Killer Women: A Radical View of the Holocaust

Women are often attributed to be nurturing and caring beings however survivor testimonies from the Holocaust give accounts of the gruesome killings and torture committed by women. This seemed an impossible and incomprehensible thought for the majority of the population. Wendy Lower dispels this belief  in her book called Hitler’s Furies and reveals the atrocities that were perpetrated by women on the Eastern Front during the Third Reich.  Lower categorizes the women in witnesses, accomplices and perpetrators, and she follows the journey of several women in an attempt to understand the reasons why they embarked to the East and what changed them to act in such manner.

Beginning at the interwar period when Germany was still reeling from the loss of territories and the “ unfairness” of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the author highlights the pressing campaign and the possibilities for higher and better living conditions in the East that attracted young women from various background to join the Nazi party. Under the increasing rise of anti-Semitism, women will justify their actions and participate directly or indirectly in the genocide.

The book is simultaneously intriguing yet sickening because of how the author described the women’s actions and their justifications for each. In the three chapters that describes the different categories of women, the reader is baffled as to how much cruelty and irresponsibility were manifested by some women. Because of this, gender was not determinant in committing violence. To support this, the author notes psychological studies that have been conducted in order to determine if killings were more common by men rather than women and the conclusion was that in a specific context, women could demonstrate as much cruelty as men (159).

When the war ended, testimonies against these women came about together with some memoirs from former nurses or secretaries. The author established a connection between the Nazi ideology and the women’s obedience which for some perpetrators should exonerate them from punishment. For the majority, the sentence was not proportionate to their acts (some women did not acknowledge their active participation in the Holocaust, arguing they merely signed papers or they “ helped” shorten the pain of the ill patients), some even managed to escape justice for decades. This book offers a radical vision of the role of women during the wartime. To summarize, women played the complex role of being nurturing toward their children yet vicious killers of Jewish children.

How much agency had these different women when faced with the possibility to help the victims ? How can we understand their indoctrination? Can we separate them in the aforementioned categories and put different degrees to guilt ? And lastly, were the punishments or their absence gender-biased ?  

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