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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage