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Book Review: ‘Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields’ by Wendy Lower

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Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower is an account of the horrific roles women played in the Third Reich. Ms. Lower is an American historian who has written several books about the Holocaust.

She reported to the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.

“[T]he consensus in Holocaust and genocide studies is that the systems that make mass murder possible would not function without the broad participation of society, and yet nearly all histories of the Holocaust leave out half of those who populated that society, as if women’s history happens somewhere else.”

Book Review Hitlers Furies German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy LowerI always find books about the collective psychology of Germans during World War II fascinating. Why would anyone allow such genocide to happen? What were they thinking? How could they turn a blind eye to such cruelty? How could people, otherwise good and decent, participate in mass murder?

In Hitler’s Furies, Lower brings new evidence about the Holocaust, answering some of the questions above as well as shedding light on the role of women perpetrators. Ms. Lower tells disturbing tales of professional women (nurses, secretaries, etc.) who knew about, helped and or participated in killings .

The Nazi propaganda machine not only conditioned women to accept and tolerate violence, but also to participate in it. The Third Reich not only insisted on women honoring the 3 Ks (Kinder, Küche, Kirche – children, kitchen, church), but also mobilized women to contribute to the terror at home and in the occupied German territories either via administrative work, moral support (it’s hard work killing hundreds a day and the murderers needed snacks, rest and psychological support) or active participation.

The author tells the stories of Nazi mothers who shot, point blank, at scared Jewish kids who happen to escape the train taking them to the gas chambers, or a housewife of an SS officer who took pleasure in ramming Jews with her baby cart and bashing the heads of children in front of their parents. Women used their slaves as target practice and women used to take pleasure at walking into a Jewish children’s hospital in the Ghetto and throwing sick children from the third floor balcony.

The Reich’s brainwashing of racial purity was so successful many didn’t question it. If you wanted a job or a promotion you “did your duty,” even if that meant mass murder. However, this is not an excuse. In war time, perception of “right” and “wrong” get muddied, but that usually occurs on an individual scale, not when it comes to the assisting and/or participating in genocide or a bastardized form of euthanasia (killing your own soldiers who were left mentally or physically injured in battle).

The author writes about the crimes and murders these women committed. They lured hungry children over with the promise of candy only to shoot them in the mouth, bashing children’s heads in the wall (in front of their families), gaining trust by serving food and then made a swift execution of scared, starving and exhausted kids.

The author also asks important questions which negates the women’s claims that they “knew nothing”. Questions such as: how did they miss the mass graves and smell of tens of thousands of corpses during their picnic outings? Who did they think the trainloads of clothes and jewelry belonged to?

The book also touches the fact that violence is not a male-dominated trait. We all have it but in women it comes out differently and the assumption that women won’t engage in mass murder is wrong. This is a dangerous assumption, as the author points out because “minimizing the violent behavior of women creates a false shield” by assuming that one half of the human race won’t murder the other. But given the opportunity, women participate and engaged in genocide just like their male counterparts.

The book ends on a somber note. After World War II the role of the women (half a million were implicated, according to the author) has been minimized and almost forgotten. Most of the women who assisted or participated in the Holocaust went on to live their lives, dying of old age with their family around.

Buy this book in paper or elec­tronic format.

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  • bliffle

    Excellent review! This is a very interesting topic. About 30 years ago a nice middleclass female writer set out to write a book showing that nazi women were a moderating influence in nazi society, and was astonished and horrified to learn that they were at least as monstrous as the men.

    In my own life experience I’ve seen that it is true: women are as violent and capable of unreasoning hatred as men. Like my father and grandfather I’m a pacifist (76 years old and I’ve never had a fight in my life, nor have I raised my hand against woman or child) so I’m always astonished by any violence, but especially female violence. I’ve experienced enough female violence to know that it is not exceptional. Policemen seem to be well aware of female violence, since, in modern times, they do not assume that the husband/father is the provacateur in domestic violence.

    While my father was pacifist, my mother was violent (just 5 years ago my little sister revealed that mom beat her viciously every other day with a stick, which explained why sis left the house immediately on her 18th birthday). But I never saw it. Mom shielded her violence successfully.

    On the whole, women have gotten a pass on violence in the past, but IMO that is changing.