Competing Definitions of Gender Roles in Nazi Germany

By: Christine Collins

As debated during the Week 5: Consent, Coercion, Acceptance, Opposition seminar discussion on gender and sexuality, definitions of the ideal German woman varied greatly from 1930-45. Women’s newfound roles in Nazi German were the cause of much discussion: on the one hand, Lower writes how women were called to fill their patriotic duty by filling an unprecedented number of positions in the civil service while men went to the frontlines; on the other, Marhoefer shared how Nazi ideologues railed against the “masculinization of Aryan women,” going so far as to recount women who kept their hair short as “un-German.” The readings from Week 6: Challenging Assumptions continue the discussion of gender roles the ways men and women were treaty differently during the Third Reich. 

On the subject of gender, I was intrigued by Lower’s use of language in Hitler’s Furies. Specifically, her word choice surrounding gender roles in Nazi Germany. In describing the story of Brigitte Erdmann, Lower notes that she was honoured by the title of Frau, not Fräulein as a marker of her newfound femininity and sexuality. This is followed by a contrasting account of another woman who wrote back to her parents from the East, expressing her loyalty to Nazi Germany as a “manly” honour. This leads to some confusion, as the reader questions what gender roles are embraced, and which are unwelcome, in Nazi Germany. 

Lower recounts stories of women experiencing one, or both, of the two extremes of German femininity: liberated woman, or traditional housewife. At points, Lower describes women as pawns in the male dominated war machine. As women were naïve, they were malleable, and were manipulated to further authoritarian power during Hitler’s Third Reich. However, this contrasts the main premise of the novel, which is to shed light on the untold stories as women as perpetrators of violence during the Holocaust. By describing both sides of German femininity—even if only to compare and contrast— I believe Lower muddies the waters of her main premise, which is to challenge the readers pre-conceived notions on female involvement in genocide. 

Women in Nazi Germany were able to use gender as a scapegoat for their non-intervention. In Lower’s findings, both Ilse Struwe and Annette Schücking hid under the cover that they were a drop in the ocean of soldiers in the East and asked, “What can one do, after all?” Well, I’d argue that as demonstrated in the case of one Bavarian solider turned authoritarian ruler, one man can quite certainly do a lot. After reading Hitler’s Furies, I’m left unsure as to how much one woman could have done. 

In giving women an out for their actions, whether based on societal norms or their naivety, Lower weakens the argument that women should have been held to a similar standard as their male counterparts in the aftermath of the war. 

One Reply to “Competing Definitions of Gender Roles in Nazi Germany”

  1. It certainly is difficult to reconcile the “competing definitions of gender norms in Nazi Germany” as you nicely put. Instead of thinking in opposition and binaries, maybe we can think about a certain hybridity that German women were required to take on in contributing to Nazi Germany. It also brings to mind the often contradictory, though pragmatic, nature of fascist regimes.

    Finally, I would disagree that Lower gives these women an out for their actions. Lower reminds us that she is a Historian and not a post-war Prosecutor. She represents what happened to these women in the post-war trials but does not grant them innocence. While I certain agree that it is deeply troubling the way that these women evaded punishment, I think we need to consider that maybe this is representative of a flawed and hyper-masculine justice system that was all to ready to acquiesce gender stereotypes that the women exploited.

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