I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) many years ago before seeing the unfairly neglected film adaptation with the late Natasha Richardson as Offred, directed in 1990 by Volker Schlöndorff and written by none other than Nobel Prize award-winner Harold Pinter. I have not seen, thank you very much, the ongoing HBO series, now in its second season and the object of a hot debate about whether watching misogynistic torture porn is every feminist’s duty or yet another insidious patriarchal contamination of a text about women’s suffering. On principle, I dislike feminist dystopia because in the end it tends to depress women and favour patriarchy by multiplying sexist images of women in deep distress. I believe, however, that this is a good time to recall another key feminist dystopia, which may even have inspired George Orwell’s 1984. I refer to Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night.
I hesitate whether to call this book a novel because, as it is often the case with utopia and dystopia, its plot is flimsy and what truly matters is the description of the happy or unhappy state of a given civilization. Burdekin (1896-1963) published Swastika Night in 1937, using the male penname Murray Constantine, as a specific warning about a future in which Adolf Hitler had not only won WWII but also become the object of a divine cult, enduring at the time the novel begins already for 700 years. Please, recall that Burdekin’s dystopia appeared two years before WWII began and one year after the Berlin Olympics, when the world didn’t yet suspect that the catastrophe that started in 1939 was on the horizon. The Jewish Holocaust that overlapped with this period and that lasted until 1945, however, may not have been so unexpected since Burdekin includes it in her novel, as one of the many shows of power of the Nazi regime. Her book didn’t do very well at the time of its release but was re-issued in 1940 within a left-wing collection, to be soon forgotten again. Decades later, feminist scholar Daphne Patai finally realized that Burdekin was Constantine and Swastika Night was re-released in 1985–the same year when Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale.
In Burdekin’s novel the world consists of two militaristic blocks constantly at war: the Nazi Empire, which comprises Europe and Africa, and the Japanese Empire (all of America, Asia, and Australia). Hitler’s miraculous birth from God the Thunderer without a mother is the foundation for the most horrendous misogyny ever imagined. Women have been reduced to the most basic animal function as breeding machines. They’re not sexually interesting to the men, who bond with each other through homosexual sex and a complex pseudo-feudal network of allegiances. Even more thoroughly than in 1984, all records of the past have been destroyed so that the Nazi Empire appears to be the only possible way of life. The plot narrates how a book assembled by a disaffected Nazi Knight falls into the hands of an Englishman, Alfred, though whom we discover how this sinister masculinist society works.
Men’s compliance with the Nazi patriarchal system is business as usual: patriarchy tells men that they are superior to women (sounds familiar, right?) and, so, they feel entitled to abusing them in any way they want. In Swastika Night rape is not a crime–it is a man’s right to which women must submit (unless they are officially ‘owned’ by a specific man). This is a demonstration of power, with no pleasure involved, since women are considered disgusting; beautiful young boys are preferred as objects of sexual desire. Mothers are routinely separated from their male offspring at eighteen-months but allowed to keep their daughters as they need to be educated into submission. This is all the education they receive. The boys are also educated in patriarchal submission but at least this affords them the protection of their fathers who, of course, try to do as well as they can by them.
Hitler was a defender of the Victorian ‘separation of the spheres’, a patriarchal doctrine by which women were told that they should accept being wives and mothers as their main role in life. In public he would claim that this should be a cherished role by no means inferior to those played by men; in private, he made no bones of abhorring women (and never had children), though he could be a gentleman if he chose to. It seems that the Nazi pro-natalist policies were not, however, particularly successful and that the aim of returning to pre-1914 birth rates was never achieved. Historian Jill Stephenson explains that the Nazi project of expanding the ‘Aryan race’ was undermined by the regime itself, which sent the ‘Aryan’ men to conquer Europe and, thus, left the ‘Aryan’ women with no adequate mates–instead, they were surrounded by foreign war prisoners, which in the end only resulted in many illegitimate children of the unwanted kind (in the Nazi’s view, of course). I won’t even mention what was done to Jewish mothers, and children.
The “fundamental immutable laws of Hitler Society” dictate that “As a woman is above a worm, So is a man above a woman. As a woman is above a worm, So is a worm above a Christian”–yes, religion is banned, except for the Hitlerian cult. What is then “the meanest, filthiest thing that crawls on the face of the earth”? A Christian woman. A classic mistake often made about patriarchy is that it privileges all men: this is not correct, for whereas men are persuaded that they are above all women, the pecking order in patriarchy is inexorable. “As a man is above a woman, So is a Nazi above any foreign Hitlerian. As a Nazi is above a foreign Hitlerian, So is a Knight above a Nazi. As a Knight is above a Nazi, So is Der Fuehrer (whom may Hitler bless) above all Knights, even above the Inner Ring of Ten”. God lies at the top of the pyramid. The word ‘mother’ is obscene. ‘Marriage’ no longer exists in the vocabulary of the English language.
Women were once as desirable as boys but the new women of the Nazi Empire are pitiful creatures, with their “naked shaven scalps,” the “horrible meek bowed way they had of walking and standing”; they have “no grace, no beauty, no uprightness, all those were male qualities. If a woman dared to stand like a man she would be beaten”. When they age past menopause women stop being socially useful beings and are only tolerated because they help to raise the younger generation of female slaves. Men like Alfred, though ‘good’ in comparison to his Nazi oppressors, never care “about the ordinary day-to-day sufferings of women”.
This starts changing somehow when the secretly rebellious Knight Hermann (of the Inner Ring of Ten) corroborates to Alfred that Hitler was indeed born of a woman and that, as the rumour goes, the creatures were different in the past. Why, Alfred wonders, “have they let themselves go down so?” Here is a passage that will hurt any woman reader (though please recall that this is a Nazi speaking, no matter how disloyal to the Hitlerian cause): “They acquiesced in the Reduction of Women, which was a deliberate thing deliberately planned by German men. Women will always be exactly what men want them to be. They have no will, no character, and no souls; they are only a reflection of men. So nothing that they are or can become is ever their fault or their virtue”. We might agree that women’s standards of beauty change to please men but when Hermann claims that “If men want them to have an appearance of perfect freedom, even an appearance of masculine power, [women] will develop a simulacrum of those things”, we may think that Burdekin is going too far. The conclusion that men can never “stop this blind submission and cause the women to ignore them and disobey them. It’s the tragedy of the human race” is infuriating, perhaps because it surpasses the limits of the novel to become something that rings true. Sorry.
The conversation continues, with Alfred defending the idea that, then, “It must be right for women to submit to men. Anything else would be unnatural”. The Knight disagrees: “It would be all right (…) if men were infallible” but it is women’s misfortune to have followed inadequate leaders. This is what I call ‘the faulty patriarchy argument’. Once a friend taunted me by declaring that feminism is the product of bad patriarchy, that is to say, if patriarchy had really fulfilled its own ideals (the chivalric code) then women would have seen no need to rebel. If every man were Darcy, we would all be happy Liz Bennets. Unfortunately, as the Knight Hermann observes, men of the patriarchal persuasion are not infallible–and, so, they abuse their authority using violence to confirm their power. Hence the constant conflicts with each other and over/with the women and children supposed to obey patriarchal family heads.
In Swastika Night the ‘Reduction of Women’, as the process is called, does not begin from above, as it happens in The Handmaid’s Tale. It begins from below with the devaluation of rape. Like the men who have distorted the label ‘incel’ (involuntarily celibate), created to define recently separated individuals, into a misogynistic badge of dishonour, the Nazis believe that “the rejection-right of women was an insult to Manhood (…)”. Their main theorist, one von Wied, claims (like the incels) that women’s beauty is another “insult to Manhood” for it gives females “an enormous and disgusting sexual power over men”. Following this man’s revolting directives, women are deprived of everything that might make them attractive: hair, flattering clothes, even basic cleanliness. When they reach the age of sixteen, they must be “completely submissive” to any man.
You might think that women put up a fight rather than meekly accept the delirious Nazi mandate. On the contrary, Hermann explains, “they threw themselves into the new pattern with a conscious enthusiasm that knew no bounds”. They believed, he adds, “those poor little typically feminine idiots, that if they did all that men told them to do cheerfully and willingly, that men would somehow, in the face of all logic, love them still more”. There is more: the women contributed to their own degradation with their love and admiration of men, which instead of gratitude generated a reinforcement of men’s feeling of superiority. Alfred begins to see that these animals are “not women at all, and never have been” because they have always seen themselves as slaves with no self-esteem. The remedy, he clarifies, is “simple”: “The highest possible masculine pattern of living should be imposed on women (…)”, beginning with basic literacy, and in this way they would see that men loathe their easy submission. By the end of the novel, Alfred feels something new when he holds his newly-born daughter in his arms, though this is not really the main point of the novel.
I am aware that Burdekin’s controversial discourse on women’s submission has elicited many answers from feminist scholars. I will insist that this is placed in the mouths of men living in an extreme form of patriarchy, though I very much suspect that the author is expressing through them her own feminist despair. The Handmaid’s Tale also complicates the issue very much with the presence of the Aunts, the women fully complicit with the system that help patriarchy to dominate the Handmaids. In Burdekin’s Swastika Night the whole situation is far worse: of course, violence was used to overpower the rebels, but most women accepted the restrictions of the (fictional) Nazi regime. Their way of life would be a nightmare even for Offred, for she recalls what life as a free woman was like whereas Burdekin’s women have lost all memories of the past. Arguably, the conversations between Alfred and Hermann are designed to elicit our disagreement and to be jolted out of any possible passivity in the face of our own patriarchal domination.
HBO, Amazon, Netflix: No, don’t do Swastika Night–time to move on and abandon dystopia for constructive utopia.
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