Book Review: “Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields” by Wendy Lower – posted 2/5/2014
I did find this book a revelation. The subject of women’s role in the Holocaust has never gotten much attention. It was a black hole in Holocaust studies. Wendy Lower’s book goes far toward filling this gap.
The book provides a wealth of new information but more importantly, it critically examines the role of German women. Lower does not shy away from offering insight and making provocative generalizations. It is not boring history.
You might legitimately ask: why another book on the Holocaust? This book tells us stuff we do not know. Also, it shows how masses of women, just like men. can blindly engage in the most awful acts of evil over and over again.
While the Holocaust has always seemed to be a largely male endeavor, Lower shows women were very much integrated into the Nazi machinery and master plan. As she says, Hitler’s Furies were not marginal sociopaths. They were zealous administrators, nurses, teachers and secretaries as well as robbers, tormentors and murderers. To quote Lower:
“They believed that their violent deeds were justified acts of revenge meted out to enemies of the Reich; such deeds were, in their minds, expressive of loyalty.”
Lower shows how the decimation of the Jews was an essential part of the Nazi push into Eastern Europe. That was where there was the largest concentration of Jews. The Nazis believed the Jews had been dangerously “bolshevized”. Lower describes the various roles women played in the imperial conquest of Eastern Europe.
She says that one-third of the German female population, thirteen million women, were active in Nazi Party organizations. Lower destroys the myth of the innocent apolitical German woman. I found it surprising but she says female membership in the Nazi Party actually increased until the end of the war.
There were contradictions in the crazy Nazi world view. Hitler rejected equal rights for women as a Marxist demand. He very explicitly said women’s place was in the home, producing healthy Aryan babies. Hitler felt women were inferior outside the domestic sphere. Lower quotes Hitler in 1935 and 1936 saying to Nazi Party Women’s Organizations that a mother of five, six, or seven children who were healthy and well-raised accomplished more than a female lawyer.
The Nazis glorified efficient housekeeping as an expression of “cultural and biological Germanness”. They loved women in aprons and saw good housekeeping as reflecting German superiority.
Lower says women were expected “to fall in line, follow rules, sacrifice for the greater good, develop nerves of steel and suffer in silence”. The Nazis restricted women who sought degrees in higher education and in political office by instituting quotas.
At the same time, the Nazis needed women to colonize the East. The Nazi imperial fantasy, the eastern Lebensraum, was a frontier which included both massive death camps and utopian, German-only colonies. The Nazis needed women to populate their projected racist utopia.
In 1933, the Nazis called for abolition of the female vote. It would appear that elections were not a big item in the Nazi agenda after 1933. While I do not believe the female vote was ever officially abolished, the Nazis transformed Germany into a one party dictatorship as quickly as they could once Hitler was appointed chancellor. One month into Hitler’s rule in February 1933, the Nazis suspended civil rights. From that point on. elections became passe. They arrested, imprisoned and murdered their opponents. The Reichstag fire created the pretext for thousands of arrests and disappearances.
Lower follows the careers of a number of Nazi women who were secretaries, nurses, teachers, and wives. She points to their youth as a defining quality. She wrote that ‘” terror regimes feed on the idealism and energy of young people”. The average age of female concentration camp guards was 26.
In a manner reminiscent of Raul Hilberg, she categorizes German women as witnesses, accomplices, and perpetrators. She asks: why did they kill? Her chapter on this theme is not easily reduced. She cites the environment as a most important factor in whom will become a perpetrator of genocide. As she says,
“Without certain settings and experiences, individuals with a proclivity to commit crimes would not commit them.”
Lower argues that the Nazis mobilized a generation of German women and conditioned them to commit evil acts as an assertion of Germany’s superiority. She also mentions Theodor Adorno’s work on authoritarian personality. She says empathy results from an upbringing of moral socialization. Most German women of the Nazi era received regular beatings when they were growing up. Violence was the norm as far as disciplining children. Lower argues that harsh authoritarian violence does not lead to empathy and moral behavior.
Maybe what was most shocking to me was that so many perpetrators, both male and female, literally got away with murder. As Lower says, the record of justice against Nazi perpetrators has been poor. Even now I find it surprising how true that still is. The limited number of prosecutions compared to the extent of the mass murder is an absurdity. She says most German women who participated in the Holocaust quietly resumed their normal lives. She goes on:
“In the postwar investigations in Germany, Israel and Austria, Jewish survivors identified German women as perpetrators, not only as gleeful onlookers but also as violent tormentors. But, by and large these women could not be named by the survivors, or after the war the women married and took on different names and could not be found.”
After World War 2, the International Tribunal at Nuremberg decided to limit prosecution to several hundred of the worst Nazi war criminals. Lower writes that in a public way German women were overwhelmingly silent after the war about their war-time experiences. They were silent about what they did to the Jews. They knew nothing. They saw nothing. Very few were ever judged.
A German narrative that emerged after the war saw women as victims rather than as criminals. They were the “rubble women” who helped rebuild Germany from the ashes. They were beleagered martyrs in this characterization and their accusers lacked credibility. They would cry when questioned which typically evoked sympathy from the male prosecutors and jurists.
Lower quotes Annette Schucking, a Red Cross nurse with a law degree. In 1948, she became a founding member of the reconstituted German female lawyers league, The Nazis has disbanded the organization in 1933. Schucking was interested in pursuing war crimes investigations. She spoke to prosecutors to try and get them to pursue a Nazi policeman, who along with his SS unit and local army and indigenous auxiliaries, had shot 6000 Jews in the Ukraine. This policeman had shot the Jews because he thought it would get him a promotion. Schucking had personal knowledge of the case from extensive conversations with participants in the killing. She went to Novgorod Voynsk and explored the now ransacked Jewish quarter. She described her knowledge in great detail in the book. Because she was a lawyer by training, she wrote out precise details in letters she wrote her parents. Nothing resulted from her attempt to investigate. This is what Schucking told Lower when she was interviewed in 2010:
“It was impossible to talk openly in their court system with any colleagues who had been in the East. Former Nazis were everywhere.”
For the overwhelming majority of Germans and their European Nazi allies, there was never any reckoning. I say this as a disgruntled lawyer, judge, and Jew who did not see justice done. Maybe it is all too late now but the witnessing and the history are important. Lower’s book is an important corrective to the view that appropriate punishment was meted out to the Nazis. While some number did go down for their crimes, the overwhelming majority escaped any punishment. Who says you cannot get away with murder? Thousands did.