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.

Women and the Falangists during the Spanish Civil War

The article by Sofia Lopez, relates the role that women played in the Nationalist Fifth Columns and the way that the government formally recognized them after the war. The nature of the Civil War lead to many collaborators and agents in the zones of the country controlled by the opposing side, the article focuses on the role of women in nationalist zones of the country. The article focuses on the differences between the way that Nationalists portrayed the role of women in the movement, but the article points to specific examples where the catholic traditional values of there women were extolled. The way that this propaganda was used to portray the role of women, in many cases that the article points to the roles are downplayed by the official records and the numbers of members that were officially recorded was kept suppressed. The article though shows how that many women participated in many varied roles to support the movement. The portrayal of women I find interesting as the use of the way that the narrative became so tied to the use of the traditional roles of women, as homemakers and wives, compared to what the republicans, in the article held as values of being tied to equality and freedoms for all, an image that the nationalist government after the war in 1939 would want to quash and quell the ideas that the republicans were tied to. The article talks to this that the nationalists didn’t credit many of the women who participated and only those that had already originally registered with the Falanigst parties before the war and that for many of them they were relegated back to there traditional roles by the state.

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 ?  

The Passivity of Women in Fascist Society – Andrew Devenish

In Francoist Spain, as in Nazi Germany, there was a specific kind of woman that was socially acceptable and a specific role for women that was promoted by the state. Both societies encouraged women to focus their energy on keeping a household, nursing, and supporting the male soldiers, or male population in general. The proper, acceptable woman was the woman who did not venture outside of these defined gender roles. Nazi Germany banned women from practicing law and discouraged them from seeking out traditionally male professions, lauding women as heroes for having many children. According to Lopez and Sanchez, official Francoist propaganda stated during the Spanish Civil War that women were helping the war effort by “carrying out… nursing, charity and social services, sewing clothes, writing loving yet chaste letters to the soldiers, keeping the home warm and orderly for the moment that men should return victorious”. Although many women did take a more active role in supporting the Nationalist cause, and there were prominent women in Nazi Germany who did not strictly adhere to the state-supported gender roles, the official messaging of these fascist societies explicitly promoted traditional gender roles and minimized the more active parts women might have played in these societies.

But it wasn’t just the official propaganda that pushed this message. Many who look back on these societies, including historians, tend to do the same thing. Lower points out in her book that the history that she is writing has been barely touched on by other historians, and the number of women who actively participated in Nazi society and enabled genocide is most likely far higher than previous estimates. In the postwar period when Allied prosecutors investigated crimes committed in Nazi-controlled territories, women were scarcely prosecuted or investigated, and only a few were ever indicted. The same is true of Francoist Spain. Lopez and Sanchez say that many studies and books written about this time period in Spain also minimize the role that women took in supporting Nationalist causes, especially in regard to the Auxilio Azul Maria Paz. There is a widespread tendency, both by contemporaries and those looking back, to minimize and undermine the roles that women took in fascist societies. In these societies themselves, a passive role for women is officially promoted, and when looking back at them, what active roles they may have had are minimized or overlooked.

The Tricky case of Gender in Fascist regimes

by: PSjoberg

Wendy Lower’s book, Hitler’s Furies, and Sofía Rodríguez López and Antonio Cazorla Sánchez’s article, “Blue Angels: Female Fascist Resisters, Spies, and Intelligence Officials in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-9,” address the relatively overlooked role of women in two significant fascist contexts in European history.

The question of women’s roles in fascist regimes is particularly interesting considering the virile, predominantly masculine identity that is commonly associated with fascism. Therefore, women may seem prone to fall by the wayside in historical studies on the topic. In both of this week’s readings, I found a sort of paradoxical expectation for women in fascist contexts: on one hand, women were expected to contribute to the overall societal image of strength and virility that is promoted my fascist movements, but one the other hand women were also (sometimes simultaneously) expected to fulfill their prescribed roles as wives, daughters, and lovers to the more dominant men in these societies.

In both this week’s readings, however, I found myself frequently disappointed by the quality of analysis offered by the authors. Both readings feature numerous, repeated statements about women in both Nazi Germany and Republican, and later Francoist, Spain as if they had unlocked some hidden significance behind women’s roles in these regimes. However, these statements could always be just as easily ascribed to men in these respective countries.  Some examples of this in Lower’s Hitler’s Furies include: “German women in the Nazi East wielded unprecedented power over those designated ‘subhuman’” and “women of varied backgrounds and professions are mobilized for war and acquiesce in genocide.” In both of these examples, ‘women’ can be substituted for ‘men’ without changing the truth of the statement.

The question thus arises: is it a product of the modern ‘progressive’ bias of 21st Century historians that the involvement of women in heinous acts during the Holocaust and Spanish Civil War does not appear so radical as such? Considering the immense difference in gender norms between the 1930s-40s and the 2010s, atrocities committed by women can possibly be considered more significant and thus more atrocious. Therefore, the fact that women were so often ignored and given light sentences during post-WWII trials for war crimes is all the more disgusting, while simultaneously being (unfortunately) unsurprising.

It was a product of early-20th Century gender norms that female war criminals were treated so leniently by judges, simply because it was so unbelievable that women could commit such acts. With historical hindsight, though, female war criminals should have received at least equal sentences to their male counterparts. This, however, begs an even more controversial question: would it be fair to deliver different sentences to different gendered individuals for the same crimes as a result of different gendered expectations?


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.