Forgotten Nazis

Of 40 million German women in 1939, 13 million were actively engaged in the party.

Gertrude Segal Landau 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of the US National Archives and Records A)
Gertrude Segal Landau 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of the US National Archives and Records A)
When Angela Merkel recently visited the site of the former Dachau concentration camp, she asked how Germans could “go so far as to deny people human dignity and the right to live based on their race, religion, their political persuasion or their sexual orientation…. Places like this warn us that such things [should] never happen again.”
It disturbed some of the Holocaust survivors listening to her that she was squeezing her visit to Dachau in between a campaign rally and a speech in a beer tent. Some felt that even over 60 years later, there was still a missing chip in the German psyche. It often seems that the generations that have emerged since the Nazis have not yet adequately dealt with the sins of their parents and grandparents, or with the widespread complicity of the German populace in mass genocide – a phenomenon that is becoming more and more evident as new information surfaces from archives unavailable until now.
Holocaust historian Wendy Lower’s book Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields attempts to answer Merkel’s question: How could an entire population become so barbarized and desensitized to normal human empathy and compassion that it would engage in such heinous acts? Her compelling and unsettling book focuses on the participation of German women in the Holocaust as active agents of destruction, particularly on the Eastern front in areas like Poland and the western territories of the USSR (including what today are Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia and Estonia).
Lower recognized that beginning with the Nuremberg trials, authorities were focused on prosecuting male SS killers and often ignored the crimes perpetrated by women. Her scrupulous research in archives that have become available since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as records she uncovered in Israel and the United States, paints a horrifying picture.
She reminds us that there were 40 million German women in 1939, and 13 million were actively engaged in the Nazi Party.
As one example, she writes about Erna Petri, the wife of an SS commander. Petri and her husband stood on the terrace of their Grzenda manor in western Ukraine and, while serving coffee and cake to their friends, shot Jews who were working below.
Petri also confessed to shooting six young boys who had escaped from the boxcars that were taking them to their deaths. She fed them dinner first, walked them into the forest, lined them up and shot each one in the back of the neck as the others howled. Petri was convicted after the war and imprisoned, but released shortly before her death for health reasons.
She was one of 95,000 SS brides.
Lower estimates that at least half a million German women went east as part of the Nazi assault. The German Red Cross, which Hitler ran during the war, trained 640,000 women for wartime service. They worked in field hospitals of the army and the Waffen-SS, and also as radio operators and wiretappers. Some 200,000 of these women served on the Eastern Front in positions such as resettlement advisers, educators and teaching aides for the Reich.
Approximately 30,000 women worked as secretaries and were certified by Himmler’s SS and police as auxiliaries in offices, Gestapo headquarters, and prisons.
They became desk murderers and sadists, often typing up liquidation orders that resulted in the deaths of thousands.
For example, one female chief detective in the Reich Security Main Office worked with 200 female agents scattered across the Reich in collecting evidence of “racially degenerate” youth, whom they branded future criminals. They devised color-coding systems in their pursuit of 2,000 Jewish children, “gypsy” children, and other “delinquents” who were then incarcerated in special internment camps.
Many women worked as nurses in concentration camp infirmaries and participated in the selection of mentally and physically disabled persons, who were then immediately killed – often by lethal injections that the women administered.
Jahanna Altvater, one of 3,500 women who worked as concentration camp guards, rounded up Jewish children in the ghetto infirmary and shot some on the spot, then led others to a vehicle that took them to a mass murder site where they were killed.
Lower is an excellent and patient historian who began her research for this work in 1992, traveling to Kiev and mining Ukrainian state and regional archives.
However, her chapter examining why this phenomenon of women’s participation was able to happen is not as critically penetrating as one would hope. She offers vague explanations about the vulnerability of young German women getting caught up in activities beyond their comprehension and gradually becoming desensitized. She mentions her concerns about the effects of German parenting, which was known at the time to be excessively stern. She considers the possibility that some of them were coerced by their superiors into performing tasks against their will, and weighs the effect of the vitriolic anti-Semitic rhetoric that they had been fed since birth. But eventually she seems to collapse under the weight of her own findings, claiming that “explaining the causes of women’s genocidal behavior is as difficult as trying to pin down the behavior of their male counterparts.”
Reading her book can be emotionally disorienting.
I found myself physically recoiling from a letter that the daughter of a Nazi district chief in Poland wrote to her fiancé.
She describes her experiences in the Lodz ghetto, calling it “really fantastic. A whole city district totally sealed off by a barbedwire fence… On their clothes, they have a yellow star of David behind and in front… You know, one really can’t have any sympathy for these people. I think they feel very differently from us and therefore don’t feel this humiliation and everything.”
The only small comfort I was able to find came about accidentally while I was reading another book, a new biography of Sholem Aleichem. The book’s author, Jeremy Dauber, refers to a story Sholem Aleichem wrote shortly after the vicious Kishinev pogrom in 1903, in which 49 Jews were murdered. The protagonist goes into the fields to gather greens for Shavuot and begins savagely attacking the leaves, screaming, “Vengeance, I shouted without ceasing, ‘vengeance.’ I will have my revenge of you for all the Jewish blood that was spilled… for the Jews who fell in the past, and those who are falling today.”