Most of us have an image of German women during the Nazi era as loyal, apolitical spouses or girlfriends who stoically stayed in the home taking care of the children while the men were away at war. Their world revolved around the Nazi feminine virtues of Kinder, Küche, Kirche. The Holocaust, the mass murder of Jews and other "inferior races", especially in the Eastern occupied territories, was the work of men. Women are simply not physically or emotionally equipped to participate in this kind of violence.
In her sobering and well-researched study - Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields - the American professor of history Wendy Lower shows that women were indispensable to the administration and execution of the Holocaust. Hitler needed women - especially in Poland and the Ukraine where the greatest mass killings took place - in part because there simply weren't enough available men. More than 500,000 German women answered the call of the Fuehrer to go east and help in the establishment of a racially pure Greater Reich. Up to now, their stories have largely remained untold.
Why did these women heed the call for the Drang nach Osten? The motivations were varied: lust for adventure, ambition, love. Lower singles out some individual women and tells their stories. The women fall into three main groups: nurses, secretaries and wives. There is Erika Ohr, looking to escape her awful position as a domestic servant in Ruppertshofen. The Nazi Party and the new opportunities in the east were her ticket out. There was Annette Schuecking, a highly educated woman who was prevented from pursuing a legal career because of her gender. Becoming a nurse and going east to care for the wounded was an expression of her idealism.
Under the Nazis, however, nurses were often required to pervert their training to heal and instead become agents of genocide. They carried out the program of euthanasia, administering lethal injections or presiding over gassing of patients. One nurse, Pauline Kneissler, killed thousands of patients in Germany and then later in the detention camps in Poland. As she admitted during her interrogation after the war, participation in the euthanasia program was entirely voluntary.
The vast majority of women who went east were not active participants in murder, but rather support personnel who made sure the machinery of genocide functioned smoothly. They typed the orders for mass executions, kept the files in order, sent out the requisitions for Zyklon B, kept detailed inventories of the jewelry, clothing and other possessions of the murdered Jews. A few enterprising women even set up retail outlets to sell the stolen articles -a Holocaust eBay. In many instances they witnessed terrible events - even killings - and wrote letters home describing the terrible events.
"They were not presented with the choice to participate directly in the violence, or, as some extremists would see it, the "opportunity" to collaborate. They were German female patriots doing their civil service. They were curious; they sought adventure. Once they entered the eastern territories and witnessed the atrocities, such as the ghetto liquidation in Rvine, they articulated emotions of concern and and shock."
But there were some women who were not just bystanders. They were accomplices and perpetrators in the mass killing. Wendy Lower tells the story of Erna Petri, who would amuse houseguests on the balcony of her villa as they enjoyed their Kaffee und Kuchen by shooting the Jewish laborers working in her garden. And then there was Johanna Altvater, an executive assistant to an SS officer, whose specialty was killing children:
"One observer noted that Altvater often lured children with candy. When they came to her and opened thier mouths, she shot them in the moucth with the small silver pistol that she kept at her side."
Professor Lower writes about what happened to these women after the war, and it is for the most part very disturbing to read. Very few women were charged with crimes for their roles in facilitating genocide. Fewer still were convicted. The courts simply couldn't believe that females were capable of commiting such atrocities. The "Euthanasia" nurses presented themselves as upstanding medical professionals who heeded the authority of the doctors, fulfilled their duties and ultimately suffered for doing their job. They felt they were now being unjustly persecuted by "Jews" out of revenge.