Women like Petri, according to the historian Wendy Lower’s new book Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, “were not marginal sociopaths,” but ordinary German citizens. These women were raised in the shadow of World War I, and their primary education consisted of ideological indoctrination. The League of German Girls were taught to reject makeup and cultivate their beauty outdoors, to seek a dewy glow from marching drills and sharpshooting. In school, Petri no doubt received the Third Reich’s pamphlet on finding a husband, a process that began by asking, “What is your racial background?” They were trained to be “patriotic nurturers and combatants,” and their schooling primarily focused on their roles as future wives and mothers. If all went well, they would soon receive a wedding edition of Mein Kampf from the Führer himself.
Petri was just one of about 500,000 German and Austrian women, aged 17 to 30 years old, who went east during World War II. Hitler called for the restoration of Germany’s 1914 borders, and he used evocative imagery of the American West to do it. The accompanying propaganda included a board game depicting German settlers as pioneers, and photographs of SS policemen riding across the plains on motorcycles. If a “civilizing mission” to establish Aryan living spaces abroad was not enough to tempt a youthquake, the explicit opportunities for professional advancement sealed the deal.
Between 1941 and 1944, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia became a Nazi playground for these teachers, secretaries, radio operators, wire tappers, welfare workers, lovers, and wives. The killing fields served as a backdrop for women’s youthful adventures, their first chance to travel, work, fall in love, marry, and have children. At home, whether they hailed from small villages or big cities, there were shortages of every kind. But in the East, a poor farm girl like Petri could live in a mansion replete with an elaborate balcony on which to perch, plantation-style, and shoot Jewish workers. Single women fared well, too: away from home for the first time, they were suddenly able to procure new clothing and attend raucous parties. Some took advantage of their proximity to men in power, and mistresses became wives.
Violence, as Lower points out, was often entangled with both intimacy and recreation for women in the Nazi East. It was not uncommon to pass mass graves while taking a lover’s stroll in the forest, or picnic near a concentration camp within visible range of smoke rising from a crematorium. In Belarus, a German commissioner and his lover-secretary obstinately took to the countryside for wintertime hunts, substituting Jews for hibernating animals. Malnourished and exhausted, they made for easy targets.
The women Lower depicts not only ignored these grisly details; in some cases, they relished them. In a letter home to her fiancé, the daughter of a Nazi district chief in Warthegau, Poland, demonstrates a cruel fascination with a “species verging on extinction”:
It’s really fantastic […] A whole city district totally sealed off by a barbed-wire fence … You mostly see just riff-raff loafing about. On their clothes, they have a yellow Star of David both behind and in the front (Daddy’s invention, he speaks only about the starry sky of Lodz) […] You know, one really can’t have any sympathy for these people. I think that they feel very differently from us and therefore don’t feel this humiliation and everything.
To varying degrees, young women in the Nazi East enabled or enacted horrific crimes against humanity. Men controlled the agencies that organized and carried out the Reich’s campaigns, but women worked in and for these massive state-run machines of destruction. They wielded unprecedented power by association over a group of people categorized as “subhuman,” and, like their husbands, they had been socialized to “witness suffering arrogantly.”
Those women who did experience traces of empathy upon arrival expressed desires to become rid of it. In a letter home, a Nazi secretary bemoaned her inability to stoically process the orders for mass murder that came across her desk, written in a code few around her understood. She hoped to adjust soon, to “[n]ot think, not feel.” Ilse Struwe, a teacher, similarly used her role as witness to cultivate apathy. Her room faced the cinema used by the SS as a stopover from ghetto to mass shooting site. As she gazed down on the scene, she found no fault with the young policemen, but rather with the Jews themselves. When they threw pots and pans at the pavement, she “wanted to cry out: Do something! That is not enough! Arm yourselves! You are in the majority! A few of you could save yourselves!” She did not, of course, attempt to intervene. Like many of the women Lower researched, she simply willed herself to be a passive bystander.
For other women, proximity to brutality inspired greater participation. Like Petri, a staggering number of women made the personal decision to move from witness to actor, to pick up a gun or ram a Jew with a pram while their “racially pure” baby slept soundly inside. They were “adept at slipping in and out of roles,” Lower writes, “from the unbridled revolutionary to the meek, subservient wife.” “Desk murderers” were common, the women who “not only typed up liquidation orders but also participated in the ghetto massacres and attended mass shootings.”
500,000 women had front-row seats to the Final Solution, where they watched and benefitted from the rapidly declining “racially inferior” masses. And yet their presence, and their atrocities, have been largely ignored for the last 70 years. Twenty years ago, Lower was researching in Zhytomyr, a city in western Ukraine, leafing through the normal stuff of archives, the fading ink and illegible handwriting on tattered paper, some of which had bootprints and charred edges. It was there, among the German records that had been inaccessible under the Iron Curtain, that Lower began to notice an abundance of women’s names among the empire-builders. Nurses who experienced a clear perversion of their profession readily justified their transition from savings lives to taking them, explaining that “death by gas doesn’t hurt.” A former German kindergarten teacher recalled her unease upon entering the eastern occupied zone in 1942. She was unaccustomed to hearing a rapid succession of gunshots, but a nearby Nazi official quelled her fears, assuring her it was “just that a few Jews were being shot.”
There is link between the shockingly cavalier testimony given by these women and our collective ignorance of their actions in the Nazi East: genocide is usually considered the business of men, and thus, when it came time to call Nazis to account for their crimes, prosecutors were less interested in these women than in their male colleagues and husbands, people of position and ascertainable power. German defense lawyers convinced courts that women lacked the authority to enact atrocities. Despite the international community’s acute taste for war crime trials, only the rare, flagrantly sadistic woman, like Ilse Koch, the “Bitch of Buchenwald,” captured public attention. In the throes of denazification, courts simply concluded that women were not a threat to postwar German society. That meant a woman like Johanna Altvater, who took particular pleasure in luring Jewish children to their deaths with the promise of candy, could be deemed “usefully employed.” That was written on her file after a man testified that he had witnessed her, during the liquidation of a ghetto, beat his toddler’s head into a wall. Altvater was one of the rare women who were actually tried, and despite copious amounts of eyewitnesses, she was acquitted — twice.
Jewish survivors have consistently described German women in the Nazi East as violent tormenters, not innocent bystanders. Recounting horrific acts, however, proved far easier than naming the perpetrators. Often their names were never known by their victims, while others married after the war and changed their surnames. As for the women themselves, these witnesses, pillagers, tormenters, and murderesses kept quiet for reasons other than accountability; they had good memories of Germany’s seemingly limitless future, and their ambitious roles within it.
Hitler’s Furies is an unsettling but significant contribution to our understanding of how nationalism, and specifically conceptions of loyalty, are normalized, reinforced, and regulated. By asking important questions about the pervasive culpability of Nazi women, Lower has highlighted a historical blind spot. And yet, the lens through which this book will no doubt be understood, that of “women’s history,” is a problematic one, as it suggests that the actions of half of the population exist in a separate sphere. Mass murder cannot occur without the broad participation of society. None of these women had to stand by as witnesses, serve as accomplices, or take the lives of others, but the vast majority of them did just that.
The presence of 500,000 women in the Nazi East is integral to our understanding of World War II, Nazism, and the Holocaust. Indeed, it is a crowded field, but one in which fundamental questions are still unanswered, and perhaps need to be asked in different ways. By conducting a decades long, exhaustive research project, Lower holds these women accountable, which is more than the international justice system was able to do. What actually happened to these women, after they fled the encroaching Red Army and returned their old lives? As Lower concludes on the final page of Hitler’s Furies, “They got away with murder.”
Alexis Coe is a writer in San Francisco. Her first book Alice + Freda Forever will be published next year.