Go East, Young Woman
LESLIE JONES discovers that women are equal to men
Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Chatto & Windus, London, 270 pp, £18.99
In Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Wendy Lower challenges the comforting illusion that violence is an exclusively masculine characteristic. As she points out, in 1944 Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Kempner and his wife Ruth presented an official report entitled “Women in Nazi Germany”. The Kempners noted that the millions of women who had joined the Nazi movement included some of its most fanatical supporters. Indeed, every German, irrespective of sex, was subjected to remorseless anti-Semitic conditioning.
Moreover, in the “wild East”, Nazi women had ample opportunity to be every bit as brutal as men. Enter Erna Kürbs, one of Lower’s thirteen case studies of “witnesses, accomplices and killers”. A farmer’s daughter from Herressen in Thuringia, in July 1938 she married Horst Petri, an SS officer and protégé of Dr Richard Walter Darré, Chief of the Race and Resettlement Office. Horst Petri shared Darré’s vision of the agricultural mission of the Nazi Party. The soldier-farmer was the key to German expansion in the East. From the summer of 1942, the Petris administered an estate called Grzenda outside Lviv in eastern Galicia. It was here that Erna Petri cold bloodedly executed six starving children who had escaped from a train taking them to a concentration camp.
‘Liesel’ Riedel Willhaus was the wife of Gustav Willhaus, SS commander of the Janowska slave labour and transit camp in the Ukraine. Her party piece was to shoot Jewish labourers from her balcony with a parlour rifle. Johanna Altvater Zelle, the personal secretary of Wilhelm Westerheide, regional commissar in Volodymyr-Volynsky, had a different modus operandi. She lured Jewish ghetto children with sweets, then threw them off balconies or bashed out their brains against a wall. After the war, Altvater became a child care officer.
But Hitler’s Furies is not only about the woman qua perpetrator and murderess. Wendy Lower also shows how German women became an “integral part of Hitler’s machinery of [military] destruction” and of the accompanying programme of ethnic cleansing. The emphasis on German women as the victims of allied bombing and of mass rape (as in Antony Beevor’s Berlin: the Downfall 1945) has obscured their role as cogs in a killing machine.
At least half a million German women went East, according to the author’s calculations, where they performed invaluable support roles in the army, the SS, the Order Police and the new imperial bureaucracy. The East offered women job opportunities, escape from limited lives, adventure. Granted, it was the men of the SS and Order Police were carried out the Holocaust on the ground but the lower echelons of these organisations were staffed by women. Thus, it was female auxiliaries who provided the refreshments for the Einsatzgruppen during the so-called “Holocaust of bullets”.
Thousands of nurses trained by the Red Cross worked in field hospitals and in soldiers’ homes. Thousands more women worked for the Wehrmacht as radio operators and clerks. Women auxiliaries were also employed by the SS and Order Police in offices of the gendarmerie, in prisons and as guards in concentration camps. In occupied Poland, female social workers, racial examiners and teachers laid the groundwork for Germanisation and colonisation. As secretaries in the civil administration of occupied Poland and Ukraine, women organised the placing of Jews in ghettos or on forced labour assignments. And female detectives working under the auspices of the Reich Security Main Office tracked down Jewish and Gypsy children and had them incarcerated and killed.
The certification of nurses was regulated by the Nazi Party and to achieve full certification nurses had to demonstrate political reliability. The author cites the case of Pauline Kneissler, a municipal nurse in Berlin in the 1920’s. A member of the Nazi Party from 1937, she volunteered in 1939 for a secret assignment at the Grafeneck Castle, outside Stuttgart, where she administered gas and fatal injections to “useless eaters”. Kneissler and other nurses may also have given severely injured German soldiers the coup de grâce.
“What would you have done?”, demands former concentration camp guard Hanna Schmitz (played by Kate Winslet), when accused of helping to select those to die at Auschwitz, in the film The Reader. If Professor Lower’s remarkable book has a fault, it is that German women of this era had far fewer choices than she imagines.
Dr. LESLIE JONES is Deputy Editor of the Quarterly Review
Leslie Jones, 2014