Swastika Night


Swastika Night was written by Katharine Burdekin under the male pseudonym Constantine Murray. Swastika Night was one of ten books Burdekin published during her lifetime. She was born in England in 1896 and died in 1963 at the age of 67. Murray Constantine was not revealed to be Burdekin until the 1980s, though at the time of publication of Swastika Night some critiques wondered if Murray Constantine might not be a woman due to her ‘feminist sympathies.’ Swastika Night is one of Burdekin’s most celebrated works along with another utopian fiction, Proud Man and Daphne Patai declares that Burdekin, “Excelled above all in the creation of utopian fiction, and the special vantage point afforded by an imaginative leap into other ‘societies.’” One of Burdekin’s main points of focus in her writings, especially clear in her dystopias, is gender. There is a strong feminist theme throughout her other works as well.


Swastika Night is a dystopia set in England and Germany 720 years After Hitler. In this future society Germany has conquered Europe and Africa and Japanexternal image 06803.jpg has control of Asia and the Americas. All of the Jews have been wiped out and the Christians have become 'untouchables.' Hitlerism or Nazism has become the religion of those under German control. They understand Hitler as God and strive for physical strength and domination above all else. Women are considered souless and have no control over any aspect of their lives. They have no right to give consent to or withhold consent from a man and they have not sense of self worth. Nor are they considered to have worth by the men in the society.This dystopia is not a realistic one meant to warn against what might happen if the Nazis were allowed to perservere. Burdekin has much to say about gender roles and male dominance in society and uses an extremely male dominated society as a jumping off point.



In Swastika Night the women of Germany and any other society under German control as well as, presumably, the women in the societies under the control of Japan have been dehumanized and completely trampled on by men. The women have no power over their own bodies, and are to allow any man to essentially rape them at anytime. The children they will inevitably bear are taken away from them after 18 months if they are male. The women’s only role in society is to reproduce males; they have no control over any aspect of this and no other options. The women are considered subhuman and have no sense of self worth. Burdekin explains that women’s sexual power over men was too strong and detrimental to the so called ‘cult of masculinity’ that is embodied especially well in nazi ideology. Though the men must use the women to reproduce they have no other contact with the women, except for the Chrstians who still live in a family household. However the women are still considered essentially nothing. Perhaps the most flattering description of women given by a character in the novel is a description given by a Christian man comparing the Christian women to dogs. "Our women are treated as if they were good and well loved dogs. We are fond of them, they play with us and are happy with us. If we have food they never go short while we are filled, they obey us and they love us. Our hands are never lifted against them unless they transgress, and like all decent and trustworthy dogs they are free to come and go where they will when they are not working," (Burdekin). This very dehumanizing and unflattering view of women is coming from the only significant character in the novel who has any sort of prolonged interaction with women. Most importantly maybe, the women are not and cannot be loved, by themselves or by the men. Alfred concludes that this may be because the women cannot be proud of being women, as all men are of being born men, bcause of the male dominance of the society. He suggests that their lack of control over their sexuality also keeps them from having any sense of self worth. It is clear that Burdekin is not just a critiquing Nazi ideology but critiquing the male dominance in society as a whole.


Pacifism is another central theme in the novel. The revolution that Alfred and his son hope to someday carry out is one that they say cannnot be violent. It must be a spiritual rebellion. A violent rebellion could easily be smashed by the Nazis but furthermore any violent rebellion would just be an extention of Nazi ideology rather than a rebllion against it. Herman's tendancy toward violence leads him to his rather unfortunate fate, yet Burdekin seems to think that such a fate is the best option for a person was has been consumed by need for violence to prove his manhood. Alred realizes that this Nazi definition of a man is a false one and that true manhood depends on standing up for ones beliefs, and true bravery rather than brute force. In some ways Burdekin's critique of this overly violent society is all related back to gender and her questioning of the 'traditional' male gender role. She warns against a male dominated society as a warning against an overuse of violence and sense of manhood dependent on that. This is another example where Burdekin is not just crtiquing the Nazis and the society that might result from them if they had their way, she is critiquing the relation of manhood to violence that was present in her society and still is in ours, by focusing on an extreme example of such belief.


Swastika Night was first published in 1937 during the rise of Hitler and the Nazi’s in Germany but before WWII. Carlo Pagetti makes note in his essay, In the Year of Our Lord Hitler 720, that Burdekin was writing at a time when "Hitler enjoyed a notable degree of popularity and international prestige." Worried about the reception of the pacifist message of the novel after the outbreak of WWII the novel was republished in 1940 with a note from the publisher that, “While the author has not, in the least changed his mind that the Nazi idea is evil, and that we must fight the Nazis on land, at sea, in the air and in ourselves, he has changed his mind about the Nazi power to make the world evil."


There are two main approaches scholars have taken when discussing Swastika Night. The main approach is to look at the novel as a feminist critique of a male dominated society. This was championed by Daphne Patai who is largely credited for bringing the novel back to the public attention in the 1980s. The other most common comparison is to George Orwell's 1984. It is agreed, no matter what the stand the scholars take on the novel, that Burdekin's novel has been widely, and underservedly, ignored by the scholarly world.

The discussion of Swastika Night as a feminist novel tends to compare the novel to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, another common comparison is to Margret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale. As in Herland the women adapt themselves to their environment. However, unlike in the all women utopia where they can eventually reproduce themselves and the women thrive on the love they give each other the women in Swastika Night stop reproducing themselves to save their daughters from a loveless, incredibly hostile world. The comparison made to Atwood's novel is that the women are existing in a society where they have been downtrodden and reduced to very little. This 'reduction of women' as Burdekin terms it is, of course, more extreme in her novel yet the women share similar positions in some ways leading lives where they are largely unwanted and serve a very limited purpose. In each of the novels this is a result of a kind of theocracy.

The comparison of Orwell's and Burdekin's novels is suprising strong. When the novels are read the reader walks away with two very different messages. Orwell's novel is in no way a feminist novel and many find it much more disheartening than Swastika Night, however the structures of the novels have alot in common. In his essay Metapropaganda George McKay discussed the appearence in both of the novels of some 'sacred' text which is key to the rebellion of the main character. He gives a correlation between Von Hess's book and Goldstein's book. He also compares Big Brother to Der Fuhrer as a hero image to worship.He points out that each society has a very rigid class system with an inner party who benefits from the society but is not neccessarily faithful to it. There are also 'other' classes in both societies; the Christians and women in Swastika Night and the Paroles in 1984. Though McKay is the one who centers on this comparison, Patai, Crossely and Pagetti all make some mention of it as well.


The strength of Burdekin’s novel is, in my opinion, its feminist message. Although the correlation between 1984 and Swastika Night is interesting I also find it irrelevant in a way. In many ways most dystopias have the same kind of basic structure and I don’t think it says that much about either of the novels. What is most relevant about it is that Burdekin has received so much less attention than George Orwell and her feminist message hasn’t been explored near as thoroughly as it should.
Burdekin makes a very interesting insight into femininity and the way, even in her society, women often try to create an identity to please men. This is similar to a point Gilman makes in Herland about femininity as a reflection of masculinity. Although in our society now women are more empowered than maybe they ever have been before, it is only recently that women have been encouraged to take pride in their femininity as males always haven in their masculinity. Much of Burdekin’s point is that men cannot be happy and women cannot be happy until they take pride in themselves. Especially significant is that Burdekin is arguing that men cannot be happy with women that are not independent and cannot live for themselves,
“The Germans consciously want us to accept our inferiority; unconsciously they despise us for doing it. For unconsciously they are in touch with life and know it is a crime against life. Well, the reason why women have never been able to develop whatever it is they are, besides their animal body, is because they have committed the crime against life. They see another form of life, undoubtedly different from their own, nothing half so vague as Blood, but differing in sex, and they say ‘that form is better than our form’. And for that reason men have always unconsciously despised him, while consciously urging them to accept their inferiority.”
This was one of the best aspects of the book. Unlike Gilman in Herland who seemed to have a very limited and stereotypical view of men Burdekin seems more interested in addressing the issue, not just to blame men but to understand one of the fundamental issues that must be addressed for gender equality. This is where the strength of Burdekin's novel lies.


Crossley, Robert. "Dystopian Nights." Science Fiction Studies 14 (Mar. 1987):
93-98. JSTOR. 6 Mar. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4239798>.
McKay, George. "Metapropaganda: Self Reading Dystopin Fiction: Burdekin's 'Swastika
Night' and Orwell's 'Nineteen Eight-Four.'" Science Fiction Studies 21.3
(1994): 302-314. JSTOR. 5 Mar. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/
Pagetti, Carlo. "In the Year of Our Lord Hitler 720: Katharine Burdekin's
'Swastika Night.'" Science Fiction Studies 17 (Nov. 1990): 360-369.
JSTOR. 6 Mar. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4240012>.
Patai, Daphne. "Introduction." Introduction. Swastika Night. By Katharine
Burdekin. New York: The Feminist Press, 1937. iii-xv.