The ones that got away – Women’s roles in Nazi Germany

By: Nadiya Alexandra

Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies takes on a sizeable task; to explore women’s roles in Nazi Germany. Lower goes beyond the well known female criminals of the time, and documents the stories of more ‘average’ women: secretaries, nurses, schoolteachers, wives. This cannot have been easy. There were few records and fewer women that wanted to speak about their experiences during WWII. For a number of reasons, Hitler’s Furies left me unsatisfied. In my opinion, the individuals’ stories could have been more effective, and I kept asking myself the same question throughout the book: so what?

At the start of the book, I thought the stories of Liesel Riedel and Gertrude Segel among others quite interesting. By the end, I did not see how they were connected. What could have offered us some insight and analysis was left as a mosaic of individual snippets. There were few elements that linked these stories together and not all of them were convincing.

One argument that I wanted to read more about was that the majority of these women (and men) were quite young. These were baby boomers that were born around WWI and grew up with the Nazi regime, which fed “on the idealism and energy of young people.” Lower did not focus much on education and the differences in female and male education. All Germans were taught about the superiority of the Aryan race and the sub-humanity of the Jews, but was there a difference in how this was taught to men versus women? I thought it might have been one of the answers as to why these “killer” or “accomplice” women acted the way they did. Maybe I am wrong.

Lower did argue that these young women who went east to Ukraine, Poland and Belarus were ambitious. They wanted careers and adventure. New training and professions opened up to them with the war. I can relate to the desire for adventure and something new, but where is the link between being ambitious or adventurous and killing Jews? I understand this is a hard question to answer, but it leaves a hole in the argument. Of course, there were other explanations offered, such as the environment of war, wanting to prove themselves as strong, and simply carrying out orders. But, what was the difference between men and women here?

When the book describes the more gruesome stories (of how German women murdered children) many of the previous arguments start to fall apart. How did we get from growing up during the Nazi regime and smashing a toddler’s head? How did we get from moving east for a career and adventure to pushing children off of balconies? I think it is important to ask why these things happened, but between all the stories Lower recounted, there was little linkage and purpose.

From previous readings, we know that men were not punished for not being able to carry out murder of Jews. I assume that women had less pressure to perform such acts because of the differing gender roles of the time. If there was less expectation for women to murder Jews, why did they? Even more sad is that at the end, we find out that most of the women who committed these crimes got away with it.

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