The Tricky case of Gender in Fascist regimes

by: PSjoberg

Wendy Lower’s book, Hitler’s Furies, and Sofía Rodríguez López and Antonio Cazorla Sánchez’s article, “Blue Angels: Female Fascist Resisters, Spies, and Intelligence Officials in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-9,” address the relatively overlooked role of women in two significant fascist contexts in European history.

The question of women’s roles in fascist regimes is particularly interesting considering the virile, predominantly masculine identity that is commonly associated with fascism. Therefore, women may seem prone to fall by the wayside in historical studies on the topic. In both of this week’s readings, I found a sort of paradoxical expectation for women in fascist contexts: on one hand, women were expected to contribute to the overall societal image of strength and virility that is promoted my fascist movements, but one the other hand women were also (sometimes simultaneously) expected to fulfill their prescribed roles as wives, daughters, and lovers to the more dominant men in these societies.

In both this week’s readings, however, I found myself frequently disappointed by the quality of analysis offered by the authors. Both readings feature numerous, repeated statements about women in both Nazi Germany and Republican, and later Francoist, Spain as if they had unlocked some hidden significance behind women’s roles in these regimes. However, these statements could always be just as easily ascribed to men in these respective countries.  Some examples of this in Lower’s Hitler’s Furies include: “German women in the Nazi East wielded unprecedented power over those designated ‘subhuman’” and “women of varied backgrounds and professions are mobilized for war and acquiesce in genocide.” In both of these examples, ‘women’ can be substituted for ‘men’ without changing the truth of the statement.

The question thus arises: is it a product of the modern ‘progressive’ bias of 21st Century historians that the involvement of women in heinous acts during the Holocaust and Spanish Civil War does not appear so radical as such? Considering the immense difference in gender norms between the 1930s-40s and the 2010s, atrocities committed by women can possibly be considered more significant and thus more atrocious. Therefore, the fact that women were so often ignored and given light sentences during post-WWII trials for war crimes is all the more disgusting, while simultaneously being (unfortunately) unsurprising.

It was a product of early-20th Century gender norms that female war criminals were treated so leniently by judges, simply because it was so unbelievable that women could commit such acts. With historical hindsight, though, female war criminals should have received at least equal sentences to their male counterparts. This, however, begs an even more controversial question: would it be fair to deliver different sentences to different gendered individuals for the same crimes as a result of different gendered expectations?


Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies (Houghton Mifflin, 2013).

Sofía Rodríguez López and Antonio Cazorla Sánchez. “Blue Angels: Female Fascist Resisters, Spies and Intelligence Officials in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–9.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 53, no. 4, (Oct. 2018), pp. 692–713.

One Reply to “The Tricky case of Gender in Fascist regimes”

  1. I also had similar feelings, especially while reading “Hitler’s Furies.” I kept thinking there would be more of an explanation, or at least I was hoping for one. I think you are right that to some extent the “so what?” question was missed here. As you pointed out, if you exchanged the word “women” to “men” it would not have changed the meaning.

    While very disappointing, I guess the answer to “What Happened with Them?” was accurate, “they got away with murder.” I wish there had been more of an explanation of “why”. Why did they do it? I guess this was a very hard task however, as Lower pointed out at the beginning of the text, there were few memoirs, diaries, and women willing to talk about their experiences candidly.

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