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

It’s worth remembering here that many of those women who committed crimes could not resort to the time-worn excuse that they were “following orders”. They were not.

Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields
Wendy Lower
Chatto & Windus, 288pp, £18.99

The conventional image of women in Nazi Germany is well known. In what was a very masculine world, women generally appear either as hysterical, weeping Hitler fanatics or as hapless rape victims, reaping the Soviet whirlwind. Some readers, however – those familiar with the execrable concentration camp guards Irma Grese and Ilse Koch or perhaps with Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader – might recognise a third stereotype: that of the woman as perpetrator.

Hitler’s Furies, a new book by the American academic Wendy Lower, brings this latter image to a non-specialist audience. Distilling many years of research into the Holocaust, Lower focuses her account on the experiences of a dozen or so subjects – not including Grese and Koch – ranging from provincial schoolteachers and Red Cross nurses to army secretaries and SS officers’ molls. Despite coming from all regions of Germany and all walks of life, what they had in common was that they ended up in the Nazi-occupied east, where they became witnesses, accessories or even perpetrators in the Holocaust.

Lower is scrupulously fair to her subjects, providing a potted biography of each, explaining their social and political background and examining the various motives – ambition, love, a lust for adventure – that propelled them to the “killing fields”. This objectivity is admirable, particularly as most of the women swiftly conformed to Nazi norms of behaviour, at least in turning a blind eye to the suffering around them. One woman, a Red Cross nurse, organised “shopping trips” to hunt for bargains in the local Jewish ghetto, while another, a secretary, calmly typed up lists of Jews to be “liquidated”, then witnessed their subsequent deportation.

Most shocking of all are the accounts of the women who killed. One of Lower’s subjects, a secretary-turned-SS-mistress, had the “nasty habit”, as one eyewitness put it, of killing Jewish children in the ghetto, whom she would lure with the promise of sweets before shooting them in the mouth with a pistol. Lower presents another chilling example: that of an SS officer’s wife in occupied Poland who discovered a group of six Jewish children who had escaped from a death-camp transport. A mother, she took them home, fed and cared for them, then led them out into the forest and shot each one in the back of the head.

Despite these horrors, Lower’s book resists the temptation to wallow in emotive rhetoric; nor is it drily academic. She writes engagingly, wears her considerable erudition lightly and has opted to stick with a broad narrative account, comparing and contrasting but never allowing her analysis to outweigh the fundamental humanity of the stories. The book’s power lies in its restraint.

Neither can Hitler’s Furies be imagined as some sort of Woman’s Hour rereading of the Holocaust. There is no special pleading for the subjects and the gender studies aspect of the book is kept well within bounds. Indeed, in analysing the women’s progress from nurses and secretaries to accomplices and perpetrators, Lower is at times eager to emphasise that the forces that drove and shaped them were in some ways the same forces experienced by Germany’s men – the seductive appeal of Nazism, the heady lawlessness of the occupied eastern territories and the “new morality” of the SS.

It’s worth remembering here that many of those women who committed crimes could not resort to the time-worn excuse that they were “following orders”. They were not. They were merely reacting and adapting to their surroundings.

Consequently, Lower stresses that her subjects were not just marginal psychopaths; rather, they might be seen as perfect embodiments of the Nazi regime, products of the hideous, murderous times in which they lived. A gender-specific explanation is offered only tentatively: that the women simply got caught up in a heady vortex of power and anti-Semitic violence – the Ostrausch, or “intoxication of the east” – which was fuelled by their intimate relationships with the SS men around them.

In the final chapter, Lower relates the fates of her subjects after the war, detailing the efforts made – or more often not made – to bring them to justice. Of the women she has studied, only one was tried and found guilty; the others benefited from a combination of a biased judiciary, a perceived lack of evidence and entrenched cultural prejudices about female innocence. Only the German Democratic Republic, Lower argues, was rigorous in pursuing wartime female perpetrators. Elsewhere, they quite literally got away with murder.

Often harrowing and even disturbing, Lower’s book does not always make for comfortable reading. It is nonetheless well written and accessible enough to appeal far beyond an academic audience. Its errors are few and minor and, although it is a little surprising that a specialist on the Holocaust should misplace Gross-Rosen concentration camp, the author’s expertise is clearly evident throughout.

With Hitler’s Furies, Wendy Lower has provided an important service in bringing the blind spot of women’s participation and implication in the Holocaust into focus. The new book shines a stark light on the ordinary women who accompanied the “ordinary men” of Christopher Browning’s landmark study of two decades ago into the abyss.

Vortex of power: German women 'adapted' to war. Image: Underwood Archives/ Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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In “Gary Numan: Android in La La Land”, the paranoid android visibly defrosts on screen

This documentary about the making of Gary Numan’s new album is full of the warmth and silliness of family life.

In a month that sees the release of two high-profile, music-oriented mockumentaries (David Brent: Life on the Road and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping), it’s strangely refreshing to see the real McCoy in all its tender, ingenuous glory. Gary Numan: Android in La La Land may be howlingly funny in places but it’s no joke. The film follows the British pioneer of vaguely menacing synth-pop (“Cars”, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”) as he uproots in 2013 from a farm in England to a castle-style mansion in Los Angeles while putting the finishing touches to his comeback album, Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind). With him are his highly animated wife, Gemma, and their three young daughters, none of whom shows any of their father’s shyness in front of the camera. Encouraging children to say funny things on camera may be a cheap way of earning a laugh, but that doesn’t make it any less pleasurable when one of Numan’s nippers gives him the once-over and announces: “You look old when you don’t have make-up on.”

Besides, Numan’s persona was always so calculatedly chilly that it is a joy to see it defrosted on screen by prolonged exposure to the warmth and silliness of family life. That impassive robotic face is now finally human: the skin is creased and crumpled, the gnashers uneven. Those of us who saw him on Top of the Pops in the late 1970s and early 1980s will have been both thrilled and chilled by his sneering poise: he looked like a forgotten member of Kraftwerk who was peeved that the rest of the group had gone off on tour without him. It’s delightful to contrast that memory with the scenes here of Numan grumbling about his wife’s navigational eccentricities as he sits at the wheel of a Winnebago, or confessing that he is creeped-out by his ornate new home with its trap-doors and its hidden passageways.

The property seems like an unforced metaphor for how other people might feel about his unfathomable mind, though the film also has a lot of fun showing the sorts of domestic woes that don’t go away just because you’re rich and famous. At one point, Gemma is on her hands and knees scrubbing cat pee out of the curtains in their new abode – cue a perfectly-timed shot of the guilty party peering disdainfully at the camera. In another scene, Gemma points at a dog turd in the garden. “There’s a whole Kit-Kat in his poo,” she says matter-of-factly as Numan looks on, entirely unperturbed.

At the start of the film, as he hauls bales of hay awkwardly around his farm, Numan comes across like one of the Replicants from Blade Runner – his mannerisms seem learned or programmed rather than felt. The magic of Steve Read and Rob Alexander’s documentary lies in its ability to coax the human being reluctantly out from behind the stiffness, the neuroses. The singer describes himself as “anti-social” and puts it down to “that Asperger’s thing”.

Indeed, it seems his condition accounted for much of the apparent remoteness that hardened into a persona in the early days of his career. It’s easy also to forget what a pup he was: just 21 when “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” reached number 1 in the charts in 1979. And fame terrified him. He talks movingly here of confining himself back then to a single room, converted into a self-contained bedsit, in his vast house, where he would retreat each night to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail while eating chips. In his front room was a blow-up dinghy. “It actually made a comfortable sofa,” he says.

The ostensible focus of the film is the making and release of the new album after six years in which Numan struggled with depression and emotional paralysis while his money ran out. And it’s true that the final 20 minutes or so plays like the sort of extended promo for new product that smacks of a DVD extra. But the picture has enough honesty in its portrait of Numan’s marriage to earn its documentary stripes. Gemma is not only the singer’s wife: she also happens to be his one-time superfan, prone to dashing into his garden to have her picture taken in front of his house. You can’t help thinking it was behaviour like that which sent him running for his bedsit. Asked about her ambitions by the school careers advisor, she replied that she didn’t need to get a job: she was going to marry Gary Numan. (At this point, the couple had never met.)

What’s touching is that she is still his superfan – her adoration has survived the years of stress and desperation, the numerous and traumatic failed pregnancies that preceded IVF treatment, not to mention the conversion of pop idolatry into the everyday, the humdrum. Gemma might come out with the sort of clangers that the makers of This Is Spinal Tap would have thrown out for implausible dumbness. (“There’s an ‘i’ in ‘team,’” she insists, before recalibrating: “In my team.”) But she’s no fool. When the hard drive containing crucial backing tracks for Numan’s new album is damaged in transit, it’s Gemma to the rescue with the soldering iron. “Now cool it down,” she says. “Really cool it down. Put it in the fridge.” Gary Numan taking advice on the art of refrigeration – how cool is that?

Gary Numan: Android in La La Land is on release from tomorrow

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.