The Chronicle Review

Book Review: Handmaidens of Genocide

Ullstein Bild, The Granger Collection

October 21, 2013

Reading Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields is a shocking experience. The author, Wendy Lower, describes Wehrmacht secretaries typing out death orders, SS wives shooting innocent children, and Nazi women shooting at Jews from the balconies of their estates for target practice. These graphic descriptions truly turn one's stomach.

Lower is a respected specialist in Holocaust studies and a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College. She has written an original study of Nazi empire-building and the Holocaust in Ukraine, edited the diary of a Holocaust victim in Galicia, co-edited a volume of essays on the Shoah in Ukraine, and worked at the National Holocaust Memorial Museum. Lower scoured German, Austrian, Ukrainian, Israeli, and American archives for evidence of women serving in the Nazi eastern front, and has examined postwar court records, collected memoirs, and conducted interviews for this book. Hitler's Furies breaks new ground in showing that "hundreds of thousands of German women went to the Nazi East ... and were indeed integral parts of Hitler's machinery of destruction."

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

By Wendy Lower (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

In order to determine the degree and manner of female involvement, Lower looks at the teachers, nurses, secretaries, and Nazi wives who moved eastward for reasons of adventure, careerism, and ideology. One of the particular strengths of her approach is the focus on the "lost generation" of young German women—those who were brought up in the Third Reich, served in occupied Eastern Europe, and then repressed their gruesome memories after the war in order to escape prosecution.

Following a Holocaust-studies convention, Lower groups the cases in three categories: bystanders, accomplices, and perpetrators. Largely missing are helpers of Nazi victims, perhaps because they left no records or were too few in number. The first group is made up of nurses who—witnessing brutality, despoliation, and murder—committed their qualms to letters, diaries, or postwar memoirs without doing anything to stop the crimes. The second category consists of secretaries who actively aided the machinery of destruction by typing orders for killing actions, keeping records of genocide, and using various euphemisms to cover their tracks. They were, for Lower, the female equivalent of desk murderers.

Even more repulsive were the SS and other Nazi wives who directly participated in the killing, joining their spouses in a hedonistic blood sport. The strongest sections of the book are these individual portraits, which convincingly depict the motives for collaboration and perpetration, and render the life choices of a misguided generation of women intelligible. While some young women went east to escape parental control, Lower suggests that it was Nazi anti-Semitism and wartime imperialism that inspired participation in genocide.

But the very strength of the author's outrage gradually raises some doubts about whether her justified condemnation of what she acknowledges was a minority of German women does not skew her picture of the majority.

Lower presents pre-Nazi German culture with a somewhat restricted vision in which everything leads to the Third Reich (the 19th-century poet Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, for example, becomes a precursor of Nazi culture). Other pitfalls exist. The section on the teachers just scratches the surface, relying on official Nazi accounts only; the portrayal of secretaries tends to exaggerate their power as part of a white-collar occupation.

Lower favors extreme interpretations: A photo of the brutal SS wife Erna Petri on a motorcycle is interpreted as evidence of a Nazi domina in the making, though to readers the prewar snapshot of a proud housewife with an apron may look innocuous enough (it was taken before the crimes she committed later in the East). The recently proposed number of 40,000 sites of detention in the Third Reich, which is taken for fact by Lower, has also come under some criticism, since it needs to be qualified by length, size, and purpose of operation. In short, the author's understandable animus seems to carry her away at times.

More serious is another set of problems. In Lower's account, the Holocaust features front and center—overshadowing the war almost entirely. The military struggle between Nazism and Communism was murderous. It is important to remember that aggression framed the theater in the East, where the Nazi project of ethnic cleansing took place. As a result, Lower focuses on the anti-Semitic genocide of the Jews without sufficiently accounting for the simultaneous mass killing of Slavs from Poland to Ukraine. Moreover, Lower often obliterates the distinction between nationalism and Nazism, with every German participant in the Eastern war considered a perpetrator in the Holocaust. That makes virtually all young German women in Russia into "Hitler's furies." While numerous nationalists supported the war effort and became accomplices in German expansionism, only a smaller number of convinced National Socialists personally engaged in ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Lower's passionate "examination of women killers and of the situations in which they killed" succeeds in deepening our understanding of women's active role in the Holocaust. In going beyond the relatively small number of female concentration-camp guards already written about, the author has uncovered new evidence of women's involvement in the East. Though the number of cases treated in depth is limited to about a dozen, these examples are frightening enough to make her argument credible. The passivity in observation, the activity in collaboration, and the zealousness in perpetration are so morally reprehensible that they destroy the illusion of female innocence.

This accomplishment, however, obscures some questions. Lower's book is strong on the extreme cases but builds its argument largely by innuendo in tying the nationalistic (but not necessarily murderous) service of the majority of teachers, nurses, and secretaries to the most reprehensible behavior. "As we have seen, at least half a million women witnessed and contributed to the operations and terror of genocidal war in the eastern territories," Lower writes. Taken by itself, that conclusion seems entirely persuasive, but it tends to conflate the more regular wartime duty of young women with an actual involvement in killing. Even after examining the shocking examples, it seems that women remained structurally subordinated to Nazi men—their involvement was more often collusion with male murderers than initiation of the killing themselves.

Expanding the understanding of the Holocaust by inserting women into its gruesome history is a major contribution, but reconstructing the entire range of wartime experiences of German women in Eastern Europe will require another book.

Konrad H. Jarausch is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.