The world may never know just how many people died as a result of Hitler’s cruelty. The numbers of those who perished can sometimes test our ability to see them as anything but numbers; anonymous, except to those who knew them. The same could also be said of those who acted on Hitler’s behalf. Who were they? Now and then the world gets a glimpse of the perpetrators. And, as they face justice, society finds itself as interested in ‘why’ they did it as in the ‘what and how’ of it all. In 1996, Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners helped lift the curtain on the motivations of Hitler’s servants. Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields adds to that effort. Challenging conventional assumptions about the Holocaust, Lower documents the role of German women in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. They may have come as teachers, nurses, secretaries, and wives, Lower contends, but they became “direct witnesses, accomplices and perpetrators of murder” (16).
Not content with just who they were and what they did, Lower also posits why some women behaved in such a manner. Germany after World War One, she says, was “a collapsed patriarchal world, and in its ruins anything seemed possible” (16). Women won the vote in 1919, and hoped to establish a political presence. But the political landscape, crowded with emerging parties, had no room for them. These parties were xenophobic, anti-Semitic, fiercely nationalistic, and skeptical of outside ideas (17). Modern notions about women were no exception. “In the chaos and uncertainty of modernity and democracy”, Lower argued, “restoring order and tradition became more important” (18). There were no champions of women’s rights in post war Germany. Even the Nazi Party turned a cold shoulder towards women, she says, not allowing them to join or seek office under its banner. Alfred Rosenberg, the party’s ideologue said “All possibilities for the development of a woman’s energies should remain open to her. But there must be clarity on one point: only man must be and remain a judge, soldier and ruler of the state” (as cited in Lower, 2013, p.23). Women were relegated to subordinate roles as Hitler and his men euchred Germany out of democracy and back into an authoritarian state. Once in power, they abolished other political parties and readjusted German society to fit their needs, in the process closing many of the avenues German women might have taken to a more meaningful life. For women, the Nazi Party soon became the only game in town and they fell in line, says Lower. They followed orders, sacrificed for the greater good and developed nerves of steel. Female prisoners (Communists, Socialists and Jews) needed female guards. Lower calculates at least 3,500 women were trained as concentration camp guards (21). Women were part of Germany’s post-war baby boom. They reached puberty, adolescence and adulthood under the umbrella of Nazi life and thought. They joined compulsory girl’s groups, learned to march and shoot, gave up cosmetics, the vote, adopted Hitler’s view that equal rights for women was a Marxist demand (22), and in the process came to see Jews, Communists and feminists as the enemy. If, as Lower contends, “The Nazi movement emancipated women from woman’s emancipation” (24), the women who went into Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe during World War Two, to places such as Ukraine, Latvia, and Belarus, saw them less as mass-murder sites than as places of employment and opportunity.
500,000 German women went east during the war, as teachers, nurses, secretaries or wives. Lower documents the experiences of about a dozen of them, and the stories are compelling: a teacher, charged with spreading Nazi ideology, expelling non-German children from school and plundering property for the German educational system(42); a nurse who euthanized patients (52); a secretary, who, not content with typing up execution and deportation lists, accompanied her boss into Jewish ghettos where she brutally murdered children by throwing them out of buildings (127); an SS commandant’s wife who shot prisoners from the balcony of their villa as a way to entertain guests (134). The work tends to repeat itself in places. Lower hop-scotches between the profiles, requiring frequent refreshers of each woman’s story. Yet implicit in them all is that the actions seemed even more brutal when meted out by a woman. In a moral point which Lower makes but not nearly emphatically enough is that there were choices concerning how one behaved during wartime. There are scant reports of Germans who were punished for refusing to kill. But once there, whether it was for travel, adventure, romance, or even doing what they thought was their duty, women murdered. Lower quotes a father, who upon seeing the body of his child, bludgeoned to death by a German secretary, said “Such sadism from a woman I have never seen. I will never forget this” (126).
But after the war, many others did forget. Lower reports that unlike German men, women were not pursued for their roles in Eastern Europe. Those who were brought to trial were judged incapable of such monstrous acts. They cried in court, taken by many as a sign of empathy and innocence. Between 1945 and 1955, Lower points to fewer than ten indictments of German women who committed murder or were accessories to murder in mass shootings and ghetto liquidations (169). Putting it bluntly, she argues, most German women who participated in the Holocaust quietly resumed normal lives (168).
The Holocaust was genocide, a mass crime committed by an entire society. Hitler’s Furies is a reminder that even though the world tends to think of genocide as men’s work, it’s also women’s business.
John Morello, DeVry University
Women's Work - Lower, W. (2013). Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN: 978-0-544-33449-6, 270pp. $14.95.