- Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower
This excellent study breaks new ground. Fine books have appeared on female Nazi guards and auxiliaries in the concentration camps, but this is the first to analyze the thousands of ordinary German women who went to the Eastern areas—Poland, Russia, and Ukraine—occupied by Germany during the Second World War.1 These women exercised their power fully and brutally in this Nazi imperial domain.
Wendy Lower’s well-documented study is based on thousands of wartime documents, court records, and interviews across Eastern Europe, Israel, and the United States. Included are fifty pages of notes that attest to the exhaustive research that went into the making of this book.
The author estimates that approximately 500,000 German women went to the East to assist the Nazi occupiers of the newly conquered “living space.” Some were young nurses, teachers, or secretaries; others were the wives of SS, Gestapo, or military officials. They became witnesses, accomplices, and killers, playing an important role in the Holocaust. They were motivated by hatred, power, greed, and notions of revenge—all authorized and justified by their service in the imperial conquests of the Third Reich. These women came from diverse socio-economic backgrounds and from both Germany and Austria. They were transformed into killers of Jews, and even of Jewish children, although some of the women had children of their own. Lower asserts that in both general histories of the Holocaust and studies of Nazi women, scholars have greatly underestimated the role these women played both during and after the war. She shows that the Nazi genocidal system could not have functioned without the participation of the thousands of women who filled key positions in the Nazi hierarchy as both helpers and overseers.
These women were not forced to become witnesses, accomplices, and killers. Lower writes: “Hitler’s furies were not marginal sociopaths. They believed that their violent deeds were justified acts of revenge meted out to the enemies of the Reich. Such deeds were in their minds expressions of loyalty” (p. 4). She analyzes three main aspects of their involvement: first, as witnesses, they were present at killing-field picnics and observed mass shootings; they witnessed firsthand the atrocities committed in the ghettos and the degradation of Jewish laborers. Next, as accomplices, they transmitted [End Page 284] orders for mass killings, beat Jews, and robbed them of all their possessions. Finally, they acted as perpetrators themselves. In the course of the Nazi “euthanasia” project, which began in Germany in 1939 and spread to the occupied Eastern territories, nurses assisted in the murder of thousands of sick adults and children. Female auxiliaries and administrators also aided in the genocide.
Some female perpetrators killed with their own hands, using pistols, rifles, or whips. Johanna Altvater, a secretary, killed a Jewish toddler and threw the lifeless body at the feet of the child’s father. The father later testified, saying: “Such sadism from a woman I have never seen. I will never forget this” (p. 104). Others shot Jews from balconies, threw Jews into trucks, or went on “hunting” expeditions to kill Jews. Erna Petri, the wife of a Nazi official in Ukraine, who had two small children of her own, encountered six Jewish children who had escaped from a transport. She brought the children to her home and then shot them. Liesel Willhaus, the wife of an SS man, shot Jewish camp inmates with her child at her side. SS wife Gertrude Segel killed her three maids and trampled a Jewish child to death. Lower concludes that the activities of these women in the camps and in their homes were not separate, but overlapped. Killings took place at estates and villas as well as at the many camps.
In a revealing chapter, the author examines the explanations the women provided after the war. They pleaded ignorance and claimed not to remember what they had done. They said that they were...