Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields
By Wendy Lower
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, 288 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heineman
Really, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that German women were among the killers in the Holocaust. In any society that includes lethal violence, women perform some portion of that violence: much less of it than men, but some. Most of that violence occurs in “private” settings; historical and literary representations, too, tend to focus on the intersections of women’s intimate worlds and their acts of violence. But women also participate in larger systems of violent domination such as racial and colonial privilege. It’s a testament to the power of stereotypes of women’s nonviolence and subordination that we can imagine that women might be entirely absent from the ranks of killers in such systems.
For this reason, Wendy Lower’s new book is both welcome and necessary. Feminist historians began exploring women’s contributions to the crimes of Nazi Germany more than a generation ago, and compilations such as Alison Owings’s Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich (1995) have enabled a nonacademic English-reading audience to ponder the range of German women’s responses to the regime. (The English-language scholarship on women in Nazi Germany is too vast to summarize here. The books that initiated the conversation were Women in Nazi Society, by Jill Stephenson ; When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany, edited by Renate Bridenthal, Atina Grossmann, and Marion Kaplan ; and Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics, by Claudia Koonz  ). Lower takes this literature a step further by embedding sustained discussion of women’s murderous acts in this larger history.
Statistics, Lower acknowledges, don’t tell us all we wish to know—though at least they disabuse us of any notion that only a handful of women participated in the German occupation of Eastern Europe, a fact already expertly explored by historian Elizabeth Harvey, in Women and the Nazi East: Agents and Witnesses of Germanization (2003). At least half a million German women served in occupied lands, in institutions as varied as the army, the Red Cross, social service agencies, and schools. Some 30,000 were certified for employment with policing agencies such as the SS and the Gestapo. Ten thousand worked as secretaries in the civil administration of the occupied East. Thirty-five hundred were concentration camp guards. The women in question came from the ranks of the racially privileged and politically and socially conformist, though committed Nazis were the exception rather than the rule. Lower focuses on the occupied East, where the most murderous activity occurred, but secretaries in occupied Western Europe also compiled lists of Jews to be deported, and nurses who remained in Germany proper administered lethal injections to victims of the “euthanasia” program.
In considering women’s relationship to the crimes of the regime, Lower organizes them into witnesses, accomplices, and perpetrators. (At least some of the witnesses—those whom Lower most admires—might have slipped into the ranks of the victims had their surprisingly frank letters home been discovered by the authorities.) Allowing for the fact that victims are not the subject of her study, Lower’s schema differs from the more common, though contested, one of victims-bystanders-perpetrators in Holocaust studies: in essence, she expands the two categories of bystander and perpetrator into three. For Lower, “perpetrator” means those who killed with their own hands: there are no “desktop killers.” By this definition, much of the Nazi leadership, probably including Hitler himself, would not have qualified. But no woman in Nazi Germany was in a position to orchestrate murder on a massive scale without “getting her hands dirty” in this literal sense. Women who issued death sentences on a smaller scale—secretaries, for example, who decided which of the hundred remaining Jews in a village would go on a list of fifty slated for execution the next day—fall into Lower’s category of “accomplice.” So do women who accepted or actively sought out plundered goods, as well as wives of SS men who accompanied their husbands to killing sites.
Yet some of the women who appear in the “witnesses” chapter no doubt also received plundered goods; as Lower documents, some accepted invitations to visit Jewish ghettos, where they, like the SS wives in the killing fields, observed atrocities. For Lower, the distinction between witnesses and accomplices is equal part accident, action, and attitude. As she puts it, witnesses
were not presented with the choice to participate directly in the violence, or, as some extremists would see it, the “opportunity” to collaborate. They were German female patriots doing their civil service. They were curious; they sought adventure. Once they entered the eastern territories and witnessed the atrocities . . . they articulated emotions of concern and shock.
Lower’s strategy of tracing individual women throughout the period requires that she place each into one of the chapters organized by these potentially overlapping categories. This organization is limiting if the aim is to praise or condemn particular women on the basis of incomplete sources (which may or may not reveal a woman’s emotional state; which may or may not reveal all the tasks she performed as part of her civil service or her search for adventure). But Lower’s larger goal is to encourage the reader to contemplate the range of women’s experiences and responses in extreme circumstances. The strategy of collective biography also helps to make the book accessible to nonspecialists, and Hitler’s Furies will no doubt be widely read outside academia and in the undergraduate classroom. We get to know such women as Annette Schücking, the law student turned nurse from a social-democratic family whose letters home documented “not only the horrors she heard about and saw but also her own moral indignation”; Liselotte Meier, who—as secretary and lover of the district commissar of the Belorussian city of Lida—coordinated the logistics of shooting by the local security police and luxuriated in a villa renovated and served by Jewish slave laborers; and Liesel Willhaus, the wife of the camp commandant at Janowska in Ukraine, who shot Jews from the balcony of her home, sometimes with her child by her side.
As this sampling suggests, women’s professional and family positions mattered a great deal, not only in determining when and whether they would be deployed in the East, but also in determining what they did once they arrived. Whereas nurses’ explicit duties might include “euthanizing” disabled people, secretaries and wives had no orders to kill—but they were closest to the men who administered the genocide. As Lower drily puts it, they “participated more than they had to.”
Most importantly, we do not simply see snapshots of women behaving well or badly: rather, we see them evolve from their pre-war existence into what they became once they arrived in—and acclimated to—the occupied East. Lower’s concern is “the transformations of individual women in the inner workings and outer landscapes of the Holocaust,” and she approvingly cites a literature that underscores that “environment is the most important factor in determining whether one will become a perpetrator of genocide.” Erna Petri is a case in point. The daughter of a farmer, she had little hope of escape from a lifetime of agricultural drudgery—a fate made especially bitter by the new mass media that exposed country girls to glamorous fantasies of city life. Little hope, that is, until—at the tender age of sixteen—she fell in love with a rising star in the Nazi movement. Against her father’s wishes, they married; she had her first child at eighteen. Three years later she was in Grzenda (in today’s western Ukraine), far from her home and community but with a small child and a husband who beat his laborers and sexually assaulted the female household servants. Unlike some SS wives, Petri does not appear to have joined her husband on the killing fields or to have relished opportunities to display her life-or-death power over Jews. Yet when she encountered a ragtag group of escaped children at a time when her husband was away, the dutiful wife—knowing that escaped Jews were to be shot, and having learned how by overhearing conversations between her husband and other killers while pouring their coffee—performed the task herself.
Had it not been for the Nazi regime, had it not been for her youthful marriage, had it not been for her husband’s assignment to the East, had it not been for her husband’s absence on that fateful day—Erna Petri surely would not have become a mass murderer. Yet she did, and even as Lower makes clear the role of contingency, she does not make excuses. Nor did the postwar East German government, as contingency struck again: as Lower amply demonstrates, female perpetrators of equivalent crimes were harshly punished in East Germany, where Petri landed after the war, but got off scot-free in West Germany.
The inequitable treatment of Nazi-era perpetrators in East and West Germany is an oft- told tale, but Lower’s examination of how gender entered the criminal investigations is worth the price of the book alone—partly because the West German story brings us uncomfortably close to our own culture’s difficulty in imagining women’s participation in atrocity. On the one hand, assumptions of women’s apolitical and nonviolent nature immunized most female perpetrators in the West from thorough investigation. On the other hand, sensationalized accounts of female concentration camp guards, together with Nazi-themed postwar pornography, created images of female perpetrators as uniquely sexually sadistic, stifling a more sober assessment of women’s culpability. Intersecting with these larger trends were a thousand microhistories: married couples or friendship circles forged in war, whose strategies of mutual protection (or passing blame) were shaped by gendered expectations of responsibility and the consequences of prosecution.
The stakes are high in writing a history of Nazi Germany for a popular audience. Such works can prod readers to difficult reflection about their own potential for wrong-doing, or they can reassure readers of their immunity from such behavior by creating a sense of distance between the reader and the book’s protagonists. Hitler’s Furies occasionally establishes distance in ways that let the reader off the hook a bit too easily. After describing Nazi prohibitions against racial mixing, policies of forced sterilization, and criminalization of abortion, Lower notes “the madness of this ideology” and asserts that “we struggle to grasp how a generation became consumed by it.” Yet historians of racial and sexual politics in the United States would confirm that for all too many Americans, grasping this ideology would be no struggle at all; the distinction is in its outcome, not in its madness or the seriousness of its adherents. More generally, there is a danger of confirming readers’ assumption of a liberal norm, drawn on present-day standards, from which Nazi practice deviated. Between the wars, women in many places, not just Germany, “looked forward, not backward” by declining to consider themselves “self-proclaimed feminists”; the same is true today. And nowhere do women have “control over their own bodies”; in many states, elite and popular discourses as well as public policy historically claimed, and continue to claim, women’s reproductive labor as a component of national wealth. It’s precisely the commonalities between Nazi Germany and many contemporaneous states that make Nazism’s areas of radical difference so shocking.
Yet Lower’s larger point, in sketching this background, is that women “learned how to navigate a system that had clear limits but also granted them new benefits, opportunities, and a raised status.” It’s an important message. Despite radical changes in the historiography, the popular stereotype persists that Nazism’s vision for racially approved women was limited to “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (children, kitchen, church). This stereotype may be comforting because we figure we’ve come a long way since then, but it is an incorrect rendering of history. The special appeal of opportunity against the backdrop of limits helps us to understand not only women’s experience in Nazi Germany, but also women’s potential for passivity, resistance, and complicity in unjust regimes worldwide.
Elizabeth Heineman is professor of History and Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. She is author, most recently, of Before Porn was Legal: The Erotica Empire of Beate Uhse (2011) and the memoir Ghostbelly (2014), and the editor of Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones: From the Ancient World to the Era of Human Rights (2011).