Dr. Wendy Lower visited Haifa and gave a lecture on her book “Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields,” published this past October and now available in Hebrew. The book, which was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award, follows Dr. Lower’s research as she shows different ways in which German women were involved in the perpetration of Nazi crimes during the Second World War. While Dr. Lower was in Haifa, current MA student Leah Hansen sat down with her to discuss the book, her research, and the field of Holocaust studies.
LH: I really enjoyed “Hitler’s Furies,” particularly the writing style. You made these women compelling characters, and at times I found myself admiring them in a way (such as taking action to create a better life for themselves rather than being passive). This is not something I’ve seen in representations of perpetrators. There also seems to be a certain amount of creative license taken when writing the women’s stories. For example, when Ivens received her teaching assignment, you wrote: “When a thin blue envelope with official stamps on it arrived, Ivens suddenly felt her heart beating faster.” It’s what makes this book so compelling and powerful, but are you worried at all about romanticizing the perpetrator? Can you talk about why you made the choice to write this book in this style?
WL: One of the things that’s interesting about the possibilities of writing in that way goes right back to the source material and the fact that Ivens published a memoir. Memoir writing is already very personal, and so as a source you can get at that level of description of emotional reaction to an event that you can’t get in other sources like official documents – memoirs are intimate sources. How she described that moment of receiving the letter was how I interpreted her excitement and nervousness. To a lesser degree we can do the same with documents and other testimonies. You see, for instance, in some Nazi documentation, a thick description of an event or a meeting. We have the protocol from the Wannsee Conference. According to Eichmann’s postwar account, Heydrich and Eichmann toasted to their success with a cognac. That toast has been portrayed in a film version and so forth. These were men of rank, bureaucrats, ministerial level, sitting around, and you can imagine what that atmosphere was like. Not every historian writes in that way, but I don’t think it’s disingenuous in terms of faithfulness to the sources. It’s the challenge of history writing. It is narration that combines a scientific empirical approach with storytelling.
LH: Did you worry about portraying these individuals in a positive light?
WL: I realized something in an earlier book I worked on, a diary project on a Jewish victim of the Holocaust. I worked on that for seven years and I don’t even know if I got his name right in the end, that’s how scattered the documentation was on him. I barely knew what he looked like. It was a very personal account, very emotional – he was suicidal and it was a very intense, intimate document. I realized that you can work on an individual and exhaust as many archives and try to turn over every stone to try to find information, and in the end you’ll never be satisfied. You can never paint a complete portrait of another individual. It will never be completely accurate. You have to accept that. It’s humbling. You realize: I’ll never quite get to the bottom of this; I’ll never quite understand this person or represent this person accurately. But you can still try. So with this book, I knew going into it that I could not portray them precisely, the way they would present themselves or the way they actually were at the time. Someone like Annette Schücking-Homeyer is representative of a group of women, perhaps the majority, who were witnesses and really felt paralyzed, helpless, frustrated, and powerless. But she best articulated that, and her source material was so rich that she became kind of a stand-in for that larger phenomenon of German female responses to the Holocaust. I couldn’t crowd this book up with so many biographies – it made sense to select the thirteen who were the most interesting and representative of that lost generation of young women.
LH: Did you find that examining those thirteen women to be a methodological limitation? How representative can these stories be for the ½ million German women who went East?
WL: I was guided in part by the source material and in part by patterns I started to see. So in that sense, you cannot avoid this inevitable trap of simplifying the complex reality of an individual character who changes over time. There were so many other women who come to my mind and didn’t make the final cut, who seemed like anomalies, and my hunch is that there were many more women like them. I really feel like this book is the beginning. It’s not the definitive study on this, but moves into uncharted territory in Holocaust studies. I’m just trying to put this out there as a spectrum of reality, based on published material and as much archival material as I could gather. It is going to take years of additional research to flesh out these other types, to establish that women like their male counterparts participated in the Holocaust in myriad ways. The literature on German women, in my view, did not stress enough this range of behavior and participation, of politicization and involvement.
LH: You wrote: “The young women of the era looked forward, not backward. They were not self-proclaimed feminists; in fact, most in their generation spurned the suffragettes as passé. When the Nazis called to abolish the female vote in 1933, German women did not go on a hunger strike. Their enemy was not ‘the oppressive male’; for many, it became ‘the Jew,’ ‘the asocial,’ ‘the Bolshevik,’ and ‘the feminist.’ It was the Jewish intellectual who spoke of the emancipation of women, Hitler declared in 1934. The Nazi movement would ‘emancipate women from woman’s emancipation.’ In fact, German Jewish women had played a significant role in social reform and women’s movements in the Weimar era. Thus Hitler’s pronouncements served two ends – the removal of Jews from German politics, and the crushing of an independent women’s movement in Germany.”
As a student in this program, we’ve studied a lot about why “the Jew, the asocial, and the Bolshevik” were perceived to be enemies of the Third Reich, but why were German women considered to be so threatening? Why did women need to be “emancipated from woman’s emancipation”?
WL: I believe it was Rosenberg who said they needed to be “emancipated from women’s emancipation,” but similar arguments were made by Goebbels and Hitler. First of all, the Nazis pursued a racial revolution, which had an antisemitic core to it. It started out as a political revolution with the establishment of a dictatorship, an anti-democratic, anti-communist, and anti-liberal program. Any other political party that somehow challenged the hegemony of the Nazi party was to be crushed, so by the summer of 1933 it was a one-party system. The women’s movement was considered a threat to the extent that it was an independent movement. It also was closely aligned with the communist movement, which called for equality and women’s rights. The German women’s movement was a conservative movement going back to the late-19th century, but women’s causes appeared across the political spectrum, some more radical than others. It could fall into so-called women’s issues, mostly having to do with birth control, hygiene, prostitution, the welfare state, and so forth, which became national concerns. From the standpoint of the Nazis, who did not want women to hold formal positions of power that subverted the patriarchal hierarchy and roles of men as the heads of households, German women could not be operating independently in a political party, but they needed to be corralled, reigned in, and controlled by the Nazi movement and Hitler’s specific agenda. So in the beginning of the establishment of the Third Reich in 1933, women resisters were targeted and rounded up It’s important to stress that Jewish women were a part of the politically active culture in Germany, so they were doubly targeted as Jews, and also as female activists, communists, bourgeois-nationalists. In fact they were initially targeted as part of this political revolution, Some 8,000 women in the first phase of the regime’s political consolidation, both German women who were Jewish and non-Jewish, were arrested and persecuted. The Nazi movement rejected female emancipation as encouraging an unbridled display of the “new woman” – this was an anathema. This was considered the source of German degeneration. And they would also portray it as a Jewish conspiracy in a way, the downfall of the Hausfrau by the independent cosmopolitan woman. Nazi leaders blamed the emancipated women for their promotion of birth control, licentious sexual behavior and sexual reform movements. And yet during the Nazi era, many of these trends continued, were refashioned into Nazi racial policies of Aryan procreation.
LH: So much has been written about community, comradeship, and the male bond. The picture that has been painted by historians in their portrayal of the Third Reich is one that is male-dominated to the extreme. You quoted Erna Petri, who, when questioned to her motivations for killing Jewish children, “referred to the antisemitism of the regime and her own desire to prove herself to the men.” Did women feel they needed to be even more brutal than men in order to prove themselves, gain respect, and be accepted by their husbands, friends, and colleagues on the Eastern front? You mentioned that they had to over-step their authority in order to murder, to take that extra agency. However, it seems like their motivation was mostly because of the male-dominated environment they were in, rather than ideological conviction. In other words, does this take away some of the women’s agency that this book seeks to give?
WL: It sounds to me like you’re questioning if violence has gendered elements. So if we speak about female perpetration versus male perpetration, is it enacted in a way that, if women are doing it, are they doing it because they are projecting themselves in a male form of violence, so mimicry?
LH: And would they behave the same way if they were in a female-dominated environment?
WL: Or would different forms of violence emerge in a kind of female form? A couple of observations because it’s not an easy question to answer, and there really isn’t enough theoretical work done on this. Thomas Kühne’s work on Kameradschaft is very interesting in terms of male forms of bonding. It comes out in the male perpetrator literature on the Wehrmacht and on the SS, the kind of male self-fashioning that goes on among men and in relation to women.,We know less about female self-fashioning and forms of bonding. It’s an area that is so revolutionary in a way, because there’s not a history of female violence as a special category of analysis in Holocaust history. Instead most of the literature either avoids the topic, or deals with it superficially, often perpetuating stereotypes or clichés of sexualized behavior.(what historian Claudia Koonz keenly observes as eroticizing evil in women). Social scientists have tried to figure this all out, including Freud’s crazy theories, explaining female criminality as women having too much testosterone, as hairier than men and so forth. There’s an interesting biological nature/nurture piece to it that’s very unclear and gets into the area of behavior studies and violence studies. But these German women in my book who participated in the violence did so with men. Their behavior was shaped by the violence they saw being perpetrated by men. They saw themselves as part of this community, this society. Erna Petri learned how to shoot a gun and how to kill because of what the men were talking about – she overheard them talking about the most efficient way to do it. Perhaps more research on the Volksgemeinschaft as a gendered revolution would contribute to a better understanding of the female violence as part of a male-female dynamic.
On the other hand there are distinctive features of women’s participation in the Holocaust and their behavior that we can call “female” – we know from the camp literature, for instance, that the female guards practiced forms of violence and terror tactics vis-à-vis the prisoners. The use of the dog was more prevalent, yelling, slapping, there were certain things that were typical of the female guards. These women outside the camp that are in my book, the killers primarily used pistols, handguns that they somehow obtained through various channels, or the parlor rifle – a weapon that could be a domestic tool, shooting from the balconies. A Polish scholar is working on a study about these balcony shootings, we have identified several, it was much more common in Poland at the perimeters of the camps, in this setting of the villa or the Kommandant’s house, which was a domestic space and had (on the balcony) became a site of surveillance. I didn’t find many cases of German women participating in sadistic acts, really gruesome acts, almost pogrom-style – we know there were many Polish and Ukrainian, Lithuanian female pogromists, but I didn’t find German women at those scenes, or involved in rituals of cutting the beards off Jewish victims or slicing off sexual organs, I could find documentation on their presence as cheering spectators, but not as the direct perpetrators. So somehow there’s an element of German female participation in violence in the killing fields that still seems to me to be orderly, controlled, domesticated, and bourgeois. It had a kind of perverse correctness, or self control, formality to it. The case of Johanna Altvater who went into the ghetto was gruesome, how she killed the child with her bare hands, but there is not a lot of evidence of German women participating on that level of sadistic cruelty.
LH: But ideology didn’t seem to be as important a motive as being in this type of male-dominated eastern frontier environment.
WL: Yes, but I see being part of the national project going East, someone like Annette Schücking-Homeyer was still very patriotic and very nationalistic, so it’s not an either/or proposition. I think that ideologies are multi-faceted and individuals latch onto different pieces of whatever their national project is, or national ideals or so-called national values, and that’s how they end up in these situations. In terms of hands-on, actual participation in violence, proximity definitely mattered, but the decision making behind whether or not they got to that point, to those locations, was not only because they were filling a compulsory labor service, but because they were doing their duty as good loyal Germans, as patriots. They believed that their existence was threatened by the spread of Judeo-Bolshevism, and believed that the war had to be fought and had to be won. They exhibited little to no empathy vi a vis the Jews and other so-called inferiors or Reich enemies.
LH: The role of German women has been overlooked by scholars. It seems such an obvious area to explore, that you would naturally consider women along with men, and yet, when I reflect on my own studies, I’ve learned all about the Reich Security Main Office, but I personally never even considered the secretaries who ran the offices. Given how far we’ve come in terms of women’s history and focusing on areas that are often overlooked, do you think this is an issue that is specific to the area of Holocaust studies, in terms of wanting to point fingers at active perpetrators rather than people behind the desk, as opposed to other academic disciplines?
WL: I think there’s always a shortage of women’s history, period. In most of the books we read, women are underrepresented. Generalizations are made in studies in social histories and political histories that are just not incorporating empirical evidence representing the voices, varied experiences of women. So you start from that fact. You know we have “women’s histories” per se, a relative small number, but I’m also talking about the big histories now, the syntheses that come out on WWI and on the Holocaust, popular history, American history, really in general, look through the indexes, look through the narrative for female voices, which are mostly absent.There are great exceptions to that. I think that Richard Evans’ trilogy on the Third Reich is marvelous in terms of incorporating women. But those richer, more detailed tapestries are so rare; historians have to be conscious of this void, and take up the challenge of researching under-represented groups. We’re still in this mode in which history-writing is fairly bifurcated, some deliberately take on a women’s history topic, others write histories of the Holocaust in which women are absent. So this was really alarming for me when I went through major studies in the field and realized that women were not represented, or appeared in very small numbers. And often it’s just the same portraits: Leni Riefenstahl, the camp guards.. That said, there is of course a Holocaust historiography on women, so I don’t want to dismiss that work. There was a Historikerinnenstreit about German women in Nazi Germany, a very vibrant, interesting, and exciting field. Social history started to make inroads, raising questions of women and children during the war. But until recently perpetrator studies was mostly done by men so the way questions were posed and the way material was analyzed was also skewed by that. Of course the fact that war and genocide are largely male endeavors accounts for the stress on men in the history books.
LH: What’s next for you? This book opened up many avenues for future research. Are you planning on continuing to research some of the topics that you brought to light?
WL: I’m not going to continue with the women but I would love to work with students who want to, and I’m working with a couple now. I’m clearly interested in it and will continue to be, and I want to support research in that area. It’s important to start to look comparatively at other cases of women in other genocides and see how relevant some of the patterns I identified are to other cases, especially when you get into issues of gender and gender expectations and masculinity and femininity and you get into this whole realm of generalizations, and you want to put those to the test with other cultural studies. So that’s something I’m continuing to keep my eye on, but I’m not systematically researching it. I’m working now on a story that’s unfolding around a photograph, because a lot of my research on this book, much of it was stimulated by looking at photographs. That book project is about how the field of Holocaust studies has been very important for developing interdisciplinary research methods in general. In this field we interact across disciplines and use varied source materials and methods. I think that some critics of Holocaust studies assert that it’s very narrow and wonder about its application or its future, We have become a bit insular. We’ve accomplished a lot, over decades now, beginning with Raul Hilberg’s incredible use of German records and Browning’s recent work on testimony, and earlier than that, the use of testimony that was brought into the work of Yitzhak Arad and Yisrael Gutman, and Dan Michman’s work on ghettos. There have been a lot of exciting developments in the field of Holocaust studies that are methodologically pioneering, and rather unique. The intent of the book I’m working on now is to share these developments with a broader audience, and to hopefully introduce this to graduate students, to demonstrate that interdisciplinary work can be done and these forms of analyses and theories are applicable to other fields. In the same ways that studies of the French Revolution ended up being pretty monumental for anyone working in history, or how some methods of medievalists introduced us to ways to read evidence, the silences and gaps in evidence, and self-representations. I think Holocaust research has a lot to contribute to the field of history in general and the discussion of methods and source analysis. It shouldn’t just be a discussion among our colleagues and to our graduate students, but it’s something that should be shared with the larger community of historians and graduate students training to become historians.
LH: I have one last question. Holocaust studies is not an easy field, for a variety of reasons. What is one piece of advice you would give upcoming/future Holocaust scholars?
WL: I guess the advice I would give a budding scholar or student is to keep going back to the archives, just keep going back to the sources. By archives I mean in the larger sense, not just the Nazi documentation, but sources of all types that represent the war and the Holocaust. There’s a vast amount of material. Stay as close to that as possible. There are so many ways to interpret it and apply all these different multi-disciplinary tools. I think over time we’ll keep revising it and reinterpreting it, but I think the obligation we have as scholars, and even in a memorial way for the victims, is to stay as close as we can to the actual material because it reveals much about humanity, genocide, antisemitism, modern Europe, and modernity. There are endless questions you can pose to the material. I’m very excited about going to the Yad Vashem archives tomorrow, I think that this type of everyday energy to research, the drive to discover, keeps this field going. Again, we have this incredible reservoir of material that doesn’t exist in any other case of genocide and it’s instructive for the future.
And remember that whatever you get into, it will define you, and you’ll be defined by it. Think carefully about it, because you’ll be occupied with it for many years, and that’s something to think through. Don’t be too impulsive about what you happen to stumble across. It takes time to formulate a good research question. Stick with the material, but think about the implications of what you’re working on. There’s a temptation to assume the material will speak for itself because it is so powerful, but then you’re not really doing the work of a scholar; you’re not really shaping the field if you’re not interpreting it and raising new questions, identifying the gaps, opening new lines of inquiry and debate.
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website: http://holocaust-studies.haifa.ac.il/