Sep. 12th, 2017

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I've long been meaning to read Katharine Burdekin's classic dystopia, Swastika Night, and given the political climate of the day, now seemed an appropriate time to finally get around to it. What makes Swastika Night stand out among the other anti-fascist dystopias of its era is the explicit connection that Burdekin makes between fascist ideology and what we would now call 'toxic masculinity.' As Daphne Patai notes in the Introduction to this Feminist Press edition:

"Though Burdekin’s feminist critique appears in her realistic fiction and even in her children’s book, she excelled above all in the creation of utopian fiction, and the special vantage point afforded by the imaginative leap into other ‘societies’ resulted in her two most important books: Swastika Night (1937) and Proud Man (1934). When these novels first appeared, contemporary reviewers tended to miss Burdekin’s important critique of what we today call gender ideology and sexual politics, though on occasion they noted her feminist sympathies, which, indeed, led some to guess that ‘Murray Constantine’ was a woman. With this reprint of Swastika Night, Burdekin’s works may finally begin to find their audience.

Like fictional utopias (‘good places’), dystopias (‘bad places’) provide a framework for levelling criticisms at the writer’s own historical moment. But in imagining in Swastika Night a Europe after seven centuries of Nazi domination, Burdekin was doing something more than sounding a warning about the dangers of fascism. Burdekin’s novel is important for us today because her analysis of fascism is formulated in terms that go beyond Hitler and the specifics of his time. Arguing that fascism is not qualitatively but only quantitatively different from the everyday reality of male dominance, a reality that polarises males and females in terms of gender roles, Burdekin satirises ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ modes of behaviour. Nazi ideology, from this point of view, is the culmination of what Burdekin calls the ‘cult of masculinity’. It is this connection, along with the strong argument against the cult of masculinity, that set Burdekin’s novel apart from the many other anti-fascist dystopias produced in the 1930s and 40s."

In Burdekin's vision of a Fascist future, Teutonic myth, warped medievalism, and the history of a Hitlerian victory in WW2 merge into a religious cult of masculinity, where God the Thunderer and his holy son Hitler preside in heaven over a hierarchy that begins with the German political elite - the Fuehrer and the Ring of Ten - and then widens out to include the Knights, the rank and file Nazis, and then foreign 'Hitlerians' (the 'converts' from other, conquered and occupied countries), all of whom are men. At the bottom of the social order are women - deemed barely more than dumb animals - and Christian men and other 'heathens.' Men are seen as heroic, beautiful, noble, women as ugly, weak, fit only for bearing sons for the glory of Hitler. But in the first pages, the reader is let in on a dire secret that has greatly concerned the upper echelons of this society - fewer and fewer female children are being born to Hitlerian women, a trend which if continued will mean an end to the Hitlerian edifice and possibly to all of humanity.

The novel focuses on three men, of different stations in life: Hermann, a young German of the Nazi class, content to work on the land as his ancestors have, and a devout believer in Hitler; Alfred, an Englishman with whom he became friends (and possibly lovers, there is much homoeroticism in the relationships between men in the novel) during a period of military service in England, a sceptic who believes that if the mystery cult of Hitlerism can be broken, the German Empire can be destroyed; and the old Knight Von Hess, who has seen too much and knows too many secrets - even the secret of history - to believe in anything.

It's a dark dystopia, and much like Orwell's 1984, a dystopia in which even the occasional candlelight of understanding and rebellion against the oppression flickers only for a few minutes, and then is blown out. At the end of the novel, there's no breaking of the bonds, only the faintest hope that some knowledge of the past, of the idea that things could be different, will survive, and someday be found by someone who can use that knowledge to begin a change.

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