Swastika Night is described by the Encyclopedia of SF as “the first Hitler Wins tale of any significance”, and the interesting thing about this (and the thing that made me want to read it) is that it was published in 1937 — i.e., before World War II. At least one contemporary review notes that “Murray Constantine” is a pseudonym, but it was not generally known that the author was in fact Katharine Burdekin (1896–1963) until the 1980s.
The novel is set in the Year of Our Lord Hitler 720 — presumably measured since the end of the “Twenty Years War”, or what we would call World War II. The globe is, at this time, divided between two empires, the German and the Japanese, which have been in a static truce for centuries. There are no uprisings (the Germans “ruling with such realistic and sensible severity that rebellion became as hopeful as a fight between a child of three and an armed man”), and Nazi rule is ensured via a religion in which Hitler is a god, not born of woman but exploded into existence, who took the form of a seven foot tall, blond, bearded giant. The catechism of this religion enforces a rigid hierarchy, beginning “As a woman is above a worm // So is man above woman”, and goes on to place Nazis above all foreign men, and the elite Knights (hereditary descendants of the Teutonic Knights created by Hitler) above everyone else. (As well as worms, women do get to be above one other thing: Christians.)
Women are kept separate from men, in huts in caged compounds, and are allowed only once each month into the swastika-shaped temples to worship Hitler. Their hair is kept shorn. They have no right to refuse any man, and if they give birth to a male child, it is taken from them after eighteen months.
Not unsurprisingly, their numbers are declining, though this is not something anyone but a few Knights have noticed, at this point. In fact, the German Empire as a whole is in a state of deep stagnation, and the only thing that prevents it being attacked and defeated by the Japanese is that their empire, equally hierarchical and militaristic in nature, is in a similar state.
The story follows a middle-aged English mechanic, Alfred, on a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the Holy Land (i.e., Germany). He seeks out a German friend, Hermann, who spent some time in England, and who is clearly in love with Alfred. A rather happy-go-lucky man unafraid to speak his mind, Alfred tells Hermann that he knows how to defeat the German Empire: not through violence, but ideas. It only rules, after all, thanks to the ideals and values it forces on its subjects. Key among these is the notion of “the Blood”, the hereditary nature of the Nazi that makes him essentially superior to all others. Alfred has decided that such a belief is in fact a weakness, and that “acceptance on my part of fundamental inferiority is a sin not only against my manhood but against life itself.” The Nazi ideals of “pride, courage, violence, brutality, ruthlessness” are, he points out, “characteristics of a male animal in heat”, and “A man must be something more, surely?”
Hermann, loving Alfred too much to do the patriotic thing and turn him into the authorities, merely groans helplessly. Later, the two meet a German Knight, Friedrich von Hess who, sensing something in Alfred, takes him into his confidence and shows him (and, at Alfred’s insistence, Hermann), two things that will give a new focus to his airy talk of bringing down the German Empire. The first is a book containing an account of the true history of the world before the founding of the German Empire (which has taught its subjects they were savages before it civilised them); the second is a photograph of the real Hitler, proving him to be not a blond giant but a shortish, dark-haired man with a silly moustache. But Hitler’s true physical nature isn’t the real revelation of that photograph. Perhaps the best moment in the book is when it’s revealed to Hermann and Alfred that the youthful, vigorous and attractive long-haired blond creature standing next to Hitler is not a boy, as they immediately assume, but a girl…
The bulk of the book is devoted to conversations between von Hess and Alfred, about how the German Empire set about consolidating its power — by destroying all knowledge of the before-times, and eradicating all culture except music. The result is that the Empire has come to a dead end:
“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.”
The moment when the “boy” in the photograph with Hitler is revealed to be a girl is an illustration of what this book does so well: capturing how deeply people justify their irrational beliefs, all the better to cling to them. As someone in this book says of women with their shorn heads:
“Why, if they were meant to have hair on their heads they would have it on their faces. Have you ever seen a woman with a beard like mine?”
As with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which this novel is often compared to (there’s no evidence, apparently, Orwell read Constantine’s book), Swastika Night has encapsulated some essential ideas about how power warps reality in order to entrench its rule, and how difficult it can be to make one’s way out of the dead end this creates, once all alternatives, and even the possibility they once existed, have been eradicated.
Contemporary reviewers seem generally united in finding the book “as entertaining as it is frightening” (from The News Chronicle, 23 June 1937), but some reveal surprising caveats about the focus of the book’s attack — surprising, anyway, from the position of looking back with a knowledge of subsequent events.
Phyllis Bentley, for instance, in The Yorkshire Post, felt it was unfair of the author to project such a horrible future and blame it on a real people:
“That it is fair, right, and civilised, even in a work of fiction, to throw the onus of creating such a nightmare of a future on any specific nation, whether German or Japanese or other, I have strong doubts; but if we will take the satire ourselves, and regard it as the results of those human tendencies towards fear, greed, and stupidity which must be conquered if they are not to prove fatal, the lesson is striking enough.”
H S Woodham, in The Daily Independent (in Sheffield), makes a statement I still can’t quite fathom, unless it’s a comment on how so many intellectuals between the wars sought to condemn nationalism of any type — both the war-like and the prideful — as a means of preventing future conflicts:
“Murray Constantine is the nom-de-plume of a very able individual who seems to dislike the Nazi system without also disliking his own country—which borders on the unusual.”
He goes on to conclude:
“I do not imagine that the author believes this fantastic picture for one moment; he has exaggerated and caricatured with deliberate intent. Even so the story is fascinating, whether we agree with its trend or not.”
That “with deliberate intent” sounds oddly like the accusation of a crime, and is surely nonsensical, as the alternative is that Constantine wrote the book without intent, i.e., by accident.
Perhaps the fact that Swastika Night is about Nazis specifically (rather than, as with Orwell, an invented and therefore multiply-applicable ideology) might obscure its insights into the workings of power generally, seeming to relegate its problems to history (though it was certainly prescient in its time) and not the ongoing need to prevent the rise of any such form of totalitarianism. But its core lesson, that you must look to the most ill-treated members of society to understand how the forces in power achieve their ends, remains valuable. (As Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addition puts it: “How you treat the weak is your true nature calling.”) I have to admit I found the conversations in the book a little too long, particularly when they weren’t dealing with the book’s themes but its plot (which is slight), but Swastika Night remains a classic for its key ideas, as well as its boldness in stating them before a world that was, at the time, perhaps not quite ready to listen.