Defiance: The Prison Memoirs of Savitri Devi
Ed. R. G. Fowler
The Savitri Devi Archive, 2007
One feature of my recent novel, Mister (Iron Sky Publishing, 2009), that has stirred up a ferment of discussion and questions is the shadowy conspiracy of “Esoteric Hitlerists” that runs like a golden thread through the labyrinth of the plot.
As much as I would like to take credit here for a brilliant stroke of imagination, this is a case of truth being stranger than fiction, for there really is something called “Esoteric Hitlerism,” and I am fairly sure that it already exists as a world-wide conspiracy – although, of course, nobody has let me in on the secret.
A hundred and five years after Savitri Devi’s birth, we are gradually seeing her entire literary corpus brought back into print. This 2007 Centennial Edition of Defiance: The Prison Memoirs of Savitri Devi, published by the Savitri Devi Archive is the most recent contribution to this effort.
Defiance is Savitri Devi’s memoir of her arrest, trial, and imprisonment for distributing Nazi propaganda in occupied Germany during the early months of 1949. She was sentenced to three years and served six months before being deported to India. The story is told in a gripping first-person narrative, and it constitutes not only a fascinating historical document of Allied justice and prison life for Nazi women during the immediate post-war years but also provides a hugely engaging insight into Savitri Devi’s incandescent personality.
Born Maximine Portaz in Lyons, France in 1905 of an English mother and a father of mixed Greek and Italian ancestry, Savitri Devi was repelled by egalitarian, democratic, Christian, and humanistic doctrines from an early age, and enjoyed overtly mocking them in school, much to the shock of her tutors. She nevertheless impressed them with her penetrating mind and performed well academically, earning two masters degrees and a doctorate in philosophy, as well as learning eight languages. The realization that she was a National Socialist took place in 1929, while on a pilgrimage to Palestine during Lent.
From 1935 to 1945 Savitri Devi lived in India, where she went in search of the pagan Aryan culture, and where her formal adherence to Hinduism led to the acquisition of her adopted name. Despite her ardent – and religious – belief in National Socialism, Savitri Devi never experienced Germany during the National Socialist era; her first opportunity to visit the country would not be until 1948, three years after Hitler’s empire had perished in the inferno of the Allied bombing. The lost opportunity proved a tremendous source of regret and disappointment, and resulted in a burning desire for expiation, for making up lost time. It is this that compelled Savitri Devi to make a passionate – and indeed “quixotic and futile” – profession of support for National Socialism, even though by then all had been long lost.
Savitri Devi made three visits to Germany between 1948 and 1949, funding the journeys and the printing of thousands of propaganda leaflets and posters with the sale her gold jewelry. We learn in Defiance that she began writing Gold in the Furnace: Experiences in Post-War Germany and her magnum opus, The Lightning and the Sun, during this period, mostly in cafés.
We also learn to what intense, fanatical, even foolhardy degree Savitri Devi identified with National Socialism: once arrested, and once convinced that a conviction was inevitable, she became inflamed with the truculent euphoria of a righteous martyr, from then on almost sadistically relishing every opportunity afforded by the legal process to make a dramatic show of her scorn for the values of the victors as well as of her uncrushable defiance in the face of their power.
As by this time Savitri was a British subject (having previously held Greek and French nationalities), she was the responsibility of the British authorities, and they treated her rather kindly, given the nature of her offense. Indeed, they show a great deal of baffled patience in the face of Savitri’s strident support for every National Socialist policy, even the most cruel.
Savitri is unimpressed and unmoved, however, and on the day of her trial, which she sees as the paroxysmal moment where she is to show the world what she is and what she thinks of the democratic powers, she even makes it a point to wear her gold swastika ear-rings. (And rather appropriately, on the front cover of this volume we find a photograph of Savitri Devi at the height of her powers, aged 46, looking into the distance with the aforementioned ear-rings and the expression of a wrathful demi-goddess.)
Savitri Devi is so over the top, her prose so high-flung with joyous visions of Nazi palingenesis, poetic revanchism, and cruentous glory, that one cannot help but smile when Mrs. Taylor, the British policewoman escorting her to and from the court house in Düsseldorf, finally says “What a baby you are for a woman of forty-three.” The pragmatic Mrs. Taylor, however, did not understand Savitri Devi’s need for redemption.
Savitri’s “glorious day” ends in disappointment. When sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, she is outraged: Is that all? She had been hoping for the death penalty, or at least life imprisonment. The phlogiston of the immediate aftermath of the war, however, had abated somewhat, and by 1949 Nazi propaganda no longer entailed capital punishment.
This only exacerbated Savitri’s contempt for democracy: she tells us that she would not have been so lenient herself, had she been on the other side; she thinks the democracies are soft, craven, ideologically vacuous, and interested only in material comfort and money. She promises that one day – never mind when – they will pay a millionfold for their foolishness and their weakness. She only hoped that she would be there personally to mete out justice, or at least gloat.
Despite Savitri’s electrifying intensity, velocious extremism, and brutal misanthropy, the “democrats,” as she calls them, often could not help but take a liking for her, and even respect her for her ideological integrity, consistency, courage, and strength of character. This sentiment also affects the reader: Savitri Devi is a very likable monster.
Once transferred to the Werl prison, Savitri wasted no time to seek out “her comrades and superiors,” namely the Nazi war criminals. She soon developed an intense friendship with Hertha Ehlert, a former deputy wardress at the Bergen-Belsen prison camp, then serving a 15-year term. Colonel Vickers, the British Governor, tried to keep Savitri segregated from the political prisoners, which provoked a good deal of tedious self-pity and complaining. Fortunately, the German wardresses – some of whom were crypto-Nazis – took a liking to Savitri and allowed her regular visits from Ehlert and other “war criminals.” Moreover, equipped with copybooks, she was assigned light tasks so that she may have time to write.
Propelled by a fulgor of inspiration, Savitri poured all her love and energy into her writing, completing large sections of Gold in the Furnace and The Lightning in the Sun within the first few months. One day, however, her cell was searched and her manuscripts confiscated, dealing Savitri a devastating blow. The manuscripts seemed doomed to destruction.
For two weeks, she agonized over her manuscripts, alternating between stratospheric defiance and blackest depression. And it is here, in her darkest hour, that Savitri Devi finally had her most profound insight, which leads to Defiance’s core philosophical meditation on the Nazi ethics of detached and selfless duty. She consoles herself in the face of the imminent destruction of her manuscripts—the favorite children of her brain—by reminding herself that a true Aryan does what is right, regardless of personal consequences, leaving those to the gods to sort out.
For Savitri, the right thing to do is nothing less than the perfection of the cosmos by contributing to the emergence of the Superman, which she takes to be the ultimate aim of National Socialism. She cannot control what is done with her manuscripts, but she can take solace in the fact that she has acted in the cosmic interest, an aim which justifies any expediency—even humiliations, lies (which she detested), and tactical alliances with the hated enemy—and renders her personal suffering of no consequence.
Eventually, for unexplained reasons, Savitri’s manuscripts were returned to her. Far from being grateful to her captors, however, she regarded them with incredulous contempt. All thanks were reserved to “the invisible powers” that she felt were watching out for her.
Savitri then resolved to complete her manuscripts right under Colonel Vickers’ nose, only this time she took additional precautions to ensure their survival. We see that while never compromising or attenuating her extremism, Savitri Devi has learnt the value of employing more careful methods in the interest of long-term results.
Defiance is an enormously entertaining book, told in a rousing and poetic style, blending philosophical meditation with personal revelation in a hypnotic, novel-like narrative.
Unavailable for over half a century, the new Centennial Edition of Defiance is elegantly designed, lavishly illustrated with archival photographs, and carefully edited to the highest scholarly standards. It was initially offered as a limited edition of 200 hand-numbered clothbound copies, which proved highly collectible. If you covet one, you may be in for a wait, as I imagine only death will separate current owners from their copies. Fortunately, however, the new edition of Defiance has now been released in a high-quality, smyth-sewn paperback edition.
I highly recommend it to those who enjoyed Mister and want additional reading in the same vein to tide them over until my next novel.