by Anna Wrobel
Discussed in this essay: Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, by Wendy Lower. Houghton Mifflin, 2013, 270 pages.
WENDY LOWER WANTS TO TELL US SOMETHING about women we need to know; that they can fall into violence, brutality, and criminal indifference. Her sources, raw and plentiful, come fresh plucked from Soviet archives made available in the early 1990s. Where is the patriarchy in her narrative? Heaven knows it’s everywhere, and Lower understands this — but that doesn’t stop her from telling what she’s learned about the relatively unexamined phenomenon of women participating in mass murder.
Lower acknowledges pioneering studies about camp guards and S.S. operatives (by Gudrun Schwartz and Elizabeth Harvey), but expands the record to more typical German women’s pursuits and ambitions. She reveals how “ordinary women” (see Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland), at least 500,000 of them, found in war avenues of mobility, service, marriage, career, adventure, liberation, and release. They were not going to an ordinary place to live an ordinary life; instead they headed east, into the flesh and sinew of the Nazi war, drawn by boredom, romance, opportunity, loyalty, and much state-born propaganda and recruitment.
After the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, posters, films, and broadcasts entreated patriotic women and girls to serve in and help colonize the eastern territories, where space would be “erledigt,” arranged, by murdering native populations, with an eye to the killing of every Jew.
Who responded to the call? The young, the literate, the upwardly mobile in various occupations, mainly nurses, teachers, secretaries and civil administration. Lower examines case studies in all categories and goes beyond the occupationally engaged to include women who came East as S.S. wives and lovers, whose leisure could turn lethal.
MOST OF THE WOMEN WERE YOUTHFUL, not yet with family but on the threshold. All had grown and come of age after World War I, and been exposed to the Nazi movement since childhood, with 1933 the critical year that turned all communication into the crusading tool of a single ideology. School curricula had taught them a unified nexus of racial “science” and hygiene, genetic and national supremacy, a brand of manifest destiny called “Lebensraum,” the horrors of Versailles from which they’d been saved, and complete loyalty and love for the Fuehrer who saved them. If Hitler should command them to hate, then isolate, then remove, then kill Jews, it had to be all for the good and for the future, as was “the East” itself. In post-WW I Germany, racial and political awakening came as one.
As transmitters of racial hygiene and eugenics “science,” nurses had a strong place in the Reich and were indispensable in the East, where many thousands of them cared for wounded soldiers, assisted in ghastly procedures on concentration camp inmates, and poisoned and gassed “defectives” and “undesirables.” Nurses often took pride in the role of creating a genetically cleansed future. Steeped in Nazi medical and racial education, many nurses were racist ideologues. Others were appalled, but in a world torn from its moorings and turned upside down, those with compassion had to keep their disloyal and traitorous thoughts and deeds to themselves, even long after the war was lost.
A few thousand teachers established Nazi education for those defined as ethnic Germans, the Volksdeutsch of the eastern territories — where many children were “legally” kidnapped and taken to group homes where a Nazi-indoctrinated life could begin without the interference of Easternized parents. The new German culture was not meant to diffuse into the local variety, but to obliterate and replace any prior culture — and teachers played a key role in the care and education of the new Nazis of the East, a role they full well understood.
The largest occupational group was secretaries and civil administrators in a variety of settings from gauleiter’s office to local S.S. Headquarters to Treblinka’s warehouse of Jewish loot to be distributed to ethnic Germans (but not before picking out the best for themselves). In a highly centralized and bureaucratized regime, office workers were involved in all functions of Nazi administration, including within ghettos and death camps. Paperwork abounded. They made lists of the murdered, and requisitioned bullets for the backs of heads, gas for the chambers, and everything needed to sustain life, war, and mass murder on the eastern frontier. For most, it was a job kept clean by the distance reams of paper could produce. For some it was hard to hear the men laugh and recount their kills of the day. But a few secretaries went far beyond the call of duty, entering ghettos and murdering Jews, including children, on their own. Given the vast number of secretaries, these direct killers were a tiny fraction. Nurses were the official mass killers, many having begun with the T-4 euthanasia program in the fatherland. As T-4 procedures and medical staff were mobilized to deal with a vast eastern universe of those deemed “life unworthy of life,” experienced nurses were needed and materially rewarded.
AND THEN THERE WERE THOSE WHO KILLED and tortured for sheer delight — S.S. wives and lovers. Ah, romance, even there in the great killing fields. Proximity to the killing fields meant little divide between battlefront and home front. Every picnic, swim, and outing tripped on mass graves in thousands of fields and woods, while in towns, fresh and rotting bodies hung from balconies. The unimaginable East became a routine environment of death, mutilation and torture. “Scenes of unfettered greed and violence were common,” Lower writes, “and systems of mass murder embedded in everyday life.” The East was the Nazi Eden, with snakes to be eradicated so that a colonial paradise might emerge. Aggressively expansionist and violent, Nazism in the East was the very embodiment of the Nazi program, where racial ideology played out in daily life as well as in visionary theory of a German Volk utopia.
From secretaries to S.S. wives, women socialized with soldiers and Einsatzgruppen whose jobs it was to kill Jews almost daily, or to round up and crush them onto cattle trains. Many men accepted the duty as an easier and safer way to do battle for the Reich than military combat. Men ate and drank and laughed. Many took pictures. The women in the photos ate and drank and laughed. They set tables of food in the killing fields so men could refresh between slaughters.
Everyone knew. Everyone saw and heard and smelled. Some witnesses were scared and sad and mortified. The record indicates that most accomplices viewed their jobs as dutiful and loyal service to the fatherland. Clear, too, is that most believed the Nazi catechism regarding Jews and Bolsheviks and Eastern European untermenschen. Lower speaks of the “intoxication of the East,” mingling alcohol- and drug-fueled sexual hedonism with genocide, a disturbing and perverse sensual mix.
Amongst perpetrators, few were as sadistic as S.S. wives and lovers, women living in relative luxury whose only work was the moral support of their S.S. men in a classic case of too much time on their hands. In 1934’s Nuremberg Rallies (documented in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will), Hitler declared the Volk community to rest on a firm basis as “millions of women became our most loyal, fanatical fellow combatants” — this said five years before the war began. Hitler praised the fierce commitment of racially elite women, marriage material for S.S. men.
THE RECORD BUZZES WITH EVIDENCE of women who “shopped” in the banned ghettos for “bargain” Jewish goods, and who whipped, beat, ran over, pushed from balconies, bashed with baby carriages, smashed heads against walls, lured with candy then shot into mouths. Lower does not stop listing crimes until we realize how the Nazi philosophy of racial destiny produced a code of morality not only permitting mass murder for women, but morally justifying it.
The Kempner Report of 1946, commissioned by the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, agreed with Hitler’s observation that Nazi women were critically involved in the workings of the Nazi regime. The report, however, had little weight in postwar trials, especially in the western zone of defeated Germany. Lower is shocked to see how few women killers and deep accomplices were brought to trial. Kaleidoscopic gender perceptions, prejudices, and privileges, combined with a polite but skeptical suspicion of Jewish survivor testimony, allowed most women to go home and merge into myths and realities of long-suffering German women as victims and martyrs. A notorious secretary who brutally murdered Jewish children in an eastern ghetto, for example, was for many postwar years on staff at a German child welfare agency. At perennial get-togethers with her Hitler Youth group, she sang Nazi songs and reminisced, while maintaining the conviction that Jews caused her country’s woes, even after Germany was Judenrein.
While more women were prosecuted, jailed and even executed in the Communist east, records indicate that there, too, most women alleged to have committed war crimes were not indicted, or if tried, were rarely convicted. Lower says too little about the role of the descending Cold War in American and British decisions to punish only a few major war criminals. Emerging Cold War policy required the swift reconstruction of much of Europe and the rehabilitation of West Germany as ally in the global conflict with the Soviet Union. Most Nazis, men as well as women, were simply off the hook.
I take issue with Lower’s telling of Soviet atrocities against Volksdeutsch women and children based on second-hand reports of elder German women interviewed in the 1990s. While Lower is a stickler for documented evidence, she presents these rumors in a declarative style that sounds like fact. At times, indeed, her emotional rhetoric disrupts scholarly analysis, but not often enough to undermine the academic rigor. Few can write about the Holocaust, however, with the diamond-drill directness and superb clarity of a Primo Levi — and those who come to the Holocaust as “detached” academics may feel a need to display disapproval and disgust.
Wendy Lower succeeds at placing women back into history — in this case a half million German women witnesses, accomplices, and perpetrators who, to varying degrees, aided the Nazi plan to kill every European Jew. She shows how women, too, can fall prey and contribute to a culture of cruelty when the collective momentum of a society is total enough to compel a sense, even a rapture, of belonging and obedience.
Anna Wrobel is a history teacher, writer, and poet, author of Marengo Street: Selected Poems (2012, Moon Pie Press), and Sparrow Feathers (forthcoming). She lives and curates poetry readings in Westbrook, Maine.