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David Cesarani

Partners in Crime

Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields
By Wendy Lower (Chatto & Windus 258pp £18.99)

In a post-feminist era featuring Lynndie England and female suicide bombers it may no longer be shocking to hear that women at war are as capable of atrocity as men. In 1945, however, the Anglo-American public was disgusted by the spectacle of female SS auxiliaries who had presided over atrocious conditions in Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, Belsen and Buchenwald concentration camps. They seemed to personify the Nazi corruption of morality to the extreme of inverting time-honoured gender roles. Women were supposed to be givers of life, nurturers and carers, but the Third Reich had produced a monstrous regiment of sadists and murderers.

Fortunately the majority of German women posed as victims of Hitlerism, a pretence that many onlookers willingly accepted so as to preserve the natural order. There was, after all, much evidence that the Nazis decried women's emancipation. As soon as the Party took power it edged women out of the workforce. Pro-natalist policies encouraged early marriage and large families. Goebbels's propaganda declared that women were best suited for 'Kinder, Küche, Kirche'. For decades after 1945 it was commonly thought that Hitler even sacrificed the war effort to traditional notions of womanhood and the family, forbidding women to work in factories or enter the forces.

In fact, this was all a myth. A huge proportion of German women without young families were mobilised for labour before and during the war. Women workers dominated the agricultural sector and filled roles created by the ever-expanding state and Party bureaucracy. Many were drawn into the new administrative structures of the racial state. They taught racial hygiene, helped to sterilise those considered unfit to breed, and murdered those deemed unworthy of life. Hundreds of thousands were recruited into the German Red Cross (ending up as army nurses), enlisted in various branches of the military as support staff and volunteered for service with the SS and the security apparatus (including the fast-growing penal system) in Germany and the occupied countries.

Wendy Lower estimates that around half a million were deployed in the conquered territories of eastern Europe alone. However, this cadre understandably avoided publicity after the war and has only recently received scrutiny by German historians. Lower's study, as pioneering as it is readable, reveals a new and disturbing aspect of the Third Reich with uncomfortable contemporary resonances.

Moving east was an alluring prospect for young women bored with their jobs and in search of adventure. Germans had long believed their national woes could be solved by a continental empire stretching to the Volga. They prettified their colonial voracity with the notion that Germany had a civilising mission. After the conquest of eastern Poland, the Nazi regime put this vision into practice by importing settlers to occupy farms and homes from which Poles and Jews had been expelled. This settlement project, later extended to the Soviet Union, required thousands of women as teachers, social workers and administrators.

There was no shortage. As Lower explains, a generation of German women raised on Nazism were inspired by the imperial task. It kindled a fierce sense of belonging to the German Volk and fed off youthful idealism to serve a cause. What few realised until they arrived was that colonisation involved mass murder on a vast scale. Soon after disembarking they saw signs of forced evictions, heard about shootings and encountered Jews incarcerated in disease-ridden ghettos.

Making superb use of postwar investigations, interrogations and the transcripts of trials in both West and East Germany, Lower reconstructs the short, frequently brutal careers of 13 woman who served in the East, either on assignment or as volunteers. Some followed boyfriends or spouses, taking a job nearby or moving in with them. With a few exceptions, they took to genocide like little girls take to dolls.

At best, nurses were passive witnesses who acquiesced in the slaughter around them. But many turned themselves into accomplices by benefiting from the massacres. It was customary for women working in soldiers' rest-homes or hospitals to help themselves to clothing from the depots where the belongings of murdered Jews were stored. There was gold there, too, which was handy for getting fillings made. Lower, who writes with restrained indignation, remarks that 'the greed of these German men and women who gained access to the plunder was seemingly insatiable'.

Secretaries who typed up orders and instructions for ghetto clearances were already a species of 'desk murderer'. Yet some did more than just the paperwork. They joined the lads in the shooting, carousing with the killers in breaks between murder. Killing invaded sensual life. One woman recalled that after a day of executions men would return to base and require their female assistants to complete the after-action reports, leading to more than a spot of dictation. It was common for a secretary to become the girlfriend or mistress and then the wife of an SS man, sharing his bed and his murderous pastimes. In these relationships the boundary between the home front and the front line blurred. Already a racially determined process in the Third Reich - what Lower dubs 'racial mating' - marriages in the East 'became essentially partnerships in crime'. Handsome marital homes were available thanks to state-run pillaging, while slave labour provided a supply of (expendable) domestic servants. The power to kill heightened erotic experiences.

In some of the most shocking evidence that she has unearthed, Lower describes how race overrode supposedly natural maternal instincts. One woman, married to an SS officer, beat a Jewish child to death with her bare hands. Another, whose husband ran an expropriated estate, personally killed starving Jewish children who had escaped from a transport. She offered them sweets then shot them in the mouth. Her own child was three years old.

So, how could they do such things? Lower's explanation suffers a little from the biographical approach, a technique that serves well to engage a general readership (which may also be the reason for eschewing the convenience of numbered footnotes) but disrupts the elucidation of structural causes. She stresses the generational dimension - the majority of the women were aged between 18 and 25, which means that socialisation under Hitler and youthful zeal were factors - but some were older, which complicates the picture.

Lower insists that her case studies are representative, and here she is convincing. Rather than a band of crazed fanatics or deviants, they were 'ordinary young women with typical pre-war biographies'. Girls in the Reich were shaped by propaganda in school, the Hitler Youth, the League of German Girls and labour service. In these institutions they were taught that all moral questions could be answered by what was good for the Volk. Aliens were to be exploited ruthlessly, while enemies had to be destroyed. 'In the minds of Hitler and his followers, and many German patriots, the Final Solution was a defensive act of liberation from the encroaching power of globalising Jewry.'

This ethos was normative in the East. As one woman said at her trial, killing Jews was so commonplace it was not seen as wrong. Nurses who had previously been engaged in the compulsory euthanasia programme at home had already learned to justify murder in pseudo-scientific and professional terms. But Lower drills deeper and, necessarily, explores the specific part played by gender.

Some women wanted to prove that they were as tough as the men. Others got a kick out of participating in the taboo-breaking activities possible in the land beyond the Reich. This was 'the Ostrausch - the intoxication of the East', where 'hedonism and genocide went hand in hand'. Lower suggests that, by moving smoothly between roles as carers and killers and smudging the demarcation between the marital couch and the killing ground, these women were inadvertently enacting a 'sexual revolution'.

Of course, this was not their defence when, all too rarely, justice finally caught up with them. Rather, they posed as flighty young things who just did what male authority figures told them was the right thing to do. In retrospect, however, they may be seen as terrifying precursors of a world in which the female genocidaire is the embodiment of total gender equality.

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David Cesarani is completing a book for Macmillan on the fate of Jews from 1933 to 1949.

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