The atrocities of Nazi Germany have been primarily the purview of German men. German women claimed ignorance and innocence regarding their male counterparts brutality, portraying themselves as hard-suffering wives and daughters who cleaned up the rubble of the war after Germanys defeat in 1945.
By ELAINA SMITH
The Kansas City Star
Wendy Lowers chilling new work, Hitlers Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, works against this misconception, showing how German women were not just insignificant cogs in a larger machine but instead crucial members of the Third Reichs genocidal empire.
Lower, a history professor at Claremont McKenna College in California and consultant for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, draws on government documents, letters, memoirs and trial testimonies to depict the lives of various Nazi German women who came of age during the rise and fall of the Third Reich.
These women experienced the upheaval of government and the economy after Germanys defeat in World War I in 1918. The Third Reich groomed them to see war-mongering and genocide as normal, where they learned how to navigate a system that had clear limits but also granted them new benefits, opportunities and a raised status.
Racial-utopian goals and extreme nationalism sparked these womens ambitions, not only as potential mothers of the pure German race but as useful mechanisms within the government. Lower cites examples of specific women who left their homes to travel to the eastern front, including the countries of Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. Thousands worked as secretaries, teachers and nurses, all important roles in the running of the regime.
Johanna Altvater and Sabine Herbst Dick worked as secretaries for powerful Nazi officials. Intertwined with everyday activities, the women compiled lists of Jews to be spared or killed.
It was up to the receptionists to decide about who would be shot, Lower reveals. Sometimes one of the women would ask her colleague: How about this one? Yes or no?
Nurses such as Erika Ohr pursued the opportunity for gainful employment within the Third Reich. Ohr, the daughter of a sheepherder, traveled to Ukraine to work as a nurse during the war. She, like other nurses, not only tended German soldiers, they also sterilized and euthanized undesirables, which included those who were mentally ill, disabled or simply deemed unfit to live or propagate.
The government also stationed teachers in various towns in the east. Teachers such as Ingelene Ivens indoctrinated ethnic Germans in Poland in Nazi ideology, with the hope of assimilating them into German society.
Schools were central institutions for converting ethnic Germans to the Nazi cause, Lower explains, and for creating a racial hierarchy that pushed non-German children out of the school.
Lower makes clear that most women did not commit actual violence but merely benefited from the violence going on around them, not only with employment but with looting and stealing from Jews who had been forced into ghettos and camps. Many were bystanders, like Ilse Struwe, who watched Jews outside her dormitory window being led to a theater to be killed.
Some women committed actual violence, however, and most of them were the wives and lovers of men stationed on the eastern front. These were the women who tended to their children, gave parties and entertained. They comforted and praised their husbands after they returned home from slaughtering Jews in the killing fields.
Among the latter was Erna Petri, who encountered six hungry Jewish children outside her home. After feeding them, she led them outside and shot each one point-blank in the head. Liesel Willhaus stood on her balcony and shot into a crowd of Jewish laborers for sport, her own child at her side.
Few of these women stood trial; even fewer were convicted of their crimes. Most re-entered society and led normal lives. Lower estimates at least half a million women contributed to the Nazi regime, which mobilized a generation of young female revolutionaries who were conditioned to accept violence, to incite it, and to commit it, in defense of or as an assertion of Germanys superiority.
It was this acceptance of violence that allowed the killing of millions of Jews and other undesirables. Hitlers Furies horrifies and angers, depicting how these women contributed to genocide. Lowers exploration of Nazi womens involvement not only sheds light on a gruesome history but helps us see what human beings not only men, but women as well are capable of believing and doing.
Elaina Smith is a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and an intern this semester at The Star. To reach her, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.