Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi’s Killing Fields

  • Wendy Lower
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Robert Swan
  • October 24, 2013

The author brings to light the active participation of half a million women in Hitler's brutal and inhumane regime.

Imagine a child offered a piece of candy, and then shot through the back of his head when he opens his mouth to receive it. Gender stereotypes as well as the evidence of statistics suggest that this act is most likely to be the work of a male; males commit the overwhelming majority of violent crime, everywhere in the world.

In this case, however, the murderer was a woman named Johanna Altvater, who was a well-educated, seemingly normal and productive member of civil society. She was not alone. Some 500,000 other German women also were lured by the heady atmosphere of colonial excess and abandon that characterized the Occupied Eastern Territories. And, though few could equal Altvater in the cruelty of her behavior, all these women were to some degree complicit in mass murder.

Wendy Lower, a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, explores the crucial part played by women in supporting and shaping a vast, unwieldy and chaotic empire created purposely with a lethal eugenic imperative in mind. She seeks to redress a significant historiographical imbalance, and her perspective is worth quoting in full:

“The large number of female criminals — who stole from the Jews, administered the genocide, and participated at the crime scenes — are missing from collective memory and official histories. The role of German women in Hitler’s war can no longer be understood as their mobilization and victimization on the home front. Instead, Hitler’s Germany produced another kind of female character at war, an expression of female activism and patriotism of the most violent and perverse kind.”

Why did women, usually seen as relatively passive, exploited domestic breeders and administrative labor in Germany during Hitler’s dictatorship (1933-1945), choose to go east after war in Europe broke out in 1939? Lower makes clear that mundane considerations — the concerns of young people everywhere — partially motivated many women who left the comparative comfort of home for an alien environment peopled with Slavic and Jewish Untermenschen. Many of these women were highly trained nurses, teachers and secretaries. Many were also highly ambitious, recognizing the growing empire in the east as a goldmine of opportunity where the patriarchal orientation of Nazi ideology would not hinder their advancement, both professional and financial.

Lower divides the book into categories of genocidal participation — witnesses, accomplices, perpetrators — and provides a broad overview of the development of the Nazi genocide in addition to case histories of women who were eyewitnesses and participants. She has mined a rich trove of archival sources, including the diary entries, letters, interviews and postwar interrogation records.

The most pervasive female perpetrators were not concentration camp guards but actually nurses who lethally injected thousands of innocent men, women and children under the Nazi’s T-4 euthanasia program, or experimented on prisoners in concentration camps. But women did not have to be professionals to take part in the Holocaust. Wives or girlfriends of SS and Gestapo officers also participated in the persecution and murder of Jews, with a casualness that highlights the capacity of ordinary human beings to commit great evil. Lower notes the sexual frisson that could be generated when the “lords of the east” were able to kill and maim at will. For example, in the case of Hermann Hanweg, a powerful Nazi commissar in Lida, and his secretary-lover Liselotte Meier:

“… the violent horrors of the Holocaust were no mere backdrop to Meier’s and Hanweg’s love affair; they were a central drama in igniting its passion. The two were intoxicated with their newfound power and ‘place in the sun,’ a sensation known in German as the Ostrausch or ‘eastern rush.’ It was a euphoria that was expressed in sex and violence.”

The catalogue of nauseating behavior is long and varied. Ghettos were used as entertainment venues during leisure hours; property was confiscated and sold for personal profit despite the risk of execution if caught; and wives and girlfriends even joined in grisly “hunting parties,” in which participants hunted Jews instead of animals, or simply casually shot them from the balcony of one of the posh villas set aside for SS use.

The most valuable part of Lower’s book explores the reasons behind, and reactions to, both male and female participation in and facilitation of mass murder. She notes that both men and women killed and tortured with “the hypodermic needle, the whip, and the gun”; both were heavily indoctrinated and committed ideologically; they shared a morally perverse but strong sense of duty, and “pacts of loyalty and secrecy”; and, unsurprisingly, both displayed an inclination to deny or repress what they had done, and what they had witnessed, after the war was over.

The last section of the book, which should leave any reader concerned with justice deeply puzzled, outlines the postwar fate of the women whose capsule biographies Lower uses as a lens through which to evaluate female participation in the Holocaust. Most, though not all, of the women involved, while interrogated by Allied officers or postwar West or East German authorities, or even prosecuted long after the war was over, were barely punished, or got away scot-free. This includes even Joanna Altvater, whose “specialty” had been the murder of children.

Lower makes a convincing case for expanding the parameters of culpability for Nazi depredations against subject populations in the east. If Adolph Eichmann is the classic example of a bureaucrat who organized mass deportations (what Lower describes appropriately as a “desk murderer”), and Rudolph Hoess the paradigm of a concentration camp commandant, it is salutary to be reminded that their work would not have been possible without the aid of a vast army of secretaries, administrators and nurses. Lower’s important new book emphasizes the variety of ways women contributed to the administration of, and in some cases actual participation in, one of the world’s great mass slaughters.

Robert Swan teaches history and philosophy in the International Baccalaureate program at a local high school.


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