The Need for Difference in the Fascist Cause

Wendy Lower pulls apart the idea that violence in Nazi Germany was the exclusive domain of men in her book Hitler’s Furies. It is nothing new to the field of Gender history that women are capable of violent acts that are not reserved to the gentle touch of poison or accidental death. Lower has written that the Nazi regime attracted “female activism of the most violent kind”. But what is most interesting about Lowers work is that it gives an less explored perspective of the workings of a murderous state.

“The consensus in Holocaust and genocide studies,” Lower wrote “is that the system that makes mass murder possible would not function without the broad participation of society”. If this consensus has been the case perhaps it is only though understanding the individual contributions of diverse groups of people – men, women, and youth, etc. – that we can begin to fully understand the historiography that brings regimes or murderous states to power. Lower herself wrote that terror regimes “feed on the idealism and energy of young people,” it is this that gives a state motivation at times political justification to proceed. This coupled with nurses who kill instead of treat, and teachers who abandon their school children sentencing them to certain death is a reminder that everyone has a role to play in the business of indoctrinating a ‘new’ state.

In thinking about the female role, Sofía Rodríguez López and Antonio Cazorla Sánchez point out that during the Spanish Civil War women’s position in society was leveraged in favour of the Franco state. Women were placed in roles of espionage as they were unsuspected of such acts and were crucial to spreading the Franco – supported message. To return to the point in which Lower began, broad participation by society is needed to carry out a systemic system that takes hold of society. In this way, fascist regimes do not need to bring every member of its society to be the same but difference can be account for and exploited into achieving a diverse machinery for propaganda and messaging that ultimately results in single fascist cause.

Women in Nazi Germany

In Hitler’s Furies Wendy Lower shines the spotlight on the role of women in Nazi Germany and their role in the regimes violence. While there are many good arguments throughout the book, I found some arguments less persuasive. The first argument that fell short was when Lower draws comparisons between the typology of men and women perpetrators (163) and concludes that these women perpetrators came from varying backgrounds and the violence they exhibited was diverse. All of the examples in the book prior to this have attempted to paint women’s role and typology in a different colour, but any of these examples could have easily been perpetrated by a man or woman. On a similar note, Lower states that “But of course not all female camp guards were killers, not all female killers were camp guards; a huge number of victims in the East were killed outside camp walls” (142-143). This statement makes it hard to understand what exactly as readers we should make of the individual stories of the women in this book that carried of these atrocities.

In my opinion, the theme that these men and women came of age when Hitler was rising to power is interesting from a psychological perspective. Lower touches on this topic briefly when she elaborates on the indoctrination of girls starting at the age of 10. This is interesting as it raises the question of how society and norms influence individuals and what extent some are willing to go to ‘fit in’. This is something that I believe could be researched more in-depth, the reasoning and motives behind some of the worst perpetrators may be explainable, but that of the common man or woman I would argue has not been explained adequately enough in Lower’s book. By researching this area, one may be able to demonstrate that one of the main driving factors behind the regime, was the regimes successful indoctrination and desensitization of its public. I believe if true, this line of argument would be stronger than Lower’s account of individual cases, which for those cases may be sufficient but for a larger explanation on how some many people, both men and women, committed such crimes.

The area that I think this book succeeds in is that it highlights the importance of how systemic the Nazi ideas were in society for both women and men. It raises the question if we can ever truly know the extent of what really happened and what true motivations lead these seemingly normal men and women to carry out such terrible things. The biggest contribution by this book is that it has been clearly demonstrated that the role of women in the Nazi regime has been overlooked and under represented in the literature and that this is an area that should be explored in greater detail.

“A Feminine Brand of Toughness”

In Wendy Lower’s book Hitler’s Furies she writes that the expectation for German women in the Nazi regime was “a feminine brand of toughness”. I thought that this was an interesting way to understand the role that women played within fascist societies. As this “feminine brand of toughness” is also seen in Lopez and Sanchez’s Blue Angels. It was the idea that women were expected to prescribe to a certain image, of what women were expected to be. Though they were supposed to transcend that role to benefit their society, without infringing upon its ideologies. They were required to walk the line of what was considered feminine and masculine.

What stood out the most in Lower’s book was no longer only looking at the actions of these women as victimization and coercion, rather to acknowledge the agency that these women had. Women were still very much expected to be mothers, and maintain the “female identity”. Though this was branded as being tough, to use their femininity for a greater goal, in this case the purpose of providing more children for the Aryan Germany. Women were rewarded for having children. It was also this brand of tough femininity that procured women in a way to police the bodies of other women. Using their position in a typical feminine occupation like midwifery to decide whether those children survived. These women, genuinely believed in the goals of the reich, and utilized their femininity for that purpose.

Lopez and Sanchez, discuss in their article that when men recounted the participation of women they did it due to an extension of their femininity. They helped the men because it was in their nature, as they were caring and innocent. Though, we later see that the utilized their perceived femininity to become spies, or for their goals that were inline with the ideology.

These women were aware of their perceived identities as women, and they were not concerned that it hindered then, rather they were an identity that allowed them to achieve their goals, which happened to aid fascist sentiments. One can assume that women were coerced into the roles that they played in the crimes of war, though, that is not necessarily true. The utilized male perceptions of their femininity. Feminine was not bad, but something to strive towards, because it provided these women a place within their societies, feminine was tough. In turn feminine was a choice, as well as their feminine “actions” within these societies.

Works Cited

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.

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. 

Franco’s Feminine Fascists

By Daniel Williams

If it’s so hard to define fascism, if it’s constantly shifting and changing, and if it constantly goes back on its own principles and policies, why are we so surprised that women may find an acceptable place within the new order? It’s something of a surprise itself that with all the research done on fascism, and with all the focus on the gendered nature of fascism, it has taken so long to acknowledge that some women may have been attracted on principle to fascist ideologies.

This relates fairly significantly to concepts of masculinity within fascism, as we’ve explored fairly recently. But there’s a fair number of differences between masculinity and fascism’s approach to the new man, and concepts of femininity in fascism. The article titled Blue Angels points out a fair amount of these differences. One of the most interesting points raised is the after-fact removal of women from the narrative in many senses.

Specifically mentioned is how a large number of female participants in the resistance to the Republican forces were recorded by spanish fascist propagandists to be nothing more than ideologically sound, christian women who supported the real efforts of the revolution conducted by men. This goes rather against modern research conducted on the group, which suggests these women took a much more active role as saboteurs and resistance members.

While it is notable that perhaps some of the lack of recognition is related to the diversity of the group’s recruiting (Franco’s right was not the sole right wing group involved in the civil war, and Nationalist fighters came from many walks of life), it is also possible that this disregard to the true role of women is related to ideology. The constant question in fascist ideology is of pragmatism compared to ideology. While pragmatism may allow for all manner of actions taken so long as it promotes the end goal (in this case, winning the civil war), ideology can be effected once the state is firmly secured.

Spain is a unique case where the state managed to avoid war with non-fascist nations. In other words, the state was secure. Spain is special, as unlike other fascist nations the state had a long period of time to push policy and ideology. The post-fact rewriting of history allowed the state to push its ideology within its history, and as part of this it seems that perhaps the female resistance was swept under the rug, another victim of ideology. The question remains, then, of how far fascist states or groups were willing to go during moments of crisis, how much ideology fascism is willing to sacrifice in order to ensure the security of the state.

Women and Fascism

“History is written by the victors” is a phrase often heard and thought about in the context of historical analysis. How can we compensate for the fact that most histories are very biased? Looking at history from the “loosing side’s perspective”? How about those who are dismissed or simply overlooked? López and Lower both answer these questions by looking at a perspective that is often simply overlooked or dismissed as unimportant in previous historical analysis. López with the history of the role of conservative, far-right women as spies during the Spanish civil war, and Lower with the study of nazism-abiding women’s role in enabling the genocide take a stand for those forgotten perspectives because of their historical value. They both look at women who adhered to fascist ideologies, which can be an uncomfortable for today’s historians because it can be impossible to wrap our heads around the idea that some women would abide in a male-dominated ideology.

López makes a good point in reflecting on the fact that, even though it was a very male-dominated ideology that prescribed submission of women, women knew about the ideas associated with feminism (easily manipulated, fragile, innocent, etc.) and used it to their advantage to become spies. She goes as far as saying that even men on the fascist side acknowledged this power and how important women, young women were to the growth of the movement. This is fairly recent work. This pushes the question : how many more perspectives have gone without consideration? And how much would our understanding of the historical event change?

The answer is a lot of it would be flipped on its head and we can see this is Lower’s book. Lower points out the ways in which women, because of their assumed character (i.e. innocent and fragile) even though they enabled genocide, very few were punished for their actions during the Second World War. This was shocking as the male-prevalent historiography of the war rarely talks of the involvement of Aryan women in the holocaust.

Thus, looking at an overlooked perspective or one deemed impertinent by other historians like that of young women is crucial to the understanding of histories like that of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. However, one should be careful of not overcompensating for the lack of female perspective on the “loosing side” by overestimating their role in the causes in effects of these events, even though it is absolutely necessary that we understand their importance.

Women in Male Dominated Spaces: Considering the Place of Women in Fascist and Nationalist Regimes

By: Julia Aguiar

That fascist and nationalist regimes are male dominated spaces in leadership and practice has been a prevalent theme throughout the course. From the virile man in Mussolini’s Italy to the image of the protean soldier in the Third Reich, defining and enforcing notions of masculinity are of great concern to fascist and nationalist regimes. In elucidating the violence perpetrated by these regimes, understanding their makeup is of vital importance. However, if we let the buck stop at the masculine makeup of fascist and nationalist, we would be granting impunity to an often overlooked group of perpetrators within fascist and nationalist regimes. Indeed, while fascist and nationalist regimes might be male dominated spaces they are not without the presence and active participation of women. The role of women in fascist and nationalist regimes is the topic of Wendy Lower’s book Hitler’s Furies and Lopez and Sanchez’s “Blue Angels”. 

Lower’s book and Lopez and Sanchez’s article begs the question: what is the significance of women as active participants within fascist and nationalist regimes? Women took on a variety of different professional roles in Nazi Germany including teachers, nurses, and secretaries. Within these roles, women exercised different levels and types of violence. For example, a nurse was in a position to exert more physical violence against Jewish people than a teacher who perpetrated a less overt and physical type a violence through the indoctrination of youth within the Third Reich (Lower 41 and 39). Not to mention the action of lovers, wives, and mothers who often perpetrated Nazi violence in devotion to the men in their lives and fidelity to Germany. According to Lopez and Sanchez, Nationalist women during the Spanish Civil War were highly organized in their networks. They often achieved greater success and endured longer than male-controlled networks because of their female makeup; they could fly under the radar of Republicans for the way that they acted in ways that defied the gender norms assigned to them. In both cases, there was an expectation for women to participate and contribute to the regimes with a love for country while adhering to notions of domesticity and broader gender norms. Both Lower’s novel and Lopez and Sanchez’s article demonstrate a certain line that women in fascist and nationalist regimes had to toe. A line that was often paradoxical and difficult to manage which became manifest, in the case of the Germany, in the post-war trials. 

Hitler’s Furies: the women who killed for the Nazi Regime

By Alex Wittmann
When we think of the genocide aritists who served in the SS or the Einzatzgruppen we generally think of the men who had committed the atrocious crimes of killing Jews. However as Wendy Lower points out in her book Hitler’s Furies that women were equally as guilty as men when it came to involvement in the Nazi regime and the genocide commited against Jews. Women were accomplises in the brutal medical experiments conducted on Jews, torture, and gassing. In roles as office secretaries, SS women were involved in pushing papers that held orders for execution. One of the narratives around SS women and any woman who were involved in the Nazi genocide were ones that were espoused in the Post War trials. There were stereotypical gender narratives of women being too innocent or “soft” to be able to carry out such crimes against humanity. This was a conviction held by many of the Allied prosecutors who pressed charges against the women in the criminal court. Charges that were either not pressed or dismissed. This is an unacceptable narrative to me. After reading unspeakable accounts of how women, directly indocrinated under Nazi racial ideology carried out and assissted in mass murders of jews were then labeled under the gender sterotypes of the time as incapable of carrying out such crimes. If Allied prosecutors had read the accounts such as those written in Lower’s book, they would have recoiled in disbelief just as I had. Perhaps this is part of why women were not as heavily convicted as men, one just could not believe that humans were so incapable of inhumane activities. The other narrative, and one that was espoused by the women involved in the crimes, was that they were simply caught up in the ideological indoctrination of Nazism. That they were simply “doing their duty.” This was not an unusual defence, most Nazi war criminals used this narrative in the Allied courts to excuse thier behavior. In my own view, even if one was just an average citizen caught up in the ideological indoctrination, whether or not they had no choice, or whether they fully believed in what they were doing from beginning to end.  (Which many of them did) A war criminal is a war criminal and the Allied prosecuters were able to convict and sentence most Nazi felons for thier crimes despite such a heinous defence. Sadly as Lower points out, some women got away with this defence and the gender stereotypes of the time acquitted them of their crimes. It is sad that some who commited murder got away with their crimes, as Lower points out. This is a blatant example of how history can be neglected someone dying without being held account for historic genocide indicates a lack of motivation to learn from the past. While the Allied prosecutors were successful in conficting most Nazi criminals, they were somewhat lackluster in convicting the female criminals. This to a historian is deeply disappointing. No matter who you are, everyone must be held accountable for historical crimes committed.

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

Agency and Complicity in Fascist Regimes

By Absalom Sink

There is a decades-long discourse on the extent to which populations under the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s—Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Romania, Francoist Spain on the right, and the Stalinist USSR on the left—were complicit in the atrocities committed by their states. It is a question we have touched on somewhat tangentially in previous weeks, but which becomes the central question of this week’s readings.

We have read of Fascists’ conception of gender roles, with masculinity rooted in stoicism and martial prowess in contrast to the feminine role as nurturer and reproducer, roles which were designed to constrain the agency of women and ensure ‘racial purity.’ And we have read of the victimization of women who refused to confine themselves to the rigid gender dynamics imposed upon them, women like Ilse Totzke in Laurie Marhoefer’s “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State.” But as becomes clear in reading Wendy Lower’s book Hitler’s Furies and Lopez and Sanchez’s “Blue Angels”, historians and lay people alike have been all too willing to accept stories women’s victimization by Fascist regimes while ignoring the crucial roles that a staggering number of other women played in the administration of those regimes, and in the violence they wrought.

Lower traces the war-time trajectory of a handful of women in Nazi Germany. Some, like the Nazi-loathing nurse Annette Schücking, are rather sympathetic figures, especially when contrasted with others like Johanna Altvater, a secretary who moonlit as a murderer of Jewish children. But Lower also muddies the waters by making clear that participation in a regime totally committed to war and genocide means complicity in those crimes. Though the Nuremberg Tribunal exempted the clerks, the secretaries, the stenographers who staffed the SS and Gestapo offices, the Holocaust could not have been carried out without them.

Likewise, as Lopez and Sanchez make clear, Republicans were not the only women who took up arms in the Spanish Civil War. Many Nationalist women were involved in espionage and sabotage. But Nationalist writers, unable to square these women combatants with the Fascist feminine ideals—the “excellent virtues as loving mothers, selfless wives, the tenderness of the sister, the fidelity of the fiancée”—whitewashed history. The fighters were ignored, and the official account of Nationalist women had them “help[ing] the war effort by carrying out traditional feminine roles: nursing, charity and social services, sewing clothes, writing loving yet chaste letters to the soldiers, keeping the home warm and orderly for moment that the men should return victorious, and so on.”

In effect, by ignoring the part that women played in the Nationalist fight against the Republicans in Spain and in the machinery of genocide in the Third Reich, we are accepting at face value decades old Fascist propaganda; we are accepting the notion that men alone are the perpetrators of Fascist violence and that women are passive, wholly lacking in agency. Lower would disabuse us of that notion:

“Genocide is also women’s business. When given the ‘opportunity,’ women too will engage in it […] minimizing women’s culpability to a few thousand brainwashed and misguided camp guards does not accurately represent the idea of the Holocaust.”

Works Cited:

Kühne, Thomas. “Protean masculinity, Hegemonic Masculinity: Soldiers in the Third Reich.” In Central European History 51, Issue 3 (September 2018): 390-418.

Lower, Wendy. Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2013.

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

Marhoefer, Laurie. “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State: a Microhistory of a Gestapo Investigation, 1939-1943.” In The American Historical Review 121, 4 (2016): 1167-1195.

The Role of Women in Hitler’s Germany and Franco’s Spain

BY Vadzim Malatok

The emergence of the Third Reich and the Francoist Spain is frequently associated with the growing predominance of nationalistic and fascistic attitudes in the region, which, in turn, are associated with the largely masculine attributes such as strength, aggressiveness, and independence. As a result, the role of women within these male-dominated regimes has been either understudied or overlooked. However, the recent findings by numerous historians suggest that women’s contributions extended beyond that of a ‘supportive’ role as was propagandized during the Francoist dictatorship. Therefore, it is imperative to determine the extent of ‘blame-worthiness’ that may be attached to women for the atrocities committed by their governments.

In the article “Blue Angels: Female Fascist Resisters, Spies and Intelligence Officials in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-9,” Sofia Rodriguez Lopez and Antonio Cazorla Sanchez argue that women’s participation in Franco’s Spain was not limited to that of stereotypical innate feminine capacities such as nursing, social services, sewing clothes, and so forth. In fact, pro-Franco’s women were involved in the activities ranging from mere resistance against the Republic to sabotage, and, in some cases, espionage. In addition, Nationalist women created the Women’s Section, a feminine organization, that enlisted around 15 per cent of all Spanish women and characteristically resembled similar organizations in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Despite the fact that Nationalist women acted in a somewhat cohesive manner rather than individually, the extent of their involvement varied greatly, and therefore, should be examined more scrupulously in order to avoid exposure to generalization or overstatement.

In Wendy Lower’s book Hitler Furies, the reader encounters similar issues of ambiguity, generalization, and, at times, oversimplification. The research conducted by Lower lacks concretization that would leave the reader in disbelief, for the magnitude of women’s participation in heinous acts. For instance, Lower mentions that lovers and wives of the SS officers were often involved in the atrocities committed by or along with their partners – the statement that need not be fathomed in amazement given that most of these women were probably amoral in the first place if they had decided to establish a relationship with the Nazis. In addition, Lower notes that “the number of ordinary women who contributed in various ways to the mass murder is countless times larger than the relative few who tried to impede it.” (81) However, it is unclear who an ordinary German woman is and whether or not the wives of the SS officers or those with close proximity to power are considered to be ordinary women.

In summary, the role of women in Hitler’s Germany and Franco’s Spain ought not to be underestimated. In some instances, the concepts of femininity were obscured to the point that women acted as equals to men. Thus, Lower is correct in that “… system that make mass murder possible would not function without the broad participation of society…” (14) and that conclusion should be used as a base for further exploration of the magnitude of female participation in heinous acts.

Works Cited

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

Lower, Wendy. Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2013.