the Nazis in this book are super keen on pederasty, which puts me in mind of the kind of homophobe who thinks that all gay men are.
And of course there’s the well-known fact that the Nazis hated homosexuals and had them thrown into the camps. I don’t know if that was as publicized in 1937 as it is now, or whether Burdekin knew about it either way, but part of me imagines a smirk on her face as she writes a book about Gay Nazi boys running around telling each other about their tender feelings while the contemporary ones were ranting about how they were degenerates.
Hermann sits through a sermon at the beginning of the book, where we learn a great deal about the social and religious situation of his time. There’s a hierarchy given that goes something like Hitler is to men as men are to women as women are to worms. There’s another one in there that puts Christians pretty far down the list as well, as compared to Hitlerians. It does a pretty good job of setting up something that is entirely unsurprising really. Hermann isn’t paying attention to the sermon, but rather to the main choirboy, on whom he has a crush.
Nothing comes of it at first. As he leaves the church, however, he unexpectedly comes across an old friend, an Englishman named Alfred. They met around five years ago when Hermann was serving in England. The book never explicitly states that they had a sexual relationship, but at the very least they had a very close and tender friendship. It turns out that Alfred is in Germany because he’s been given leave for a pilgrimage to see the Hitlerian holy sites. He hoped to run into Hermann at some point on his journey and it worked out.
The two friends reconnect and get to talking. Alfred makes a shocking confession: that he intends to destroy the Holy German Empire. He acknowledges that this would be impossible through force of arms, as that’s been tried before, but instead through some other method. He needs to prove somehow that Hitler wasn’t God, or something.
Hermann thinks this is reckless and weird and it mostly just confuses him.
One day, while the two are hanging out in a forest, Alfred lies down for a nap. Hermann hears a bit of a scuffle and goes to check it out, where he discovers the gorgeous choirboy attempting to rape a younger girl. At first he plans on just separating them but then he realizes that the girl is Christian, which drives Hermann into such a bloodrage that he nearly kills the boy for daring to defile himself so. The girl escapes, and Alfred wakes up just in time to prevent Hermann from finishing the job. The two of them take the boy back to town, Alfred thinking he should go to the hospital but Hermann thinking he should go straight to prison.
All of this leads our two guys to meet the Knight. Knights in this future are basically priests but also governors, or perhaps something closer to landed nobility. Or all three. This particular knight is named von Hess and he harbors a Dark Secret of his own. He and Alfred hit it off and Hermann basically vanishes from the narrative for a while.
Actually the narrative also kind of vanishes, too. Because what happens is that the two guys have a few conversations that take up maybe 80% of the rest of the book.
The main thing they talk about is that von Hess has in his possession two fascinating and dangerous artifacts. One of them is an actual photograph of Adolf Hitler himself. Quite in opposition to what the official sources say, this picture is of, well, you know what Hitler looks like. Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that he’s talking to, of all things, a woman.
I haven’t really discussed what the deal with women is in this book, but I guess now is the time. They’re essentially livestock. Men don’t believe that women are capable of thought or understanding, or even that they have souls. They are necessary for breeding purposes, but that’s it. Some men, like Hermann, can’t even stand to be around them for that purpose, even though it’s his duty as a German to create children.
This picture of Hitler speaking to a woman flies in the face of all the authorities that say women have always been this way, for one thing. It also suggests that he defiled himself by being in the presence of one, which all the stories say never happened. Even worse, he’s talking to one, looking at her, with, could it be, affection?
It’s not a picture of him with Eva Braun like I sort of expected to happen, and I’m not sure if it’s based on any real photograph.
The other thing that von Hess has is a manuscript written by one of his ancestors, and that’s what he and Alfred discuss for the bulk of the novel. The manuscript is Real History, written just after it was all purged from the record and replaced with what they have now. It turns out that all of that was done on behest of a guy named von Wies, who lived about a hundred years after Hitler.
Why Burdekin chose to have a later Nazi be the cause of all the problems and not Hitler himself is an interesting mystery.
A large part of the historical revisionism is that the world was comprised of disconnected and primitive tribes before they were unified by the Holy German Empire, that there was no civilization before it. Von Hess’s book defies that by explaining a great deal of real history, which could get a bit tedious because it was just telling us about basic historical events. Still, that would get interesting unto itself, such as when it was established that the English once had a great empire, the news of which made Alfred quite proud, until von Hess chastised him for it, explaining that it had its own share of atrocities and that maybe empires are in fact the problem. It was a pretty good moment.
Of course, the other thing the men discuss a great deal is women and their plight. This part is very interesting too. Alfred and von Hess are of a similar mind on the matter, and it’s not the sympathetic one. Alfred has a hard time imagining women to be equals to men, and basically dismisses the idea. He does have this elaborate theory, one that von Hess doesn’t want to talk about, that women sort of subjugated themselves? I had a hard time following this, and maybe that’s because something is out of my lane here, or perhaps it’s Burdekin’s 1930’s-style feminism, or maybe she had a character only bring up the idea so that we could ridicule it. It’s something about how women will always feel themselves to be inferior to men, and as such will always bend their will to men’s desires because it guarantees them safety and protection. As it relates to the situation in this book, it’s perhaps that it just went a little too far.
Alfred’s solution to this issue, along with many others, is that all people should feel that they are inherently superior to all other people, but also acknowledge that all other people feel the same way? I admit this just didn’t make much sense to me.
Oh, and there’s one other thing that’s really important! Women aren’t giving birth to girl babies anymore. This is a problem! Only a few highly-ranked Knights, like von Hess, know that this is happening, and it’s a big deal, but they can’t exactly publicize the fact, mainly because the demonization of women is so complete that people would probably just all think that this is a good thing and not the end of the human race.
Eventually the two men talk themselves out. Von Hess acknowledges that he is the last of his bloodline, and that he will not be able to pass the book and photograph on to his sons, so he gives it to Alfred. Also, since Hermann has been privy to some of this stuff, there’s no way he can stay in Germany, so there has to be a way to get him sent to England with Alfred. It turns out that there’s a convoluted but very convenient way to do that! One crime that results in exile rather than immediate death is
maliciously accusing someone of trying to have sex with a Christian!
So they just get Hermann to confess that he only accused the kid of doing the thing at the beginning of the book out of jealousy or spite or something, and bam, he gets to go to England and live in shame for the rest of his life. But he gets to hang out with Alfred sometimes!
Alfred goes home and begins instructing his oldest son, Alfred, on the real history. This is where the new revolution will begin, he thinks. We’ll form a growing community of people who know The Truth and eventually that will break the Nazis’ iron rule over half the world.
I kind of forgot to mention until this point that the Empire of Japan rules the other half of the world, and that the two powers are at a stalemate that will probably last forever. It’s kind of important I guess but also doesn’t come up all that often.
Alfred and young Alfred (Fred) and Hermann get together every few nights in a bunker near Stonehenge to talk about the book. Hermann doesn’t contribute much, he mostly sleeps next to the door in case anybody discovers them.
There’s another sequence where Alfred has a long conversation with a Christian fellow named Joseph, and again the book takes a direction I didn’t really expect. Christians live in families, with wives and children, unlike the Hitlerians who keep the women separate in their own caged communities. But it turns out that the Christians are just as anti-woman as the Hitlerians are. They also don’t believe women have souls, and keep them entirely subservient. The book makes it clear that they, as a hated minority, are not the good guys either.
They largely believe that the current state of affairs is their punishment for disobeying a direct order from Jesus. They interpret Jesus’s statement on the cross, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” to be directed at his followers as a message that they should not blame or seek revenge on the Jews for his death. However, the Christians failed for quite a long time to obey this commandment. The book never explicitly says that they were culpable in the eventual extinction of the Jewish people, but I kind of got that vibe. They think that their current subjugation will last another 200 years or so, when the world will end and all the Hitlerians and other nonbelievers will be cast into the lake of fire.
I’m not entirely sure what this whole conversational part was about except for telling us that the Christians are also not great. It ate a good few pages.
The book comes to an abrupt close when the trio of students is discovered in their bunker. A young Christian boy leads some Nazis to it, largely by mistake, but so it goes. Hermann is killed when he lashes out, and then Alfred too lashes out at the Nazis when they kick Hermann’s corpse. Fred escapes with the manuscript and hides it away with the Christians. Alfred is beaten to a pulp, and then dies two days later in the hospital.
Geez, there’s a lot going on here. I feel like there’s a lot I didn’t touch on that seemed important at the time. It all kind of ran together as I was hashing it out for you. Should you read the book yourself? Mmmmmaybe? I don’t know if it’s your cup of tea. It almost wasn’t mine. It was certainly interesting but it could drag on at times, and there was little to break up the monotony of dudes talking. Even assigning them humorous voices in my head didn’t do much to help.
But it’s still very interesting, for all that. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a pre-war anti-Hitler mindset.
This is partly a book about the effect of fascism, specifically Nazism, on men. The “manly virtues” are glorified—war, violence, honor, and all that—whereas a woman’s only role is to breed more soldiers. This book is in some ways exploring the logical extension of that fascist belief system.
But the book also explores the way that men across many cultures and political systems are often terrified of women, in particular a woman’s right to reject the man’s sexual advances. In the world of this book, women have no such right. What we have here, folks, is a book about incels. But it also hearkens back to the line from Margaret Atwood about how men are afraid women will laugh at them while women are afraid men will kill them.
In some ways this book really does prefigure The Handmaid’s Tale, so that’s interesting. Also Margaret Atwood is a transphobe, so let’s move on.
I do have a few issues with the book. For one, it jumps around its point of view in a way that was kind of unpredictable and distracting to me. I was able to get past that one. The main issue I have is that it spends so much time being didactic about all these problems and never really offers up any solutions. I’m not saying that it’s not worth pointing out problems so that other people can see that and come up with solutions of their own, and maybe that’s what she was doing, but this was a fiction novel and it just kind of ended with no resolutions. Maybe Fred will succeed in spreading the truth and bring down the Nazi regime? I’d kind of like to have seen that.
And for a book about Nazis, there sure wasn’t a lot to say about Antisemitism. It mentioned Jews maybe three times? And that was just sort of a background element for why the remaining Christians felt they’re being punished? I’m not exactly thrilled about that. Even in ’37 it was no secret that the Nazis were Antisemites. Dachau opened in 1933, and Hitler’s speeches were broadcast all across the world. He wasn’t exactly coy.
And is this book okay with the gays or is it claiming they’re something that horrible societies degenerate into being okay with? I’m still really torn on that.
Wow, I’ve written about 3500 words and I still feel like I didn’t cover everything this book had to say and what I thought about it. There’s a lot. It’s pretty dense. And it’s a lot of not much happening other than chaps talking about history, which I imagine is not everybody’s cup of tea. Sometimes it’s not mine, but this time it kept me attentive a lot of the time. Maybe because I’m fascinated with alternate histories, although at the time this book was written it was speculative futurism. Or is it even that? The more I think about it, the more I feel that maybe Burdekin was criticizing European society, maybe Western society and a large dose of Christian society, as a whole, but by using future Nazis as the lens. It’s worth noting that a good bit of what the Nazis in this future believe are cribbed from historical sources. There’s a Nazi creed that sounds a lot like the Apostolic Creed, just with Hitler stuff in it. That’s just one example. The feminist angle certainly seems to lean toward criticizing everybody, just by using Nazis to take it to a terrifying extreme.
I dunno, I think I’m gonna have to think even harder on this for a while. Maybe I’ll come back to it. I’d love to hear if anybody else has read it and their views on the matter, especially people well-versed in the history of Feminism, but also everybody else is welcome to join in too. I think this might be a book that welcomes a variety of discussions and I’m excited to be a part of them.