The author calls this history a "historical blindspot"
Nazism’s Feminine Side, Brutal and Murderous
‘Hitler’s Furies,’ by Wendy Lower, Examines German Women
Photographs courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
From left, Liesel Riedel, Vera Stahli and Gertrude Segel, who were involved in Nazi activities.
Published: October 8, 2013
German women and girls, under the Third Reich, were dissuaded from
wearing makeup. They should glow from fresh air and exercise, Hitler
thought, or better yet, from pregnancy.
German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields
By Wendy Lower
Illustrated. 270 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $26.
Patricia Wall/The New York Times
“German schoolgirls were not taught subjects such as Latin, since
knowledge of this kind was not necessary for future mothers,” Wendy
Lower writes in her disquieting new book, “Hitler’s Furies: German Women
in the Nazi Killing Fields.” Instead, girls “were given pamphlets with
advice on how to pick a husband: the first question to ask a prospective
mate was, ‘What is your racial background?’ ”
Ms. Lower’s book is partly the study of a youthquake. She scrutinizes
the legion of fresh-scrubbed German “baby boomers” who were born in the
wake of World War I and grew up with Nazism. “Terror regimes,” she
notes, “feed on the idealism and energy of young people.”
We know plenty about the lives of young men in the Nazi regime. Ms.
Lower is here to fill us in further on the young women — she calls them a
lost generation — who, swept up in a nationalistic fervor, fled dull
lives by going to work for the Reich in the Nazi-occupied East, in
places like Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. They were after travel, nice
clothes, adventure, paychecks, romance. Once there, many connived at
Earlier books about the Holocaust have offered up poster girls of brutality and atrocity, figures like Ilse Koch, the so-called Bitch of Buchenwald, and Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the highest-ranking woman in the Nazi Party.
Ms. Lower’s revisionist insight is to track more mundane lives, and to
argue for a vastly wider complicity. She follows more than a dozen
German women — nurses, secretaries, schoolteachers, wives of SS officers
— who stand in for an estimated 500,000 German women who went into the
occupied East and thus undeniably stood, the author argues, in the
“The role of German women in Hitler’s war can no longer be understood as
their mobilization and victimization on the home front,” Ms. Lower
says. “Instead, Hitler’s Germany produced another kind of female
character at war, an expression of female activism and patriotism of the
most violent and perverse kind.”
Or, as she puts it more memorably, about SS wives who became
perpetrators: “These women displayed a capacity to kill while also
acting out a combination of roles: plantation mistress; prairie Madonna
in apron-covered dress lording over slave laborers; infant-carrying,
Ms. Lower is a history professor at Claremont McKenna College, a consultant for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the author or co-author of several previous books about Nazi activities in places like Ukraine. “Hitler’s Furies” has been placed on the long list for this year’s National Book Award in nonfiction.
Some of the women she follows were aides to so-called desk murderers,
eagerly assisting their bosses. Others took part in the humiliation of
Jews, or plundered their goods. Still others shot them from balconies or
in forests. One smashed in a Jewish toddler’s head. Even those who did
not directly take part in the killing of Jews, she says, could not claim
ignorance about was going on. They were passive bystanders.
Fewer expressed qualms about what they saw. One who did, a relief worker
and lawyer named Annette Schücking, wrote home: “What Papa says is
true; people with no moral inhibitions exude a strange odor. I can now
pick out these people, and many of them really do smell like blood.”
Despite what they had seen, the author writes, they asked, “What can one
do, after all?”
The moral point Ms. Lower repeatedly makes is that “there were choices
concerning how one behaved during and after the war.” Men and women
weren’t punished for refusing to take part in the killings of Jews. “In
favoring perceived duty over morality,” she writes, “men and women were
more alike than different.”
“Hitler’s Furies” is often difficult reading. Ms. Lower’s portrayal of
the links between sex and violence — these young people were, to no
small degree, showing off for one another — lingers over some especially
gruesome moments. “Genocide,” she reports, “is also women’s business.”
I frequently wished that “Hitler’s Furies” were a stronger, more
authoritative book. Ms. Lower declares that the contemplation of women’s
diverse roles in the Third Reich is a “historical blind spot.” Yet this
subject is hardly altogether new.
Ms. Lower omits mediation between earlier texts. She rarely relates,
except in endnotes, what previous historians have had to say about women
in the Third Reich. Too often, her facts and research appear to exist
in a vacuum. I longed for context and synthesis.
The prose in “Hitler’s Furies” frequently has a glue-paste textbook
smell. There are clichés and repetitions. She chops up these women’s
stories in such a way that she has to reintroduce them to us constantly.
There are many generalities here, and less specific detail about these
women’s lives than you might like. You don’t feel you have a grainy or
intimate sense of any of them. In part, this is not Ms. Lower’s fault.
After the war, these women did not like to speak of their experiences,
so the record is not as full as it could be.
The last chapters of “Hitler’s Furies” are infuriating and sickening for
different reasons. Ms. Lower explores these women’s experiences after
the war. Most simply slipped back into civilian life. Few of these
hundreds of thousands of German women were prosecuted, and even fewer
“What happened to them?” Ms. Lower asks. “The short answer is that most got away with murder.”