Under Nazi ideology, German women were supposed to be prodigies of child-bearing and domesticity, leaving the wider world of work — not to mention violence and mass murder — to men.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
But, in fact, women were key, if generally subsidiary, players in the Nazis' genocidal enterprise, according to Wendy Lower's "Hitler's Furies." And their absence from most accounts of the period, she writes, represents an "historical blind spot" that she aims to rectify.
True, the most egregious Nazi women criminals, such outliers as female concentration camp guards, are known to us. (Bernhard Schlink's best-selling novel, "The Reader," offers a fictional gloss on such a case.) But Lower wants us to refocus, to look down. "Recorded cases of female killers," she writes, "were to a degree representative of a much bigger phenomenon that had been suppressed, over-looked and under-researched": the complicity of ordinary women — of German nurses, teachers, secretaries and wives.
In flagging this phenomenon, Lower makes a good beginning. But as a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and a historical consultant for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, she is more adept at mining archives than at creating a compelling narrative. Her book — though both intriguing and chilling — feels sketchy and repetitive at times.
Lower's title evokes the worst of the worst. But "Hitler's Furies" ranges over a wide terrain: troubled (and less troubled) witnesses to the Holocaust, desk-bound accomplices, and enthusiastic, whip-wielding sadists who vied with their husbands in killing Jews. But what unites someone like Ilse Struwe, a secretary working in Ukraine who visited a Jewish ghetto and later saw, with horror, a violent roundup in progress, with a killer like Gertrude Segel Landau, who among other atrocities, allegedly trampled a Jewish child to death?
Lower may be able to tell us why individual women traveled east to the Nazi killing fields, a choice usually made in ignorance of what they would encounter. But she founders — almost inevitably — in explaining how and why some of these women abandoned morality for murder. What does it mean that many of those tried for crimes, especially in West Germany, were acquitted and faded seamlessly back into civilian life?
"Hitler's Furies" lacks the precision and rigor that distinguishes one of Lower's obvious influences: Christopher Browning's 1992 classic, "Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland." Browning stressed peer pressure and the brutalization inflicted by war as reasons that his mostly un-ideological policemen participated in roundups and mass murder. Without entirely convincing evidence, Lower tells us simply that "Hitler's Furies were not marginal sociopaths," but instead women who believed that they were committing "justified acts of revenge."
One of Lower's arguments is that the labor shortage during World War II eroded the ideological presumption that loyal Nazi women stayed home. The Third Reich had its own versions of Rosie the Riveter, with women on the homefront working in German factories and businesses. But the demand for female labor, she says, was especially strong in Germany's conquered eastern territories.
Those opportunities attracted hundreds of thousands of "ambitious young women," teachers, nurses, secretaries and welfare workers, eager to throw off traditional gender roles. "They left behind repressive laws, bourgeois mores, and social traditions that made life in Germany regimented and oppressive," Lower writes.
The eastern territories represented a frontier — not just Germany's much vaunted Lebensraum ("living space") but a site of career growth and mobility. Here women automatically became part of a "governing elite," with "new benefits, opportunities, and a raised status." They "witnessed and committed atrocities … as part of what they saw as a professional opportunity and liberating experience." This was feminism run amok.
The involvement of the medical profession in the Holocaust has been well-chronicled in books such as Robert Jay Lifton's "The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide." Now, Lower tells us, "of all the professions, it was nursing that brought the largest number of German women directly into the war and the Nazi genocide."
In Germany and Poland, nurses were indispensable to the killing of the mentally and physically disabled, as they participated in selection and administering lethal injections. They worked in concentration camp infirmaries, staffed military hospitals, and (this is oddly shocking) may even have helped kill severely wounded German soldiers who would have taxed Nazi resources. This "was — and still is — a taboo topic," Lower writes, and she concedes that the charge remains unproven.
Secretaries in the east staffed a vast bureaucracy and helped type the orders that led to genocide. The wives and girlfriends of Nazi soldiers and storm troopers eroticized violence and sometimes indulged in it. "These women displayed a capacity to kill while also acting out a combination of roles: plantation mistress; prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over slave laborers; infant-carrying, gun-wielding Hausfrau," Lower writes, exploding the myth that SS men returned home from killing to serene domestic lives.
In encouraging readers to think about the varieties of complicity, in reminding us of the extent to which evil can coexist with banality in women as well as men, "Hitler's Furies" has indisputable value. But it is surely not the last word on the subject — and neither, one suspects, is it meant to be.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.
By Wendy Lower, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pages, $26Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun