The Holocaust has been written about from countless angles, approached through survivor memoirs, political analyses, historical perspectives and fictional accounts. While a wide variety of men who participated in the National Socialist movement have been depicted in these accounts, much less has been written about the role of women (besides an infamous few). So who were the unnamed women behind the regime? In HITLER’S FURIES, history professor Wendy Lower explores the lives of 13 young women who came of age during the rise of Nazism in Germany and participated in the regime’s work.
Lower’s stated goal is to expose the more mundane but equally necessary work of the majority of females who contributed to the genocide. Male Nazis have long overshadowed their female counterparts in Holocaust history. Because legal action was pursued less vigorously against women than against men, Lower asserts that the majority of women responsible for crimes during the war were able to reintegrate into society. This is due in part to the general difficulty pursuing individuals who participated in Nazism in an unofficial or low-level capacity. Women without a paper trail proved some of the most difficult to pin down and hold responsible.
"Lower brings into ringing clarity a subsection of society that had not previously received the same sort of scrutiny as others who had committed crimes during the Holocaust. Her research underlines the tendency of all humans to adjust to their surroundings, even when that requires behaving in an inhuman way."
Though she thoroughly describes general governmental pressure applied to women to produce racially pure offspring, Lower focuses on women who wanted to participate as more than just mothers. None of the women examined are camp guards or officers; they play more traditional female roles, such as working as nurses, secretaries and teachers, and a number are involved because they are married to Nazi officials. Unfortunately, while notable for the scale and detail of research, at times information is obscured by style. Lower’s technique of weaving together the stories of various women ends up muddying the lines between personal histories rather than increasing cohesiveness of the narrative.
Lower’s interest is not in documenting a specific group of extreme examples. These women were from a range of socioeconomic classes and from widespread regions, and are representative of more than just Nazi Germany. They were swept up in a movement that promised material wealth and social capital. Especially in the conquered countries of Eastern Europe in which many of Lower’s Furies were stationed, women were offered far more opportunities than they could ever expect at home. Living independently often for the first time, partaking in victors’ spoils, and seeking romance and adventure, the decision to work for the Nazis opened the door to a number of otherwise unimaginable prospects. For many of these Furies, it was relatively easy to push aside suspicions and rumors in the face of corporeal luxuries and personal freedom.
Lower brings into ringing clarity a subsection of society that had not previously received the same sort of scrutiny as others who had committed crimes during the Holocaust. Her research underlines the tendency of all humans to adjust to their surroundings, even when that requires behaving in an inhuman way. One often encounters inspirational stories of human adaptation in which, against all odds, an individual is able to survive the most degrading conditions. Lower’s subjects are on the other side of the same coin --- they are transformed by their surroundings into people who are remarkable for the heinousness of their actions rather than their resilience.
As documented by a Nuremberg court psychologist after examining various male Nazi leaders, "[S]uch persons are ‘neither sick nor unusual; in fact they are like any other person we might encounter in other countries of the earth’." After reading HITLER’S FURIES, it is impossible to deny that frighteningly this judgment corresponds to the young women of Nazi Germany equally well.
Reviewed by Rebecca Kilberg on October 17, 2013