They Loved Their Work
German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields
By Wendy Lower
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pages
Although Rudyard Kipling told us in 1911 that “the female of the species is more deadly than the male,” and despite the fact that special forces are instructed to shoot female terrorists first in any hostage situation as women are far more likely to kill innocents, somehow women’s capacity for viciousness—especially against children—still has the capacity to shock. Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies is an examination of the behavior of German women stationed in what, since Timothy Snyder’s remarkable 2012 book, we have learned to call the “Bloodlands”—Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic states, and the western USSR. In the course of her well-researched and well-written book—refreshingly free of the gender-studies jargon that sometimes infects tomes of this type—Lower offers up her thesis that “some of the worst killers” were the wives, girlfriends, and mothers of the Wehrmacht and SS soldiers, and that the Holocaust couldn’t have taken place without the logistical backup provided by many thousands of German women, who wholly approved of what they were doing, and indeed enjoyed it.
A professor at Claremont McKenna College and historical consultant for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Lower estimates that at least a half million German women were sent out to the Bloodlands during the Second World War as secretaries, radio operators, kindergarten teachers, drivers, nurses, stenographers, racial examiners, filing clerks, wire-tappers, “resettlement advisers,” and concentration-camp guards. Women did as many jobs as possible so that the Third Reich could maximize the number of men in the front lines.
An astonishing one-third of adult German women, 13 million, were actively involved in the Nazi party organization in some capacity. Far from being seen as a hardship posting, service in the East was perceived as a chance to get on, prove one’s worth, and show initiative. “Women in the eastern territories witnessed and committed atrocities,” Lower states, “as part of what they saw as a professional opportunity and a liberating experience.”
For many of these young women (the average age of a concentration-camp guard was 26, the youngest was 15), working in the Bloodlands was “a high-point in their lives” and an escape from the humdrum, often small-town or rural existence back home. “There were ample rations, first-time romances, servants at one’s disposal, nice villas, late-night parties,” Lower writes. Off they would go into the woods for picnics, flirtation, and occasionally to watch mass shootings and set up the refreshment tables for the weary SS men at lunch and teatime. Although they knew that to refuse to be involved in the killing of Jews would not result in any punishment whatsoever, virtually no one refused.
Lower introduces us to some of the most foul human beings imaginable in this book—not just the famous ones like Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the top woman in the Nazi Party (who only got four years in prison and a 10-year ban on writing journalism). She has trawled German official documents, Soviet-era war-crimes trial records, East German secret police files, the Wiesenthal archive, memoirs, diaries and correspondence, and interviewed a number of the perpetrators themselves. So we meet ordinary German girls such as Erna Petri, a farmer’s daughter from Thuringia, and wife of Horst Petri of the SS Race and Resettlement Office. Horst Petri was a lieutenant of Richard Walther Darré, author of The Pig as a Criterion for Nordic People and Semites (1933). In 1942, the Petris were given an East Galician plantation to cultivate, which had belonged to a Polish nobleman. When Horst was away on duty, six Lublin Jewish children between the ages of six and 12 were captured on the estate, having escaped from a freight train destined for an extermination camp. Erna fed them chicken, then took them into the woods and shot them. Erna Petri later claimed that she had wanted to “prove herself” to her husband and his SS comrades.
That was possibly also the excuse of the young female stenographer in Latvia who “distinguished herself as the life of the party, as well as a mass shooter,” and the secretary in Belarus, who went on a winter hunt with her lover and, finding there was no wildlife to kill, instead shot at Jews “who moved slowly in the snow.” The same might have been true of the female chief detective in the Reich Security Main Office, who used 200 female agents as child-catchers to track down Jewish and gypsy children.
Although German nurses “presented themselves as upstanding medical professionals,” they committed genocidal euthanasia by lethal injection absolutely without qualm, and even hoped to stay in medicine after the war was over. When the Jews were forcibly removed from the ghettoes of Eastern Europe to the gas chambers, it was generally female “resettlement officers” who went through their property, stealing everything of value left behind.
In the course of her investigation into the incredibly deep scope of female participation in the Holocaust, Lower establishes how “most got away with murder” because in 1945 the Allies tended to concentrate on the males responsible, using their wives and girlfriends as witnesses at best. Much of what we know of Horst Petri’s bestial career came from Erna, for example. The extent of female involvement was “suppressed, overlooked, and under-researched” for various reasons—not least, Lower maintains, because “emerging feminist views stressed the victimization of women, not their criminal agency.” Hitler’s Furies comprehensively takes that view to task and provides plenty of evidence that the Holocaust was an equal-opportunity phenomenon—and that for a horrifyingly large number of German women, the war in the East provided “the happiest, best, and most satisfying time of their lives.”