Were some of the young German women who went East during Generalplan Ost under the Nazi regime “just doing their jobs?” After our group discussion the answer seems to be no, but it’s complicated.
This became the fundamental topic that our class facilitator brought forward. Rightly so, the Lower book highlights the often downright malevolent complicity that German women working during the Eastern occupation carried out. But can we place a value on complicity? Can consent be treated as a sliding scale in this context? What about the nurses, secretaries and teachers who went? As we saw during a previous class, fascism harnesses the youth as a resource through social and institutional controls. For some young women in the Third Reich, new opportunities to travel and start careers that were never possible before were suddenly available and encouraged. If you were in their shoes, would you say no?
However as we discussed, the Nuremberg Trials made clear that “I was just following orders” is not tolerable. The Milgram Shocking Experiment came up, and we talked about how far people can go when instructed to do so by an authority figure. Combine that with years of racial brainwashing under the Nazi state, and the “innocence” argument loses its edge. You do not have to be working in the death camps to be complicit, and support for genocide could be as simple as forwarding an SS officer’s paperwork.
In sum, the women who participated should not be absolved. But Lower’s examination of some of these women’s circumstances shows how complex this topic really is.
In Hitler’s Furies, the concept of female complicity and their involvement in the war and Holocaust was a prominent theme. The question remains, are women the victims or perpetrators of this violence?
I can say that neither myself nor our group had a definitive answer. There were many perspectives presented by the author about the intentions behind the range of actions presented by the women. The author includes examples from the disregard and differentiation of Jewish people, being bystanders to the death camps around them, and to extreme of actually killing Jews as part of firing squads.
Our group discussed some of the potential underlying intentions for the various actions, including:
- Whether this was due to the systemic and overarching rules of the Nazi regime – Did the culture of fear and racism corrupt thoughts and actions where they wouldn’t normally outside of these circumstances.
- The ability to use these structures to move up the social ladder. At the time of the Holocaust and the war, women in Germany did not have social and political opportunity. Through being mothers, wives, and members of the Nazi party, they were able to exploit the system to gain opportunities and jobs.
- Did complicity come from being strictly in a “mother” role – Did this role perpetuate comfort for men in the battlefield and physically engaging with the Holocaust?
Not to excuse the horrific action of genocide through the Holocaust, but the ability to try and disseminate the individual intention versus the collective intention in the context of war, suffering and suppression was extremely insightful in how these multiple factors can feed into a problem.
In the discussion today, our group discussed a wide variety of topics related to the readings. To sum up a few of our most important points, we began with a debate concerning culpability versus innocence. The reading was specifically examining how much culpability specific German women had in terms of the crimes of the Nazi regime. This book is viewed as enlightening because it changed the narrative about women’s roles in the Nazi regime, pointing out how many women were involved and confronting the idea of all German women as innocent victims. However, some argued that it detracted from this by describing their political involvement in the election as being swept away by a populist movement of men.
There was some discussion over the cruelty of women in positions of power. Because one of our facilitators has a background in studying philosophy, there were some ideas about their lack of power in society in general and how that might translate to controlling tendencies when some of these women were finally given a chance to influence lives.
Finally, we talked about in-groups versus out-groups and the phenomenon of women who might have otherwise been disadvantaged gaining power through oppressing other victim groups. This evolved into how this played out into the larger society, with a significant culture of snitching and internal group monitoring.
Overall, it was a wide-ranging discussion with a lot of very interesting points of view.
While many of us think of World War II and Nazi Germany, we rarely focus on the role that women played during the war. While one may believe that women kept to themselves and stayed out of the battlefields, in actuality many of these women did the exact opposite. In Wendy Lower’s: Hitler’s Furies, German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, she discusses how women in the Third Reich are largely a historical blind-spot, and many of them actively participated in the genocide of millions of Jews — while getting away with it.
Lower touches on some interesting points about what it was like to be a woman during the war, and their role in society. For many, the role of women was to continue the Aryan race and ensure the success of the German people. This is why mothers were glorified and others were taught how to find the perfect Aryan husband. Yet for many women this was not enough, and the need for adventure grew. For some this lead to travel and for others this lead to genocide.
What I found most impactful was how Hitler’s Germany created such a patriotic climate that women felt justified in participating in violence. Whether this was being a bystander or actively crushing jewish infants sculls, women were just as guilty of favouring duty over morality as the male Nazi counterparts.
As we have discussed in class, one of fascisms’ key components is its extreme nationalism, and Lower’s book is an excellent example of how far this nationalism can cause someone to act. Does this make Trumps “Make America Great Again” slogan problematic? Where is the line when patriotism goes too far? Another concept we discussed in class is the fetishization of youth which Lower also touches upon, since the terror regimes fed on the idealism and energy of young people. How are young people today being influenced by political agendas? The women in this book were effected by many different factors such as the political environment, and the economic crisis. Were they a product of their time? Or is fascism itself powerful enough to create such loyal and patriotic followers? Could this possibly happen again in the future? Finally, why do we tend to not look at women’s roles in the past? Is this still a problem today?
In the context of the book “Hitler’s Furies”, in particular the chapter entitled “What Happened To Them”, sexism can be said to have had a benefit for women who were involved in the atrocities committed under the Third Reich–do not read that as an endorsement of sexism, of course. What I am talking about is how the position of women in society at the time acted both as an impediment for women to truly walk the halls of tangible political power (for the most part) and it also provided them with a practical defense during the Nuremberg Trials. SS Clerks (including the ones who transmitted kill orders), stenographers and cleaning staff–jobs which employed mostly women, who were viewed as being the weaker, fairer sex–were largely not considered dangerous by those responsible for bringing those responsible for the Holocaust to justice. Not even those female detectives who were responsible for gathering Jews for deportation to the death camps weren’t given any serious consideration. Convictions of women for Nazi crimes against humanity were few in number and many of them weren’t pursued in the post-war era. This is exactly what led to the “silver lining” of sexism referenced to in the title.
Not only did women carry the benefit of the doubt in the eyes of the prosecutors purely because of their sex, they were able to make the argument that the power to inflict misery and destruction on the Jews required power and authority which was beyond anything that would have been given to a woman in the Third Reich. Judging by the fact that the number of women prosecuted during the Nuremberg Trials is so dramatically eclipsed by the number of men prosecuted, this was ultimately a great strategy to deploy. Another interesting factor which the book brings up is that this defense could have been easily turned around by any of the prosecutors because there were numerous examples of crimes committed by women where a great number of witnesses were called to testify. What authority did, say, the wife of a high-ranking Nazi official or the secretary of a camp commandant, have to kill, torture or steal from Jews, even if they were enemies of the state? Absolutely none. Prosecutors, had they been able to move past their preconceived notions of female frailty and gentility, would have been able to convict women perpetrators because they extended their authority beyond what the government had prescribed for them. The men could have (and often did) use the excuse of “following orders”. Women would have been in a situation where they disobeyed orders and seized authority that did not belong to them.
Hitler’s Furies, pages 167-180
Wendy Lower’s “Hitler’s Furies” examines the often ignored role of women, specifically the young women of the post World War One baby boom generation, within the Nazi regime. Lower emphasizes not only the active participation of many young women in the genocidal campaign of expansion and ethnic cleansing pursued by the Third Reich, but also the manner in which the Nazi regime simultaneously seized upon the energy and fervor of a young generation of women which had just recently gained a role within the political community while also demonizing this societal progress in order to justify their counterrevolutionary agenda.
An often ignored period of German history is that of the Weimar Republic of the 1920’s which preceded the regime of the Third Reich. As Lower explains the extreme political instability of the newly formed and deeply indebted republic saw the growth of both the far right and far left elements of the political spectrum. While the rise of the fascism in Germany during this period is well known and documented, the simultaneous rise of left wing moments namely the German social democratic and communist parties is all too often ignored. Lower makes a point to mention from the very beginning of her book that the period of the Weimar Republic was a time of historic progress for women in Germany with women gaining the right to vote and receiving formal equality under the law in 1919 despite being entirely barred from political activity only 11 years earlier.
Rather than simply ignoring the rising role of women within German society, the Nazi regime seized upon this new found youthful energy and reorganized it within their reactionary agenda. The frustration of women which had historically been completely excluded from the political process was used to encourage their active participation within the Nazi regime. Political action for women took the form of; “maintaining racial purity” by raising as many children with “Aryan” men as they were physically capable of, aiding the Nazi eugenics program in their capacity as teachers and nurses, promoting the ethnic cleansing of Eastern Europe by resettling and displacing conquered Polish, Ukrainian and Russian civilians, and by fighting against the progressive and feminist movements which were responsible their ascension within German society.
Fascist regimes have a remarkable ability to capture the energy and frustration of disenfranchised groups in order to fuel their reactionary movements. The Nazi regime was able to both use the rise of women’s emancipation and the fear this created among conservative elements of society in order to encourage participation within their counterrevolutionary regime. This characteristic of fascism raises several interesting questions. Will contemporary progressive movements such as the MeToo campaign inevitably result in a reactionary back lash and a rise in the far right? Why was the far right more successful in capturing the energy of young women in 1930’s Germany than the progressive movements of the time which were largely responsible for the growing role of women in German society? Is there a way to prevent disenfranchised groups from being co opted by fascist movements?
Can genocide occur without the support of the society? Most of the research suggests that this is impossible. Therefore, some women must have been part of the sizeable genocidal system of Nazi Germany. Thus, why is genocide viewed as an only male business? This is the topic that Wendy Lower undertakes in her book Hitler’s Furies. However, knowing that women took part in the genocide, how much blame should they face for it?
The underlying theme of Lower’s book describes women either witnessing or actively partaking in the Holocaust due to two reasons. The first is that they were merely attempting to take advantage of the new economic situation in Germany. The economy was terrible so women had to get employed and the drafting of men into the army meant that the government needed women to help with administrative jobs. The second reason was that they believed that they were aiding the party and that it was their German duty, as the wife of an SS officer or other position, to partake in these atrocities.
Were women intended to participate in the genocide? Was it just by accident that women became accomplices and witness to the Holocaust? Lower mentions nurses who euthanized undesirable members of the German society. However, they could have been the exception to the rules as teachers were only supposed to teach children. Yet, teachers still needed to report Jews and other “undesirables.” So how much responsibility should they hold?
According to Lower, “refusing to kill Jews would not have resulted in punishment” (202). Attempting to help the Jews would have been punished severely. Thus, can all the women be treated as indirect or direct murderers? Or should the Nazi regime, a patriarchal one, face the blame.
Hitler’s Furies as a book poses an interesting case. Many ways of how one could be caught up in a regime such as the one at the time of Nazi Germany are brought up, especially regarding women. One of the first questions that came to mind was how people could be complicit in such atrocities as the ones that occurred in WWII Germany. The book offers some good insight to this in what was offered to people who were. New opportunities were presented to people that they did not have before in achieving status, women could travel to new places and could reach a high status in the work they were doing. Wages were better than were possible for women in most instances so that joining a military role would be something appealing.
As there was no doubt a lot of people who didn’t necessarily vote for the government or were for it the, to begin with. Once the regime had taken power, however, it seems as though those who were acceptable to the vision of the regime, had a pretty easy time because the programs were put in place to benefit the people that it saw as meeting its standard. The government, having so much control is not something that one would think fighting against (as that probably would evacuate too much change) but rather joining it would help them become better off- those who did try and fight never had big results in their favor until the end of the war.
The last thing that I thought of was: how do you tell the difference from those just being part of the system and those that really believed in what they were doing. Who was taking advantage of opportunities and who were really happy about killing other people? This is certainly something the post-WWII Germany faced and something to consider about any fascist regime. Who has the guilt, everyone who didn’t protest or only the people who were looking to create their vision of the word?
Hitler’s Furies discusses the role of women in the Nazi regime during the Second World War. Wendy Lower analyzes how women were portrayed, as well as the things they did in the interest of the Reich. Many of the themes and ideas she discusses seem to argue that although it is not often believed, women were also witnesses, accomplices, and perpetrators of crimes in Nazi Germany, and the eastern territories they conquered.
Throughought the book, Lower discusses the idea that women moved out to eastern colonies, not because of political ideology, or a desire to commit atrocities, but as a means of advancing their economic status. Women in the nazi regime were not equals and Hitler proclaimed that the ideal women stuck to Kinder, Kuche und Kirche or children, kitchen, and church. Despite this, the economic hardships of the war made it necessary for many women to become the primary caretakers of the family and needed money to sustain this.
Lower discusses how in roles such as teachers, nurses, secretaries, and wives, women committed many of the same atrocities as men during the Nazi regime but was this out of an inherent evil in their hearts, or a genuine belief that this was the only way to survive in the regime. The contemporary narrative surrounding Nazi Germany is that the regime was inherently evil, therefore anyone who participated in it were evil. While certainly many of the women who participated in the regime were likely motivated by a genuine hatred for the Jewish people, others simply found themselves in a situation where they believed they were doing the best thing for themselves, and their country. These women adapted to their political reality and attempted to make the most of it while navigating the lack of agency they held during the period. This begs the question, are those who participate in the Nazi regime inherently evil? Or can their actions be justified to an extent through necessity?
In her book Hitler’s Furies, Wendy Lower explores the role of women in the Nazi movement. She depicts a lost generation of girls, raised in the tumultuous wake of the First World War. In a country humiliated by Versailles, the people looked for direction, and hope for a better future. Nazism became the fast answer. To women, it in theory offered the empowering honour of being Hitler’s most important citizens, where traditional roles of motherhood and duty to the nation were glorified. Individualistic movements like feminism that contradicted Nazi ideals were targeted, leaving German women to define themselves by the party.
The image of the traditional nazi woman depicted in propaganda was unrealistic – German birthrates dropped, and single, career driven women, who were overworked and underpaid, became omnipresent in German administration, as men were called to battle – indeed these women were indispensable to the atrocities of the regime. Lower
Some of the worst female perpetrators were women without official roles to assist with genocide. These women were voluntary killers, free of any obligation to commit crimes, they would seek to do violence, extra of what was expected – Others were coopted by fear, and the futility in resistance.
Nazism had achieved the obedience of a country. Were these women just complacent in the acts of the regime? To what extent did German women embody the values of the Nazi State? Or to what degree were they active extensions of Hitler’s will?