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Nazi Women Share the Blame

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Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. By Wendy Lower. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2013. 170 pages.


Hitler wanted lebensraum for the German people, and the way to get that was to take it from the Slavs, the Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians, living to the east of German. Nazi ideology taught that it was natural and right for the racially superior Germans to take what they needed to feed their own. So, when the German army marched east, the German soldier had been taught that it was right to kill, deport and/or enslave the Slavs. The plan was to starve and work to death those unhappy souls who survived the initial attacks by the Wehrmacht. In Poland and in the USSR, therefore, the Germans were absolutely ruthless. They burned, they murdered, they tortured, they deported.

And the curious thing is the perpetrators of these war crimes were not just German men. German women share in the culpability. This is what history professor Wendy Lower, discovered in her researches. The German army trained a half a million young women to serve in support positions. These women were nurses, radio operators, file clerks, secretaries flight recorders, social workers, resettlement advisors, educators and, most ominously, racial examiners. Two hundred thousand of them served in the east.

When the Red Army defeated Nazi Germany, perhaps somewhat understandably, their soldiers took revenge on the Germans who were left. Most of their victims were, of course, women. German women were raped and murdered by the Reds in their thousands, and the world has felt considerable sympathy for German women, particularly as the world has tended to believe that German women were apolitical. But they were not. They were complicit in the genocidal system the Nazis developed. There were, for example, women guards at the death camps, at least 3,500 of them, many of whom were particularly sadistic. And then there are just the sheer numbers. According to Professor Lower, one “third of the female population, thirteen million women, were actively engaged in a Nazi Party organization, and female membership in the Nazi Party increased steadily until the end of the war.”

Nazism, as Lower shows us, twisted men and women alike. Teachers in Nazi Germany and in the east preached the Nazi ideology, excluded non-German children from the schools, and informed the authorities of children who had physical or mental problems, and often such children simply disappeared. Nurses and doctors alike helped perform some 400,000 forced sterilizations of non-Jewish Germans. The SS kidnapped children in the east (if they were blond and blue-eyed) and these children were given to German women who were unable to bear children, if the children were lucky. Unlucky children were sent to the death camps or in some cases used in inhumane Nazi medical experiments.

Of all the female criminals, perhaps Nazi nurses were the worst. Yes, they served in the Nazi hospitals, helping to heal wounded German servicemen, but according to Lower, “. . . of all the female professions, nursing contains the highest concentration of documented crimes in the euthanasia program and the medical experiments.”

In short, this book is ghastly to read, but also important. (That's why it is being considered for the National Book Award.) It demonstrates how a monster regime like the Nazis can twist and pervert people to perform simply horrible acts not reluctantly, but enthusiastically. Could it happen here? Of course it could.

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