Lecturer Examines Role of Women in Nazi Killings

John K. Roth Professor of History at Claremont McKenna College Wendy Lower delivered a lecture entitled “Hitler’s Furies: Women in the Nazi Killing Fields” on Thursday, April 10. Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor in Humanities, Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing Peter Balakian introduced Lower’s lecture.

Lower recently published a book with the same title, which was nominated for the National Book Award. This book is a product of the extensive research on the role of German women in Eastern Europe that Lower began in the

summer of 1992.

It seemed to Lower there was a disconnect between the historical representation of women during World War II and her research, which showed ways in which hundreds of thousands of women directly contributed to the war and, in many cases, to the goals of the Nazis. Specifically, hundreds of thousands of German women chose to move to Belarus, eastern Poland, Ukraine and some parts of Russia to serve Germany’s war efforts and to fulfill their labor requirements. However, women have either been perceived by history as martyrs or as comforters to husbands or boyfriends when they returned from doing “heinous things.”

“[I noticed this] blind spot that in time became a glaring omission,” Lower said. “This was a story that had to get out, but the crimes of these women was not the full story.”

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lower could gain access to archives in Ukraine regarding German activities in Eastern Europe. In these archives, Lower found school records of classes taught by German women, which initially piqued her interest regarding German women in Eastern Europe.

Further research showed hundreds of thousands of other women served as nurses, secretaries and clerks. Many more acted as “resettlement advisors,” to help settle Germans moving into Eastern Europe, as part of the Nazis’ goal of German dominance, and the women helped establish and preserve German culture in these areas. Other women were responsible for the islands of Heimat, or homes set up for soldiers to visit and feel like they were in “civilized Germany.” While many moved with spouses or significant others who were S.S. officers or served the Nazis in other capacities, thousands of single women moved as well.

Lower found that many women testified to Nazi policies and actions in trials following the war, and sought to find out how these women were aware of so many plans and details. Her discovery of these thousands of women in Eastern Europe seemed to imply that women were not exclusively innocent bystanders during the war.

“Many of these soldiers – men who hadn’t been around women for a while – would go into these Heimat houses and just be happy to be around women,” Lower said. “They would tell stories and information to them and so these women became vessels of information.”

In her research, Lower found 13 German women who lived in Eastern Europe during the war. Her subjects had varying roles and contributions, especially in respect to violence. Most of the women were born in 1920 or 1921 and a few are still alive, allowing Lower to speak with some directly.

Lower wanted to avoid presenting the “eroticized caricatures” of women during the war. For example, Irma Grese, who worked at the Ravensbr??ck, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps and was executed at age 22 for crimes against humanity, has been nicknamed the “Beautiful Beast of Belsen” and the “Blonde Angel of Auschwitz.” Lower chose to emphasize the narratives of these 13 women as less extreme and idealized examples of German women during the war.

Lower hypothesized that women earning the right to vote prior to the war helped mobilize them to not only support the rise of the Nazis but also to contribute to the war in meaningful ways.

“The consequences of this politicization and mobilization were, unfortunately,

devastating,” Lower said.

 However, not all of these consequences derived from ill intentions. One of the women Lower cites said, in regard to moving to Eastern Europe, “I wanted to make something of myself and of my life.”

The book takes a generational and biographical approach to telling the narrative.

“I wanted to use a biography because it can show change,” Lower said. “These women could, and did, switch roles a lot during their lives.”

One of the women Lower mentioned in her lecture was Liselotte Meyer, a secretary who had a long affair with the S.S. officer who led the German outpost in Lida, Belarus. As a secretary, Lower found, Meyer had an alarming amount of authority; Lower found one order Meyer had written in which she demanded the shooting of 16 Jews. Lower also found in testimony the following justification for one of Meyer’s acts of violence.

“I wanted to show that I could conduct myself as a man, so I shot six Jewish children and four other Jews,” Meyer’s testimony said.

Secretaries and other women were also present during the humiliating deportation marches of Jews. Lower found evidence that some secretaries had the ability to choose out some Jews during these marches to save them from death.

“I didn’t intend to shock my readers, but instead to explain how many women did what they did,” Lower said.The latter part of Lower’s speech explained how in her book, she also sought to provide some attempts to understand the actions of these women, as well as the contributions her work means for the understanding of genocide.

“There is some consensus among historians that it is certain systems that make genocide possible, and especially the cooperation of people in these systems,” Lower said. “Half the population that contributed to and supported the Nazi’s system had been neglected by history, and I wanted to show their roles, too.”

Contact Selina Koller at [email protected].