Sunday, January 03, 2010

Katherine Burdekine: Swastika Night

Katharine Burdekin's Swastika Night is an alternate history published in 1937. It projects a bizarre descendant of naziism 700 years into the future. If the author hadn't been female, I'd have called the book misogynistic; as it is I guess I'll have to say the society she depicts is misogynistic. Men have ruled the world since the death of Hitler, and they have suppressed women to the point that they're barely rational. Men visit women conjugally, but have little other contact with them.

Considering how early in Hitler's reign she wrote, the story show a remarkable prescience about Hitler's influence on the world--Burdekin describes an upper class that has nearly total control over the people toiling under them. Many of her reactions and projections are quite consistent with modern conceptions of Hitler's goals and methods. The women are isolated in camps, and Jews and Gypsies have been eradicated in Europe, and Christians are repressed in Britain. And the Japanese control most of the world outside Europe.

The story follows the interactions among Hermann (a devout Nazi of rather ordinary intelligence), Alfred, whom Hermann had met while doing his military training in England, and the Knight, the powerful local German noble who harbors secrets about the history of the current regime. Burdekin makes a point of showing lots of little ways in which history has been lost and misremembered. The Knight has inherited from his father and his paternal line going back 700 years a document showing something of how men and women lived and interacted in Hitler's times. Since these explicitly contradict the official doctrine of the Nazi church, he must keep it a secret, but for some reason he decides Alfred is worth trusting. Alfred takes the book back to England, where he hopes to use it to foment rebellion, but other than passing it on to his sons, he has little success in the face of the repressive government he faces.

It's hard to recommend this book. The action is slow, and other than Alfred, the characters are caricatures. Burdekin does a good job of showing that this society is dysfunctional and dystopic, but it's too hard to see how Naziism could have led here, and even if it had, the misunderstandings that everyone has of their antecedents softens any consequent blame for Hitler or the Nazis. Given the disparity between Burdekin's nightmare and what the world was actually like 70 years ago, that society could have as easily evolved from any other authoritarian beginnings. Yes, it's an idictment of authoritarianism, but the particulars of Naziism aren't really implicated. The resulting society maintained the style of Hitler's mistakes, but created their own substance.

No comments: