Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields
by Wendy Lower
NOTA DE LEITURA
A primeira coisa que me saltou à vista ao iniciar a leitura deste livro, foi a dificuldade de traduzir o título. As “Fúrias” para os Romanos eram as deusas encarregadas de castigar os crimes dos homens. “Furie” no sentido de mulher má e sempre irritada é palavra de origem alemã (nem por acaso!). Não é fácil arranjar um título em português: “as megeras de Hitler”, “as furiosas de Hitler”, “as raivosas de Hitler”, deixo isso para o eventual editor português.
O livro está bem escrito e a autora, segundo diz, demorou décadas a investiga-lo. Uma boa parte do livro vem também de fontes já publicadas que ela reuniu. Adivinha-se depressa que a autora é judia, e às vezes também ela escreve furiosa.
Na pag. X da Introdução, refere a autora 13 mulheres, personagens principais do livro. Nem todas praticaram crimes. Algumas (1.ª, 2.ª, 3.ª e 5.ª) foram apenas testemunhas; outras (6.ª, 8.ª e 11.ª) foram cúmplices e só as restantes seis é que foram executantes.
Bastantes páginas são dedicadas às execuções de judeus, ao Holocausto feito à pistola nos primeiros tempos da “Solução Final” no Leste. Ainda não tinham sido criados os campos de extermínio a gás e os judeus eram assassinados um a um. Impressionante!
A autora demonstra alguma revolta por as que ela considera criminosas não terem sido punidas ou não o terem sido devidamente. Uma razão psicológica seria a consideração de que afinal muitas outras mulheres alemãs (que não as assassinas) sofreram consideravelmente às mãos dos Russos. O sofrimento destas compensaria a maldade das outras (pág. 148). Mas uma razão legal foi que os Aliados decidiram que não seriam perseguidas as continuas, secretárias, estenógrafas, pessoal da limpeza e outras semelhantes ao serviço da Gestapo e das SS (pag. 167).
O tempo passa e é um pouco tarde para tentar fazer justiça. A autora admira-se de, em 2011, uma antiga secretária do gabinete de Eichmann não lhe querer responder (pag. 172); se ela já tem 84 anos !...
No entanto, este é um livro importante que nos confronta com as barbaridades de um tempo, apesar de tudo, recente.
03 OCTOBER 2013
Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields
It’s worth remembering here that many of those women who committed crimes could not resort to the time-worn excuse that they were “following orders”. They were not.
By Roger Moorhouse
The conventional image of women in Nazi Germany is well known. In what was a very masculine world, women generally appear either as hysterical, weeping Hitler fanatics or as hapless rape victims, reaping the Soviet whirlwind. Some readers, however – those familiar with the execrable concentration camp guards Irma Grese and Ilse Koch or perhaps with Bernhard Schlink’s novel – might recognise a third stereotype: that of the woman as perpetrator.
, a new book by the American academic Wendy Lower, brings this latter image to a non-specialist audience. Distilling many years of research into the Holocaust, Lower focuses her account on the experiences of a dozen or so subjects – not including Grese and Koch – ranging from provincial schoolteachers and Red Cross nurses to army secretaries and SS officers’ molls. Despite coming from all regions of Germany and all walks of life, what they had in common was that they ended up in the Nazi-occupied east, where they became witnesses, accessories or even perpetrators in the Holocaust.
Lower is scrupulously fair to her subjects, providing a potted biography of each, explaining their social and political background and examining the various motives – ambition, love, a lust for adventure – that propelled them to the “killing fields”. This objectivity is admirable, particularly as most of the women swiftly conformed to Nazi norms of behaviour, at least in turning a blind eye to the suffering around them. One woman, a Red Cross nurse, organised “shopping trips” to hunt for bargains in the local Jewish ghetto, while another, a secretary, calmly typed up lists of Jews to be “liquidated”, then witnessed their subsequent deportation.
Most shocking of all are the accounts of the women who killed. One of Lower’s subjects, a secretary-turned-SS-mistress, had the “nasty habit”, as one eyewitness put it, of killing Jewish children in the ghetto, whom she would lure with the promise of sweets before shooting them in the mouth with a pistol. Lower presents another chilling example: that of an SS officer’s wife in occupied Poland who discovered a group of six Jewish children who had escaped from a death-camp transport. A mother, she took them home, fed and cared for them, then led them out into the forest and shot each one in the back of the head.
Despite these horrors, Lower’s book resists the temptation to wallow in emotive rhetoric; nor is it drily academic. She writes engagingly, wears her considerable erudition lightly and has opted to stick with a broad narrative account, comparing and contrasting but never allowing her analysis to outweigh the fundamental humanity of the stories. The book’s power lies in its restraint.
Neither can be imagined as some sort of Woman’s Hour rereading of the Holocaust. There is no special pleading for the subjects and the gender studies aspect of the book is kept well within bounds. Indeed, in analysing the women’s progress from nurses and secretaries to accomplices and perpetrators, Lower is at times eager to emphasise that the forces that drove and shaped them were in some ways the same forces experienced by Germany’s men – the seductive appeal of Nazism, the heady lawlessness of the occupied eastern territories and the “new morality” of the SS.
It’s worth remembering here that many of those women who committed crimes could not resort to the time-worn excuse that they were “following orders”. They were not. They were merely reacting and adapting to their surroundings.
Consequently, Lower stresses that her subjects were not just marginal psychopaths; rather, they might be seen as perfect embodiments of the Nazi regime, products of the hideous, murderous times in which they lived. A gender-specific explanation is offered only tentatively: that the women simply got caught up in a heady vortex of power and anti-Semitic violence – the Ostrausch, or “intoxication of the east” – which was fuelled by their intimate relationships with the SS men around them.
In the final chapter, Lower relates the fates of her subjects after the war, detailing the efforts made – or more often not made – to bring them to justice. Of the women she has studied, only one was tried and found guilty; the others benefited from a combination of a biased judiciary, a perceived lack of evidence and entrenched cultural prejudices about female innocence. Only the German Democratic Republic, Lower argues, was rigorous in pursuing wartime female perpetrators. Elsewhere, they quite literally got away with murder.
Often harrowing and even disturbing, Lower’s book does not always make for comfortable reading. It is nonetheless well written and accessible enough to appeal far beyond an academic audience. Its errors are few and minor and, although it is a little surprising that a specialist on the Holocaust should misplace Gross-Rosen concentration camp, the author’s expertise is clearly evident throughout.
With , Wendy Lower has provided an important service in bringing the blind spot of women’s participation and implication in the Holocaust into focus. The new book shines a stark light on the ordinary women who accompanied the “ordinary men” of Christopher Browning’s landmark study of two decades ago into the abyss.
German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields
By Wendy Lower
Illustrated. 270 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $26.
“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 genocide.
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 killing fields.
“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, gun-wielding hausfrau.”
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 were punished.
“What happened to them?” Ms. Lower asks. “The short answer is that most got away with murder.”
5 October 2013
Wendy Lower's account of the women who volunteered to work for Hitler in the new German empire to the east is truly chilling
Where did the best career opportunities lie for an ambitious young woman in Germany in 1941? In the Red Cross? The army? Or, perhaps, the Gestapo – which, by the end of the war, was 40% staffed by women? No, the best prospects probably lay in the Ostraum, the new German empire to the east, in occupied Poland and then Ukraine and Belarus, where 10,000 secretaries were needed, plus countless teachers and nurses. There you could not only get ahead but escape the tiresome constraints of home life in provincial Germany, and perhaps live out your fantasies. But you might also become an accessory to genocide.
Wendy Lower's book interweaves the experiences of 13 ordinary women who went to work in the East. Aimed at the general reader, it briskly sketches in the position of women in Nazi Germany and then skilfully introduces its cast: the hard-hearted nurse drawn into the euthanasia programme; the idealistic teacher dispatched to Poland; the shepherd's daughter who wants more from her life; the educated woman unable to practise law and drafted into service as a military nurse; the small-town swindler; the pretty 19- year-old eager to avoid a Leipzig car factory; several ambitious secretaries in security police offices; and three women married to SS officers.
The narrative begins in late 1941, with the Final Solution still in its early stages. Jews have been rounded up in ghettoes (which some of the women visit as tourists), Jewish houses and possessions are being taken over and Einsatzkommandos carry out summary executions. The menfolk come back from a long day in the killing fields in need of food, drink and sexual comfort. The teachers, nurses and secretaries are not directly exposed to the Holocaust, but they know it is there. The middle-class nurse hears things from soldier patients and overhears conversations in trains. "People who have no moral inhibitions exude a strange odour," she writes. "I can now pick out these people, and many of them really do smell like blood." Despite her indignation, she stays at her post.
Lower conveys well the physical and moral landscape of this period: how, before the extermination camps were introduced, the atmosphere was permeated by the thousands of hastily buried corpses beneath the ground; how it was all too easy for those with little education and few moral anchors to lose their way in the "Wild East". For some of these women, violence and murder became part of a rich brew of new-found power and sexual arousal – known as Ostrausch or "Eastern rush". Several enjoyed strutting around brandishing whips at Jews; three went beyond posturing and murdered Jewish children.
At this point, there are problems. It isn't just that Lower dwells too much on the horrors; other questions arise. How representative are these women – six of whom turn out to be "perpetrators"? Lower largely ignores professional killers – women in positions of real power in the Reich Security Main Office or the SS – and concentrates on amateurs, whose killing was dictated by simple opportunity, individual character, proximity to power and violent settings, and a wish to emulate their male partners. So why should we want to read about them? Because, Lower argues, they collectively show that the role of women in the Holocaust has been underplayed; obscured by their later stereotypes as heroic "rubble women" clearing up the mess of Germany's past, victims of marauding Red Army rapists, or flirtatious dolls who entertained American GIs.
Lower oversells her material. There is vivid new detail here, but the broad outlines of this story have been around for a while. The role of women under the Nazis has been churned over for the past 30 years; nobody accepts that stuff about Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church) any more. That women, as well as men, can abuse their fellow human beings, is hardly the novelty she claims.
The Washington Post
Wearing military jackets with swastika armbands, goose-stepping in jackboots and barking “Heil Hitler!” — we all recognize murderous Nazis when we see them. Except when we don’t, claims Holocaust historian Wendy Lower: Except when they wore starched white nurse caps or walked to secretarial jobs in stacked heels and pleated skirts. Except when “he” was a “she,” and she looked a lot like us.
In “Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields,” a nonfiction long-list contender for the 2013 National Book Award, Lower profiles 13 women who became Nazi killers and accomplices, and contends that these women are representative of hundreds of thousands of ordinary German women who “got away with murder.”
According to Lower, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, the half-million women who participated in the mass murders that took place during the years 1941-44 in the killing fields of the Nazi East — the occupied areas of present-day Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — have been largely ignored by historians and the criminal justice system. Pieced together by Lower from survivor interviews and archival documents that became accessible for scholarly review only after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the accounts of these women in their roles as nurses, teachers, secretaries and SS wives illustrate how they participated in genocidal violence.
But why would so many Nazi criminals be overlooked until now, 70 years later? Lower describes a German postwar consciousness of closely guarded secrets, where evidence of wrongdoing was entombed as much in the repressed memories of the living as in the passing of the dead. Embedded in this culture of forgetting were abiding assumptions about the nature of womanhood and their role in society. These assumptions functioned as an interpretive bias, fostering perceptions of German women as mostly innocent hausfraus tending to hearth and home, while attributing more notorious acts of terror and sadism to female camp guards who were viewed as deviant, marginal perpetrators.
Lower’s book explores and challenges this gender bias, depicting Nazi women as immersed in the blood-soaked landscape of the “wild east,” where Jews and forced laborers were shot routinely in broad daylight, and where the foul odor of mass graves was the air they breathed. “Interaction with Jews and mass murder entered into these women’s everyday lives in unexpected but recurring ways,” Lower writes, describing the situation of young nurses who delivered lethal injections and of secretaries who typed up death orders.
The most chilling accounts in “Hitler’s Furies” are about the women whose violence was targeted at children. In unsparing detail, Lower recounts the viciousness of Johanna Altvater, a young secretary who threw one child after another to their deaths off a third-floor railing in a Jewish ghetto. Or Erna Petri, wife of an SS officer, who in a gruesome version of Hansel and Gretel fed six tattered Jewish children in her home before marching them to the pit of a nearby mass grave and shooting them one by one, execution-style.
If, as Lower argues, these were not sociopaths but ordinary women who didn’t exhibit violent tendencies either before or after the war, how do we make sense of their appalling participation in Nazi genocide? What do these women tell us about history, gender, what it is to be human?
That vast numbers of Nazi women were not held accountable for their complicity in the mass murders of the Holocaust due to their sex is a compelling argument for writing history to take into account the lens of gender. But what we can learn from Lower about the concept of “gender” or the supposed nature of women is less clear — only that notions about sex and gender are social and psychological constructs that are constantly being contradicted and overturned by the actual details of individual lives.
Raised on the Nazi ideal of female wholesomeness, where the rosy glow of a woman’s cheeks was to come not from makeup but from robust activity, and where her worth increased with every child she bore, women nonetheless became killers once they landed on the eastern front. And this documented violence, challenging as it may be to 21st century gender expectations, if widely known at the time would have threatened Nazi gender ideology, exposing the falseness of Hitler’s Aryan mythology and humiliating the women of the Reich.
But isn’t this whiff of women’s presumed moral purity still in the air today? So often women are held, in comparison with men, as the kinder sex, more peace-loving and relational, more committed to the protection of life. Yet the evil of the Holocaust was clearly an equal-opportunity affair, entered into by women who birthed children and loved their husbands as well as by the men who loved them in return.
“Mass murder transforms the people who witness it,” Lower writes, attributing the unimaginable cruelty of women such as Johanna Altvater and Erna Petri to repeated exposures to routine violence that stripped away their moral grounding. To understand this doesn’t mean that we consider these “Furies” any less accountable for the horrors they perpetrated. It means instead that when we hold the weight of their transgressions in front of us, we don’t shy away from pondering the possibility of our own capacity for evil in similar circumstances.
Today, when anti-Semitic and other forms of hate speech fuel online media daily, when the scapegoating of minority groups is a tried and true political tactic, might we look at these women and pause for a moment to see at least a little bit of ourselves? Putting aside the reflexive tendency to view evil in black and white terms, might we benefit by remembering that one aspect of our common humanity is a vulnerability to moral corruption?
If the legacy of the Holocaust and the work of scholars like Lower teach us anything, it’s the need for ordinary people — women as well as men— to continually monitor our moral decency. And if and when we see ourselves slipping into callousness, to do the hard but heroic work of quickening compassion and enlarging our hearts.
Oct 6, 2013
Hitler’s Killer Women Revealed in New History
A new book pulls back the veil on the widespread involvement of women in the Third Reich’s most murderous and brutal activities. An exclusive excerpt from Wendy Lower’s .
The history of female killers—Hitler’s furies—during the Third Reich has been suppressed, overlooked, and under-researched. Given the ideological indoctrination of the young cohort of men and women who came of age in the Third Reich, their mass mobilization in the eastern campaign, and the culture of genocidal violence embedded in Nazi conquest and colonization, I deduced—as a historian, not a prosecutor—that there were plenty of women who killed Jews and other “enemies” of the Reich, more than had been documented during the war or prosecuted afterward. Though the documented cases of direct killing are not numerous, they must be taken very seriously and not dismissed as anomalies. Hitler’s Furies were not marginal sociopaths. They believed that their violent deeds were justified acts of revenge meted out to enemies of the Reich; such deeds were, in their minds, expressions of loyalty.
As self-proclaimed superior rulers, German women in the Nazi East wielded unprecedented power over those designated “subhuman”; they were given a license to abuse and even kill those who were perceived, as one secretary near Minsk said after the war, as the scum of society. These women had proximity to power in the massive state-run machinery of destruction. They also had proximity to the crime scenes; there was no great distance between the settings of small towns, where women went about their daily routines, and the horrors of ghettos, camps, and mass executions. There was no divide between the home front and the battlefront. Women could decide on the spot to join the orgy of violence.
Hitler’s Furies were zealous administrators, robbers, tormentors, and murderers in the bloodlands. They melded into hundreds of thousands—at least half a million—women who went east. They worked in field hospitals of the army and Waffen-SS, on train platforms serving refreshments to soldiers and refugees, in hundreds of soldiers’ homes socializing with German troops in Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and the Baltics. The German army trained over five hundred thousand young women in support positions—as radio operators, file-card keepers, flight recorders, and wiretappers—and two hundred thousand of these served in the East. Secretaries organized, tracked, and distributed the massive supplies necessary to keep the war machine running. Myriad organizations sponsored by the Nazi Party (such as the National Socialist Welfare Association) and Himmler’s Race and Resettlement Office deployed German women and girls as social workers, racial examiners, resettlement advisors, educators, and teaching aides. In one region of annexed Poland that was a laboratory for “Germanization,” Nazi leaders deployed thousands of teachers. Hundreds more were sent to other colonial enclaves of the Reich. As agents of Nazi empire-building, these women were assigned the constructive work of the German “civilizing” process. Yet the destructive and constructive practices of Nazi conquest and occupation were inseparable.
Johanna Altvater was twenty-two years old when she arrived in the Ukrainian-Polish border town of Volodymyr-Volynsky. A county seat, with thirty thousand inhabitants, the town was surrounded by wheat fields and forests delineated by the marshy banks of two rivers, the Bug and the Luga, where Germans liked to go boating and picnicking. The town was also an important military-industrial juncture with soldiers’ barracks, a radio station, an airport, fuel depots, a brick factory, a textile mill, and a clothing factory. For the Jews in town, these installations were critical to their survival as laborers. A few months before Altvater’s September 1941 arrival, members of an SS and police special commando unit had already initiated the first anti-Jewish measures in Volodymyr-Volynsky. With the help of the local German military commander, they formed a Jewish council, then publicly humiliated its members and buried them alive. The Jewish council chief committed suicide with his family. On September 30, Yom Kippur, a larger massacre occurred. Altvater’s boss, a “gimlet-eyed runt” named Wilhelm Westerheide, arrived to take over as regional commissar. It was immediately clear to the Jews who had survived the first wave of massacres that life would not improve under Commissar Westerheide. He started “target shooting” of individual Jews who were loading fuel barrels at the railway station.
In the summer of 1942 and fall of 1943, waves of German-led mass shooting actions reduced the Jewish population in the entire region from about twenty thousand to four or five hundred. There, Westerheide and the other district governors in Nazi-occupied Ukraine had learned that their bosses expected them to carry out the Final Solution “one hundred percent.” Though the order was of course not issued directly to “Fräulein Hanna,” Johanna Altvater decided to do her part. She often accompanied her boss on routine trips to the ghetto; she was seen hitching their horses to the gate at the ghetto entrance. On September 16, 1942, Altvater entered the ghetto and approached two Jewish children, a six year-old and a toddler who lived near the ghetto wall. She beckoned to them, gesturing as if she were going to give them a treat. The toddler came over to her. She lifted the child into her arms and held it so tightly that the child screamed and wriggled. Altvater grabbed the child by the legs, held it upside down, and slammed its head against the ghetto wall as if she were banging the dust out of a small carpet. She threw the lifeless child at the feet of its father, who later testified, “Such sadism from a woman I have never seen, I will never forget this.” There were no other German officials present, the father recalled. Altvater murdered this child on her own.
During the liquidation of the ghetto, the German commander of the nearby POW camp saw Fräulein Hanna, in her riding pants, prodding Jewish men, women, and children into a truck. She circulated through the ghetto cracking her whip, trying to bring order to the chaos “like a cattle herder,” as this German observer put it. Altvater entered the building that served as a makeshift hospital. She burst into the children’s ward and walked from bed to bed, eyeing each child. She stopped, picked one up, took it to the balcony, and threw the child to the pavement below. She pushed the older children to the balcony of the ward—which was on the third floor—and shoved them over the rail. Not all of the children died on impact, but those who survived were seriously injured.
After rounding up Jewish children in the ghetto infirmary, for example, Johanna Altvater killed some herself on the spot; others she forced onto a vehicle that took them to a mass murder site where they were shot by male police units. Statistically, if we took the percentage of homicides committed by women in peaceful society and applied it to the genocidal East, where women made up roughly ten percent of the population of Germans, then the estimate of female killers there would be about three thousand. But if we assume, as is likely, that women in genocidal societies—women who are empowered by the state, with “enemy” groups as their targets—are responsible for a greater percentage of murders than women in peacetime societies, then three thousand begins to look unrealistically small.
When it comes to killers like the secretaries, wives, and lovers of SS men in this chapter, we will never have a precise number. But the evidence here does give us new insights about the Holocaust specifically and genocide more broadly. We have always known, of course, that women have the capacity to be violent, and even to kill, but we knew little about the circumstances and ideas that transform women into, the varied roles they occupy inside and outside the system, and the forms of behavior they adopt. Now it is possible to imagine that the patterns of violent and murderous behaviors uncovered here occurred across wartime Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, and other parts of Nazi-dominated Europe. German women who went east embodied what the expanding Nazi empire was becoming: ever more violent. Ordinary young women with typical prewar biographies, not just a small group of Nazi fanatics, went east and became involved in the crimes of the Holocaust, including killing.
Fortunately, with the military defeat of Germany, the heyday of the perpetrators would come to an end; the Nazi machinery of destruction would stop. The lives of these German women did not end, however. They returned home to the rubble of the Reich and tried to bury their criminal pasts.
Under Nazi ideology, German women were supposed to be prodigies of child-bearing and domesticity, leaving the wider world of work — not to mention violence and mass murder — to men.
But, in fact, women were key, if generally subsidiary, players in the Nazis' genocidal enterprise, according to Wendy Lower's "Hitler's Furies." And their absence from most accounts of the period, she writes, represents an "historical blind spot" that she aims to rectify.
True, the most egregious Nazi women criminals, such outliers as female concentration camp guards, are known to us. (Bernhard Schlink's best-selling novel, "The Reader," offers a fictional gloss on such a case.) But Lower wants us to refocus, to look down. "Recorded cases of female killers," she writes, "were to a degree representative of a much bigger phenomenon that had been suppressed, over-looked and under-researched": the complicity of ordinary women — of German nurses, teachers, secretaries and wives.
In flagging this phenomenon, Lower makes a good beginning. But as a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and a historical consultant for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, she is more adept at mining archives than at creating a compelling narrative. Her book — though both intriguing and chilling — feels sketchy and repetitive at times.
Lower's title evokes the worst of the worst. But "Hitler's Furies" ranges over a wide terrain: troubled (and less troubled) witnesses to the Holocaust, desk-bound accomplices, and enthusiastic, whip-wielding sadists who vied with their husbands in killing Jews. But what unites someone like Ilse Struwe, a secretary working in Ukraine who visited a Jewish ghetto and later saw, with horror, a violent roundup in progress, with a killer like Gertrude Segel Landau, who among other atrocities, allegedly trampled a Jewish child to death?
Lower may be able to tell us why individual women traveled east to the Nazi killing fields, a choice usually made in ignorance of what they would encounter. But she founders — almost inevitably — in explaining how and why some of these women abandoned morality for murder. What does it mean that many of those tried for crimes, especially in West Germany, were acquitted and faded seamlessly back into civilian life?
"Hitler's Furies" lacks the precision and rigor that distinguishes one of Lower's obvious influences: Christopher Browning's 1992 classic, "Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland." Browning stressed peer pressure and the brutalization inflicted by war as reasons that his mostly un-ideological policemen participated in roundups and mass murder. Without entirely convincing evidence, Lower tells us simply that "Hitler's Furies were not marginal sociopaths," but instead women who believed that they were committing "justified acts of revenge."
One of Lower's arguments is that the labor shortage during World War II eroded the ideological presumption that loyal Nazi women stayed home. The Third Reich had its own versions of Rosie the Riveter, with women on the homefront working in German factories and businesses. But the demand for female labor, she says, was especially strong in Germany's conquered eastern territories.
Those opportunities attracted hundreds of thousands of "ambitious young women," teachers, nurses, secretaries and welfare workers, eager to throw off traditional gender roles. "They left behind repressive laws, bourgeois mores, and social traditions that made life in Germany regimented and oppressive," Lower writes.
The eastern territories represented a frontier — not just Germany's much vaunted ("living space") but a site of career growth and mobility. Here women automatically became part of a "governing elite," with "new benefits, opportunities, and a raised status." They "witnessed and committed atrocities … as part of what they saw as a professional opportunity and liberating experience." This was feminism run amok.
The involvement of the medical profession in the Holocaust has been well-chronicled in books such as Robert Jay Lifton's "The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide." Now, Lower tells us, "of all the professions, it was nursing that brought the largest number of German women directly into the war and the Nazi genocide."
In Germany and Poland, nurses were indispensable to the killing of the mentally and physically disabled, as they participated in selection and administering lethal injections. They worked in concentration camp infirmaries, staffed military hospitals, and (this is oddly shocking) may even have helped kill severely wounded German soldiers who would have taxed Nazi resources. This "was — and still is — a taboo topic," Lower writes, and she concedes that the charge remains unproven.
Secretaries in the east staffed a vast bureaucracy and helped type the orders that led to genocide. The wives and girlfriends of Nazi soldiers and storm troopers eroticized violence and sometimes indulged in it. "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, gun-wielding ," Lower writes, exploding the myth that SS men returned home from killing to serene domestic lives.
In encouraging readers to think about the varieties of complicity, in reminding us of the extent to which evil can coexist with banality in women as well as men, "Hitler's Furies" has indisputable value. But it is surely not the last word on the subject — and neither, one suspects, is it meant to be.
The Sydney Morning Herald
October 10, 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 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, . 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?"'
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. 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 genocide.
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.
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 killing fields.
"The role of German women in Hitler's war can no longer be understood as their mobilization and victimization on the home front," 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, gun-wielding hausfrau."
Lower is a history professor at Claremont McKenna College, a consultant for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the author or co-author of several previous books about Nazi activities in places like Ukraine. 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 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."
is often difficult reading. 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 were a stronger, more authoritative book. 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.
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 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 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 are infuriating and sickening for different reasons. 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 were punished.
"What happened to them?" Lower asks. "The short answer is that most got away with murder."
25 September 2013
· Chilling new book has unearthered thousands of complicit German women
· At least half a million witnessed and contributed to Hitler's terror
· Have been dubbed the ‘primary witnesses of the Holocaust’
· Secretaries typed the orders to kill and filed the details of massacres
· Only a small number of women were called to account for their crimes
By TONY RENNELL
Hitler's Furies: German Women In The Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower is published by Chatto & Windus
Blonde German housewife Erna Petri was returning home after a shopping trip in town when something caught her eye: six small, nearly naked boys huddled in terror by the side of the country road.
Married to a senior SS officer, the 23-year-old knew instantly who they were.
They must be the Jews she’d heard about — the ones who’d escaped from a train taking them to an extermination camp.
But she was a mother herself, with two children of her own. So she humanely took the starving, whimpering youngsters home, calmed them down and gave them food to eat.
Then she led the six of them — the youngest aged six, the oldest 12 — into the woods, lined them up on the edge of a pit and shot them methodically one by one with a pistol in the back of the neck.
This schizophrenic combination of warm-hearted mother one minute and cold-blooded killer the next is an enigma and one that — now revealed in a new book based on years of trawling through remote archives — puts a crueller than ever spin on the Third Reich.
Because Erna was by no means an aberration. In a book she tellingly calls ‘Hitler’s Furies’, Holocaust historian Professor Wendy Lower has unearthed the complicity of tens of thousands of German women — many more than previously imagined — in the sort of mass, monstrous, murderous activities that we would like to think the so-called gentler sex were incapable of.
The Holocaust has generally been seen as a crime perpetrated by men. The vast majority of those accused at Nuremberg and other war crimes trials were men.
The few women ever called to account were notorious concentration camp guards — the likes of Irma Grese and Ilse Koch — whose evil was so extreme they could be explained away as freaks and beasts, not really ‘women’ at all.
Ultra-macho Nazi Germany was a man’s world. The vast majority of women had, on Hitler’s orders, confined their activities to Kinder, Küche, Kirche — children, kitchen and church. Thus, when it came to responsibility for the Holocaust and other evils of the Third Reich, they were off the hook.
But that, argues Lower, is simplistic nonsense. Women were drawn into the morally bankrupt conspiracy that was Hitler’s Germany as thoroughly as men were — at a lower level, in most cases, when it came to direct action but guilty just the same.
Ironically, it was the professional careers who were the first to be caught in this evil web. From the moment the Nazis came to power and imposed policies of Aryan racial purity, countless nurses, their aprons filled with morphine vials and needles, routinely slaughtered the physically disabled and mentally defective.
Pauline Kneissler worked at Grafeneck Castle, a euthanasia ‘hospital’ in southern Germany, and toured mental institutions selecting 70 ‘patients’ a day. At the castle they were gassed, which she decided was not that bad because ‘death by gas doesn’t hurt’.
Meanwhile, midwives were betraying a whole generation of German women by reporting defects in unborns and newborns and recommending abortions and euthanasia, as well as sterilisation of mothers.
From the outset, Lower concludes, ‘women made cruel life-and-death decisions, eroding moral sensibilities’. A line had been crossed. It was no big step when the racial purification process turned to the Final Solution of exterminating millions of Jews.
That Jews were the enemy and their annihilation the answer was taken for granted by millions of women who would later deny knowing what was going on under their noses.
Lower, though, dubs them ‘primary witnesses of the Holocaust’.
The worst outrages took place in the ‘Wild East’, Hitler’s newly acquired (by military conquest) territories in Poland, Ukraine and other parts of overrun Russia. At least half a million young women joined in this colonisation process, and became accomplices to genocide on an unprecedented scale.
A mass of secretaries, for example, typed the orders to kill and filed the details of massacres. This placed them at the very centre of the Nazi murder machinery, but they, like so many others, chose to shut their eyes and benefit from their proximity to power.
But, picnicking in the country on their days off, how did they miss the mounds that hid mass graves, the gagging smell of rotting corpses? Whose clothes and possessions — plundered from ghettos or confiscated at camps and killing fields — did they think they were cataloguing for redistribution back home?
Trainloads of booty went back to Germany in what Lower calls ‘the biggest campaign of organised robbery in history’. And German women, she charges, were among its prime agents and beneficiaries.
Even more caught up in the criminal madness were administrators such as Liselotte Meier, who worked so closely with her strutting boss, an SS officer, that they were almost indistinguishable. She joined him on shooting parties in the snow, hunting and killing Jews for sport.
In the early phases of the Holocaust, massacres were generally by shooting. In her area of Belarus, she coordinated the arrangements with the executioners and even decided who lived and who died.
She spared the life of the Jewish woman who did her hair, while another secretary removed from a woman from the death line who hadn’t yet finished the sweater she was knitting for her.
Secretaries had another important role, too. After each operation, it was usual for the SS killers, many of them drunk on schnapps, to seek solace in the women’s quarters, whether for sexual release or a shoulder to cry on after the exertions of mass execution. In support of the men, women even manned refreshment tables during executions so the killers could take a break.
But much worse than these active accomplices were the women who killed — often the wives of SS officers. Erna Petri — callous dispatcher of those six Jewish boys — was one such Frau. She had followed her husband to Poland and lived in a mansion overseeing a vast estate for the Race and Resettlement Office of the SS, with ‘sub-human’ Slavs as slaves.
Another SS wife, Lisel Willhaus, wife of a camp commandant, used to sit on the balcony of their house and take pot shots at Jewish prisoners with her rifle.
Also in Poland was Vera Wohlauf, whose husband Julius commanded a police battalion ordered in 1942 to round up 11,000 Jewish inhabitants of a small town for transportation to Treblinka for liquidation.
She sat by her husband in the front seat of the lorry that led a convoy of killers to the town, and stood in the market square brandishing a whip as nearly a thousand who resisted the round-up or collapsed in the summer heat were beaten to death or shot.
She was pregnant at the time, a further incongruity.
In the Ukraine, 22-year-old secretary Johanna Altvater played an even more prominent role in a massacre while working for regional commissar Wilhelm Westerheide.
During the liquidation of a Jewish ghetto, Fräulein Hanna, as she was known, was seen in her riding breeches prodding men, women and children into a truck ‘like a cattle herder’.
She marched into a building being used as a makeshift hospital and through the children’s ward, eyeing each bed-ridden child. Then she stopped, picked one up, took it to the balcony and threw the child to the pavement three floors below. She did the same with other children. Some died, and even those who survived were seriously injured.
Her speciality — or, as one survivor put it, her ‘nasty habit’ — was killing children. One observer noted that Altvater often lured children with sweets. When they came to her and opened their mouths, she shot them in the mouth with the small pistol that she kept at her side.
On another occasion, she beckoned a toddler over, then grabbed him tightly by the legs and slammed his head against a wall as if she were banging the dust out of a mat.
She threw the lifeless child at the feet of his father, who later testified: ‘Such sadism from a woman I have never seen. I will never forget this.’
Close to the mass-shooting site where the ghetto inhabitants were herded to await their deaths, Westerheide and his deputies partied with some German women. Altvater was among the revelers, drinking and eating at a banqueting table amid the bloodshed.
Music playing in the background mixed with the sound of gunfire. From time to time, one of the Germans would get up, walk to the shooting site, kill a few people and then return to the party.
Violence to children was also the trademark of Gestapo wife and mother Josefine Block, who liked to carry a riding crop and lash out at prisoners waiting to be deported.
A little girl approached her, crying and begging for her life. ‘I will help you!’ Block declared, grabbed the girl by the hair, smashed her with her fists, then pushed her to the ground and stamped on her head until she was dead.
Desperate Jewish parents often approached Block to ask for help, assuming that, as a young woman and mother, she’d be sympathetic.
But she would use her pram to ram Jews whom she encountered on the streets and was said to have actually killed a small Jewish child with it. Such treatment is an affront to any sense of humanity, let alone womanhood — all the more so because most of these crimes went unpunished.
Erna Petri was the exception and spent more than 30 years in prison. But all the others mentioned here were either tried and acquitted or released after questioning.
Their defense was often to play the helpless woman card and blame the men. ‘I was just a secretary,’ pleaded Johanna Altvater. Meanwhile, the millions of other women who were complicit in these odious events got on with their lives after the war as best they could, as if the whole Hitler era had been a nightmare to be put aside and forgotten once everyone had woken up.
Yet the deep stain remains. Thirteen million women were actively engaged in the Nazi Party. Not all of these could have been innocent bystanders.
Lower says: ‘To assume that violence is not a feminine characteristic and that women are not capable of mass murder has obvious appeal: it allows for hope that at least half the human race will not devour the other, that it will protect children and so safeguard the future.
‘But minimising the violent behaviour of women creates a false shield.’
At least half a million women, she says, witnessed and contributed to the operations and terror of Hitler’s genocidal war. ‘The Nazi regime mobilised a generation of young women who were conditioned to accept violence, to incite it, and to commit it.
‘This fact has been suppressed and denied by the very women who were swept up in the regime and by those who perpetrated the violence with impunity.
‘But genocide is also women’s business. When given the “opportunity”, women too will engage in it, even its bloodiest aspects.’
For those tempted to think that things are different now, consider those shocking photographs earlier this month of a beheading in the Syrian bloodbath.
What was even more gut-wrenching than the gore was to see children looking on, unperturbed, drawn into a terrifying topsy-turvy morality, just as German mothers and children were 80 years ago.
Perhaps, too, the executioner wielding the sword went home to a wife who mopped his brow, in the same way as Hitler’s firing squads did. The lesson of the atrocities of the Holocaust is that they are not something of the past to be filed away and forgotten, but still very much with us.
Published October 17, 2013, issue of October 25, 2013.
In her latest book, “Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields,” American historian Wendy Lower takes on an under-examined aspect of Holocaust scholarship: What role did ordinary women have in perpetrating the horrors of the Third Reich?
The book, for the most part, takes place not on actual killing fields, but in the administrative offices, villa balconies and hospital corridors of the Reich, the humdrum settings where regular Germans were living their lives and, by the by, plotting the extermination of Jews.
Lower — a professor at Claremont McKenna College; a consultant for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., and a research associate at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich — stumbled upon this subject 20 years ago, when researching Nazi activities in Ukraine and other Eastern outposts of Nazi imperial rule. “Not much had been written about what had happened in Ukraine in the 1930s and 1940s,” she said in a phone interview.
While combing through documentation of local massacres in Ukraine, Lower said, “I found lots of files about young German women who were stationed there, and I was surprised that they’d been part of the occupation force. I’d always thought it was a very military occupation.”
She began to study the “communities developed out of Hitler and Himmler’s imperial plans, their attempt to establish a utopia predicated on genocide and killing of non-Germans,” which perforce included women. Historians have already documented the women who worked as guards at such concentration camps as Ravensbrück and Birkenau, but Lower wanted to learn about “female involvement outside the camp system.”
“It was clear,” she said, “that this diverse mix of German women represented several activities: nurses, teachers, secretaries, welfare workers and wives of Nazi officials.”
She started to comb through records to get a sense of just how many women were dispatched to the Eastern occupied territories to aid in the Nazis’ total war.
“How many secretaries were assigned to a regional governor?” she would ask. “How many women were sent to each outpost?” “How many nurses were mobilized?” She also studied SS marriage applications and wartime birth records. “I was trying to put German women on the map of the killing fields,” she said.
The more she researched, the more shocking information she uncovered. “When I was reading testimony from one secretary, I was surprised by how callously she recounted life in the office and how she administered the Holocaust: Her boss had killed 11,000 Jews. What amazed me was how chummy they were, how he dictated letters to her just like any other boss. You can imagine the whole relationship in any modern office environment, the only difference being that they were organizing mass shootings. It became disturbingly obvious to me how instrumental women were in a way we’ve underappreciated and underestimated before.”
That theme runs throughout the book, reversing the common conception of German women not as victims but as perpetrators. Lower estimates that some 500,000 German women shared complicity for the Holocaust.
Lower ended up profiling 13 of these women, excluding countless others in the process. “I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader,” she said. “I wanted to put a human face on the story. I wanted people to understand how ordinary women were sucked into the movement, how they were transformed by the experience, and what happened to them after war.”
Pursuing women’s biographies through these three phases — prewar, war and postwar — proved surpassingly difficult, as well. Because the vast majority of “Hitler’s furies” had never been charged with a crime, they too often just eased back into ordinary life.
“Sometimes the person would just disappear,” Lower said. The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s archives had many testimonies by survivors denouncing women, but “Wiesenthal couldn’t find them,” she said. “They got married after the war and changed their names.” Many of the leads Lower herself followed ended with abruptly terminated phone calls and nasty letters.
Lower’s subjects came from the “Lost Generation” of German women, those who came of age in the wake of Germany’s crushing defeat in World War I. She gives particular attention to the ambitious girls hoping to escape their straitened rural or working-class upbringings, who saw opportunity in Nazism.
In all cases, they bore responsibility — almost always unpunished — for Nazi atrocities, either by euthanizing those deemed mentally or physically unfit or by deciding from behind a desk which Jews should die that day. Some of Lower’s furies also killed Jews directly — not because they were ordered to, but because they wanted to.
“Hitler’s Furies,” which is a finalist for the National Book Award, has its share of breathtaking brutality — most memorably for this reader, the woman who snatched a toddler from his mother and proceeded to smash the child’s head against a wall for sport — but Lower cautions against focusing on the more sensational episodes. “There’s been such a rush to relay those really horrific stories,” she said, “but my intention wasn’t to shock and horrify. I wanted to try to explain how ordinary women could commit such atrocities, and how they were transformed and instrumentalized in this way. I wanted to put the women in the machinery.
“There are disconnects in the historiography, and I hope my book will start to pull the story together. There’s a general consensus that the Third Reich was a modern state bureaucracy in the making. All these agencies were created and expanded exponentially to wage this total war. This story of the expanding Nazi state has been accepted, but what about its culture? Who are the people backing it? The women, the clerical personnel, are key operatives. It wasn’t just Eichmann.”
Laura Moser writes frequently about the arts for the Forward.
The Washington Post
HITLER’S FURIES German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields By Wendy Lower Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 270 pp.
In Hitler’s Germany, a woman’s place was in the home — and pregnant. There was no need for makeup, women were told, because they exuded beauty through physical fitness. These traditional roles were reinforced during the war effort. Men marched off to battle while women contributed by teaching “racial hygiene” and tending to the wounded. Or at least, that’s what we were told.
In Wendy Lower’s compelling new book, “Hitler’s Furies,” we learn that many German women played critical and direct roles in the deaths of Jews. Nurses, secretaries and wives were transformed into mass murderers, cruel and apathetic observers of and participants in the extermination of millions of people. By focusing on the role of ordinary women — rather than the already notorious female concentration camp guards — Lower brings to the forefront an unexplored aspect of the Holocaust. She profiles 13 women who became Nazi killers and accomplices, and contends that these women are representative of hundreds of thousands of ordinary German women. Among them are the wives of SS officers, an aspiring lawyer and a shepherd’s daughter.
“The role of German women in Hitler’s war can no longer be understood as their mobilization and victimization on the home front,” writes Lower, who teaches history at Claremont McKenna College. “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.”
When they boarded trains to Nazi-occupied territories such as Poland and Ukraine, these women were not seeking an opportunity to kill. They were after adventure, a bigger paycheck and romance. Many were initially startled by the murders they soon witnessed. But their subsequent reactions are telling.
Some women simply turned a blind eye to the murders taking place, watching passively as Jews being transported on packed trains called out for help. Others took shopping tours of Jewish slums, picking up cheap items from starving and desperate residents. Instead of being outraged by the squalid conditions, the German women took these as confirmation of their own superiority. Many also took a surprisingly direct hand in the worst of the Holocaust. Lower presents evidence of German women who used Jewish laborers for target practice, singled out some children for cruelty and ordered the murder of others.
In standard histories of the Holocaust, the cruelest acts are ascribed to barbaric men such as the notorious Treblinka guard Ivan Marchenko . But according to Lower, the mass murders wouldn’t have been possible without the help of women. “The first Nazi mass murderess was not the concentration camp guard but the nurse,” Lower writes. “Of all the female professionals, she was the deadliest.” These nurses diagnosed patients, including children, as having physical and mental illness, then used sleeping pills, hypodermic needles and starvation to kill them.
The most chilling tales involve women in acts of cruelty against children. Take Erna Petri, the wife of an SS officer, who came upon children crouching alongside a road. Petri knew that all Jews found roaming the countrywide were to be killed and took the children home to wait for her husband. When he didn’t return, she marched the children to a nearby mass grave and shot them one by one.
Then there was Johanna Altvater, who developed a “nasty habit” of killing children. “One observer noted that Altvater often lured children with candy. When they came to her and opened their mouths,” Lower writes, “she shot them in the mouth with the small silver pistol that she kept at her side.”
Lower documents the cruelty of these women but is less successful in explaining it. Snippets of the women’s stories are spread throughout the book, making it difficult to follow the evolution of a single character. Readers are left wanting to understand the women better.
How to explain the behavior of Altvater, who lifted one child by the foot and smashed its head against a wall? “There were no other German officials present,” Lower writes. “Altvater murdered this child on her own.” We might assume that Altvater suffered from mental illness or was simply a deviant. Lower just lets the actions speak for themselves.
She argues that Hitler’s culture infected women. “The Nazi regime 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 Germany’s superiority,” Lower writes. “Genocide is also women’s business. When given the ‘opportunity,’ women too will engage in it, even the bloodiest aspects of it. Minimizing women’s culpability to a few thousand brainwashed and misguided camp guards does not accurately represent the reality of the Holocaust.”
Many of these women slipped back into society after the war. Some explained away their misdeeds by saying they were simply fulfilling their duty, while others blamed the mistakes of youth. No matter the explanation, Lower concludes, many of these women “got away with murder.”
Their descent into brutality was a byproduct of a genocidal regime that extolled women as crucial to the dominance of the Aryan race. It’s easy to tuck “Hitler’s Furies” away and classify it as more proof that the tales of the Holocaust’s sins will never be exhausted. But, perhaps most disturbing, Lower’s careful research proves that the capacity for indifferent cruelty is not reserved for men — it exists in all of us.
Renae Merle is an editor in the Business section of The Washington Post.
By John Williams
In “Hitler’s Furies,” recently placed on the long list for the National Book Award, Wendy Lower presents the harrowing evidence of crimes committed by German women during the Holocaust. Dwight Garner wrote that previous books “have offered up poster girls of brutality and atrocity” and “Ms. Lower’s revisionist insight is to track more mundane lives, and to argue for a vastly wider complicity.” In a recent e-mail interview, Ms. Lower discussed the changing view of women’s role in the Nazi regime, the challenges of writing for a non-academic audience, what she found most shocking in her research and more. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation:
What did you discover that most surprised you while researching and writing the book?
I had read about the cruelties of male perpetrators in militarized killing units, such as the “ordinary men” Christopher Browning wrote about, but the settings and forms of violence perpetrated by German women surprised and puzzled me. Of course we know that women can be violent, but how does one explain someone like Liesel Willhaus, who killed Jews for sport from her balcony with her child at her side?
What has been the consensus about German women’s role in the Holocaust until now? Have they been seen as mostly innocent?
Certain female types have emerged in the popular literature, and they are polar extremes. One depicts German women as victims, as “baby-machines” in Hitler’s misogynist, racial state, and the other depicts them as demonic, often sexually deviant camp guards. Both of these distortions are based on the assumption that German women remained in confined spaces, either at home in Germany or within the closed universe of the camp system.
Claudia Koonz’s now classic study “Mothers in the Fatherland” moved the field toward more nuanced analyses of women’s agency. And several case studies of SS wives, camp guards, and nurses revealed that ordinary women were direct accomplices and perpetrators. But because violent women were portrayed as marginal figures, these studies failed to debunk the popular myth of female martyrdom.
How do you think your book most directly alters that previous view of things?
It brings German women’s history eastward into the Nazi empire and warfare, in the open-air landscape of the Holocaust, at mass shootings, ghetto liquidations, death marches, and deportations of Jews and Soviet POWs. Thousands of German women were not camp guards, not trained to be cruel, and yet they participated in the regime’s worst crimes in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and other parts of eastern Europe. In many ways, “Hitler’s Furies” is about the dark side of female activism and the Nazi perversion of traditional female roles, which turned women into bystanders, accomplices and perpetrators of the Holocaust.
Did you focus on a few women because it was difficult to get specifics about many more than that, or just to keep the size of the cast from overwhelming readers?
I selected these 13 women because they best represent the diverse ambitions and convictions of the nurses, secretaries and spouses who circulated in the eastern territories. Many more women appear in the corroborating examples and in the endnotes. I would have liked to develop fuller, intimate biographies of more women, but lack of documentation prevented that, and yes, too many women in the main narrative would have overwhelmed readers.
How do we know about some of the more gruesome things that these women did, like the killing of children? Did any of them admit it later? Is it mostly from eyewitness testimony at the time?
These descriptions of the female killers are in the postwar investigation files and in the official testimony given by German men and women also stationed in the East, Jewish survivors who saw them at the crime scenes, and other local witnesses, such as Ukrainian and Polish laborers. I found only one confession, which had been extracted by Stasi interrogators. Most denied their wrongdoings. And some even went so far as to cast blame on the Jewish victims themselves.
In one outrageous case, Josefine Block, an Austrian defendant who was seen during the war ramming Jewish laborers with her baby carriage on the streets of Drohobych, Ukraine, and ordering the shooting of Jewish girls at the marketplace, later accused her former seamstress, a Jewish survivor, of murder. After the war, Block argued to prosecutors that the seamstress had abandoned her own 1-year-old child in the ghetto so that she could save herself. Block was acquitted and the survivor emigrated from Austria.
You write that some women were “punished and even executed for stealing from the Reich.” Did the Reich generally treat women as strictly as it treated men?
It depended on the judges in the special courts. In Dortmund, an 18-year-old girl was arrested and later executed for looting undergarments from a bombed-out building. Men vastly outnumbered women in the prison system, but the proportion of women inmates jumped from 9 percent to 23 percent during the war, according to the work of Nikolaus Wachsmann and Richard Evans. When it came to certain Nazi racial crimes, such as sexual relations with non-Germans, German women were ostracized and punished more severely than German men.
Are there any memoirs or other books written by these women that are available to general readers now? And if so, are any worth reading?
Nearly all of the personal accounts that I used for the book were in German, but there are some good English-language memoirs — notably, Ursula Mahlendorf’s “The Shame of Survival: Working Through a Nazi Childhood” and Melita Maschmann’s “Account Rendered: A Dossier on My Former Self.” Alison Owings’ “Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich” offers excerpts from interviews that she conducted. And Elizabeth Harvey’s “Women and the Nazi East: Witnesses and Agents of Germanization” provides an in-depth history of German teachers in Poland based on firsthand accounts from women.
As an academic, did you feel an urge to make this book as accessible to general readers as possible, and how conscious of that were you while writing?
While writing the book, my editor and I made certain decisions about how to present the material to a general audience — for example, I ended up cutting about 100 pages of historiographical analysis, extended footnotes and examples from the original manuscript, and inserted a list of main characters to help readers remember the basic profiles of the 13 featured women.
You spoke to family members of some of these women. How did they react to your project? Were most of them cooperative or did you get strong resistance from some?
I developed direct or indirect contact with seven of 13 women featured in “Hitler’s Furies” and conducted about 40 interviews with other witnesses. Each interviewee responded differently to my questions, depending on how much he or she was implicated by the regime and feared prosecution or the consternation of family and neighbors. In general women do not have a tradition of telling gruesome war stories, and most preferred to avoid recounting unpleasant details. Yet some were surprisingly callous when they described the plight of the Jews, leading me to believe that they were either ashamed or in denial about their own complicity.