Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies:
German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields
In Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Wendy Lower, a professor of history at California’s Claremont McKenna College, highlights the roles that women played in Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust. To date, Lower contends, these roles have been largely “suppressed, overlooked, and under-researched” (p.4). Nearly all histories of the Holocaust, Hitler’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population, leave out half the population of Germany during the Third Reich, “as if women’s history happens somewhere else,” resulting in an “illogical approach and puzzling omission” (p.14). But the Holocaust, she writes, “could not have been accomplished if a sense of duty had not prevailed over the sense of morality. In favoring perceived duty over morality, men and women were more alike than different” (p.111).
Lower’s exhaustively researched and lucidly written study revolves around thirteen women who participated actively in the Holocaust. She seeks to demonstrate that their experiences were typical of a vast number of women drawn into the Nazi regime. Lower provides short autobiographical sketches of the thirteen women and returns to their stories at different points throughout the book. But the full historical record of women’s precise roles in Nazi atrocities is scant, consisting of original wartime documentation, such as marriage applications, personnel records, and Nazi party reports, “devoid of personality or motive,” supplemented by more revealing postwar “self-representations” of women contained in testimonies, letters, memoirs and interviews (p.12). This thin historical record precludes Lower from bringing her thirteen women to life in the way that Eric Lichtblau does in his study of Nazi activists who sought refuge in the United States, The Nazis Next Door, reviewed here in October 2015. Nonetheless, Lower makes a strong case that the experiences of the thirteen women should not be dismissed as anecdotal or aberrational.
In Lower’s analysis, women were frequently witnesses and accomplices to Nazi atrocities. Less frequently, but not insignificantly, they were themselves perpetrators who “killed Jews and other ‘enemies’ of the Reich, more than had been documented during the war or prosecuted afterward” (p.4). The Nazi ideology did not exhort German women to be killers; that function was, officially if nonetheless implicitly, reserved for German men. Women were above all expected to be fertile, the bearer of “racially pure” Aryan children to serve the Third Reich in the future. In Hitler’s Germany, the “female badge of honor was the pregnant belly” (p.116). Although the Nazi regime “trained thousands of women to be accomplices, to be heartless in their dealings with the enemies of the Reich,” the regime “did not aim to develop cadres of female killers . . . [I]t was not expected that women would be especially violent or would kill. Those who did kill exploited the ‘opportunity’ to do so within a fertile sociopolitical setting, with the expectation of rewards and affirmation, not ostracism” (p.52).
This opportunity arose most frequently on Germany’s Eastern Front, Poland and the Western Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics. Lower describes the Eastern Front as a “European stage where Hitler and his supporters fulfilled their imperial fantasies,” a space for the Nazis to “carry out criminal policies with impunity” (p.125). She estimates that approximately 500,000 women were assigned to the Eastern Front or volunteered to go, seeking to “fulfill their ambitions and the regime’s expectations, to experience something new, and to further the Nazi cause” (p.85). Of the thirteen women Lower studies, most did not begin their war experiences with the fierce hatred for Jews that underlay Nazi ideology. But their experiences on the Eastern Front “proved transformative. It was in the eastern territories that Nazi anti-Semitism found its fullest and most profound development” (p.163).
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The thirteen women in Lower’s study came from different parts of Germany and, in two cases, from Austria. They were from middle and working class backgrounds, and from urban and rural areas. They were Catholic and Protestant, with and without university level education. All were “ambitious and patriotic” and, in varying degrees, shared “qualities of greed, anti-Semitism, racism, and imperialistic arrogance” (p.164). Most were startlingly young, in their early 20s, part of what Lower characterizes as a post-World War I baby boom, born during the fledgling Weimar Republic and coming of age in Hitler’s Third Reich.
Approximately 3,500 women found roles as prison guards on the Eastern Front, very few of whom “exhibited a humane attitude toward the prisoners in their purview” (p.21). Female guards could “choose how cruel and sadistic to be toward prisoners” (p.52). When female guards abusively managed the prisoner population, Lower argues, they “helped make mass murder standard operating procedure. They lent their organizational know-how and individual skills to the machinery of destruction” (p.109). However, the “first Nazi mass murderess was not the concentration camp guard but the nurse” (p.120).
Nursing took on an “acutely nationalistic and ideological character” during the Third Reich, leaving “little room for traditional humanitarian ideals” (p.44). It was the profession that “brought the largest number of German women directly into the war and the Nazi genocide, as nurses occupied a variety of traditional and new roles in the developing racial state” (p.43). Centrally planned mass killing operations, Lower explains, began in the hospitals of the Reich. The Nazi euthanasia program “involved the recruitment of female midwives and of medical personnel, both doctors and nurses. These professionals would eventually murder more than two hundred thousand people in Germany, Austria and the annexed Reich borderlands of Poland, and the Czech lands” (p.121). The first methods were the “sleeping pill, the hypodermic needle, and starvation” (p.120). The first victims were children. During the war, “nurses gave thousands of deformed babies and disabled adolescents overdoses of barbiturates, lethal injections of morphine, and denied them food and water” (p.120).
The Nazi regime also engaged in an extensive program of forced sterilizations of non-Jewish German women. German women and girls were betrayed by mid-wives and nurses who, upon arrival of a child with reported alleged defects, recommended sterilization. In the “civil war for perfect Aryan babies that was underway even before the outbreak of World War II, women made cruel life-and-death decisions for other women, eroding moral sensibilities and implicating women in the regime’s crimes.” (p.23).
One of the nurses whom Lower studies, Pauline Kneissler, was a Nazi party activist and a member of the Reich Nurses League who worked in Minsk, Belarus during the war. Promoted to deputy senior nurse in Minsk, Kneissler “could order others to kill and administer deadly doses of sedatives” (p.237). Each day about seventy-five patients died in her ward. When her boss asked if she was ready to murder without his guidance, she responded that she could and “had done so already” (p.237). After the war, Kneissler told a friend that German medical teams also gave lethal injections to wounded German soldiers, “our own,” as she put it, a subject that was — and, Lower indicates, still is — “taboo” (p.123).
The women who worked as secretaries and in other administrative positions on the Eastern Front made “enormous” but “publicly minimized” contributions to the implementation of the Holocaust (p.61). They “took dictation and typed up the orders facilitating the robbery, deportation, and mass murder of Jews. They performed these duties with the knowledge that they were contributing to the goal of total extermination of the Jewish people” (p.102). By the end of 194I, the elite killing squads known as the Einsatazgruppen had completed its first wave of massacres in the Soviet Union, killing close to 500,000 Soviet Jews. “So extensive was the documentation of their gruesome work that after the war American prosecutors conducted a special Nuremberg trial against leading Einsatazgruppen members.” But, Lower notes, “little has been said about those who typed up this damning evidence of the Holocaust” (p.107).
Another woman in Lower’s study, Liselotte Meier, barely twenty years old when she arrived on the Eastern Front in Lida, Belarus, fell in love with the Nazi Commissar for the region and became his administrative assistant. Meier participated in the planning of massacres that occurred in 1942-43 in the region, and was by some accounts the most knowledgeable person in the Lida office. She had access to the office safe where most of the secret orders were stored. She kept the office stamp in her desk drawer, which allowed her to sign on behalf of the commissar. This gave her authority to determine “who was and who was not a Jew” and therefore to “decide who would be killed, [and] who could be a spared” (p.104). During secret planning meetings before a mass shooting, Meier took the notes and coordinated the action with the executioners, being “careful about how much she committed to paper” (p.104).
Whether as camp guard, nurse, secretary, or other function, women on the Eastern Front became adept plunderers of goods and property — crates of eggs, flour, sugar, clothing, and home furnishings — in what Lower terms the “biggest campaign of organized robbery and economic exploitation in history,” with German women “among its prime agents and beneficiaries” (p.101). This indulgence was “not condoned by the regime; Jewish belongings were officially Reich property and not meant for personal consumption. Some plunderers, women among them, were punished and even executed for stealing from the Reich” (p.101).
Most of the secretaries and administrative support personnel whom Lower identifies would best be described as witnesses and accomplices to Nazi atrocities rather than actual perpetrators. But some engaged directly in the perpetration of atrocities. Such women “slipped into another role – a hybrid characteristic that embodied the stiff Nazi patriot, brazen cowgirl, and cold-blooded anti-Semite. They carried whips, they brandished pistols and rifles, they wore riding pants, and they rode horses” (p.125). Lower documents the shocking case involving Johanna Altvater, who worked as a secretary in Ukraine, where she specialized in killing children. One observer noted that Altvater “often lured children with candy. When they came to her and opened their mouths, she shot them in the mouth with the small silver pistol that she kept at her side” (p.127). Another secretary, Lisel Riedel Willhaus, wife of an SS commander, shot children from her balcony, with her own child standing next to her.
Altvater was one of the few women working in administrative positions to be prosecuted after the war. Despite extensive eyewitness testimony against her, she was twice acquitted, the second time in 1982. But she was the exception. Very few women were called to account for their role in Nazi atrocities once the war ended. Women, “especially those who appeared matronly and meek, did not seem capable of committing such atrocities. The physical appearance of the women and gender stereotypes held by the mostly male investigators and judges usually worked in favor of the female perpetrators, whose acts were in some instances as criminal as their male counterparts” (p.196). Most women returned from the Eastern Front and “quietly resumed normal lives” (p.168), refraining from speaking publicly about the atrocities they had seen and participated in. Their silence, Lower argues, was rooted in “feelings of shame, grief, and fear” (p.97), although, she notes elsewhere, their shame “was not necessarily about culpability” (p.9).
How and why women overcame their stereotypical passivity to participate directly in Holocaust killing are among the book’s central questions. Lower’s penultimate chapter, “Why Did They Kill,” is dedicated to the subject, but she addresses it throughout the book. The crimes committed by female perpetrators, Lower explains, “occurred within a web of professional priorities and tasks, personal commitments and anxieties.” The perpetrator who accepted the perceived necessity of killing “could in the course of one day shoot Jewish children and then arrive home to coddle her son or daughter. There is no contradiction here in the mind of the perpetrator: there is, rather, a startling degree of clarity” (p.162). That clarity in Lower’s interpretation may be traced to official anti-Semitic Nazi ideology, which “permeated everyday life, shaped professional and intimate relationships, and generated criminal government policies” (p.155). Under the Nazi ideology, “Germans and Jews could not coexist. Female killers, like their male counterparts, developed this conviction after years of conditioning in the Reich, [and] absorbed it from a general climate of popular and state-condoned anti-Semitism in Germany and across Europe” (p.162).
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Minimizing the violent behavior of Nazi women, Lower cautions, “creates a false shield against a more direct confrontation with genocide and its disconcerting realities” (p.158). In seeking to remove that shield and enlarge our knowledge of the unfathomable Holocaust, Lower’s chilling account provides another reminder of how a whole class of people, in this case women, could be swept into the orgies of violence to which Hitler’s murderous ideology gave rise.
Thomas H. Peebles
December 29, 2015