Sunday, August 13, 2017

Katharine Burdekin, Swastika Night


Opening Passage:

The Knight turned towards the Holy Hitler chapel which in the orientation of this church lay in the western arm of the Swastika, and with the customary loud impressive chords on the organ and a long roll on the sacred drums, the Creed began. Hermann was sitting in the Goebbels chapel in the northern arm, whence he could conveniently watch the handsome boy with the long fair silky hair, who had been singing the solos. He had to turn towards the west when the Knight turned. He could no longer see the boy except with a side-long glance, and though gazing at lovely youths in church was not even conventionally condemned, any position during the singing of the Creed except that of attention-eyes-front was sacrilegious. (p. 5)

Summary: Centuries into the Third Reich, the triumph of Nazi ideology seems to be complete. Its enemies are almost all crushed; the subject races have converted to the Hitlerian religion, which proclaims that Hitler, not born of woman, exploded from the head of God the Thunderer. Society has become highly stratified according to a creed of blood: the Fuehrer on top, the Knights who are the quasi-priestly military aristocracy next, then the ordinary German Nazis, then foreign Hitlerians, then, lowest of all, the outcast Christians refusing to recognize Hitler as God, without the right to buy or sell. The whole society has been reduced to a principle found in the Hitlerian Creed:

And I believe in pride, in courage, in violence, in brutality, in bloodshed, in ruthlessness, and all other soldierly and heroic virtues. (p. 6)

And 'reduced' is the right term. The emphasis on brutal heroism led to a movement, under a man named von Wied, to eliminate records of prior civilizations and reduce women to nothing but subservience to men, a movement that also ultimately succeeded. Women are property who cannot refuse a man. It is a great shame to give birth to a girl, and boys are taken from their mothers at a year and a half. The result is that the population of the German Empire is dwindling; too few girls are born, which leads to too few boys being born, and there is no way to counter the trend.

At the beginning of the rise of von Wied's movement, a century and some decades into the Reich, he had alone been opposed by a Knight named von Hess. Realizing that his opposition was futile, von Hess submitted publicly, thus allowing himself to be branded as a coward in a society in which that was one of the most shameful things, and instead turned to preserving the truth about the history that was systematically being eradicated. In a time of endless bookburning, at great risk to his own life, he wrote a book, and this book passed from father to son, in continual danger, until the time of the story, when the last von Hess, whose sons have all died, must decide what to do with it to preserve the one surviving candle-glimmer of the past through the centuries-long night.

One of the things that the book does very well is capturing the heroism of the characters. We tend to think of heroism as a pure and bright thing, untouched by any stain, but in the real world such heroes are rare indeed. The ordinary state of heroism is murky, flawed, as people entangled in error and wrong nonetheless recognize one truly good thing and sacrifice everything to preserve it. The men of the tale struggle to think outside a box that is all Reich and nothing but Reich, in which women are nothing and Hitler is all, and even with the help of the book, it is a difficult struggle, and one at which they are not always completely successful. The original von Hess was a firm believer in the importance of German ascendancy; but, an honest man, he burned his reputation and risked his life for the truth. The von Hess of the tale, far more a freethinker, does the same, as his fathers had done before him. Alfred, an Englishman who comes into contact, is part of a resistance movement that has no hope of any military victory against the all-dominant Germans who control the entire military infrastructure, and he still struggles with some of the ideas to which von Hess exposes him, particularly the recognition that women are part of the key. Heroism is not, in fact, a shiny and polished thing, any more than it is the brutal and savage thing of the Hitlerian Creed; it is a habit of doing some genuine good even at great risk to oneself. And whatever other flaw and fault men may have, it does not erase that habit, if they have it.

Burdekin's dystopia has more hope than most dystopias. By the end of the tale, the German Empire is as strong as ever, the Hitlerian Creed as ascendant. The night of barbarism is not overcome. Centuries of its dominance, at least, still remain. All that has been accomplished is that something of the truth about the past has been preserved for one more generation. But therein lies the hope.

Favorite Passage: The Hitlerian Creed has a line in which it speaks of Hitler as having crushed the four arch-devils, Roehm, Lenin, Stalin, and Karl Barth. The Knight is asked who Karl Barth was:

"Karl Barth is a mystery," said the Knight, sighing. "One we can never clear up. He may have been an ordinary man like Roehm, or a great leader such as Lenin and Stalin undoubtedly were, or he may have been another such great man as von Hess, a man of soul. On the other hand, he may have been a really evil fellow. I never say the Creed without wondering about Karl Barth." (p. 138)

Recommendation: Recommended.

Katharine Burdekin, Swastika Night, Feminist Press (New York: 1985).

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