The OF Blog: Wendy Lower, Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields

Friday, October 18, 2013

Wendy Lower, Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields

In Holocaust studies, one type of perpetrator, fashioned after Adolf Eichmann and others who organized deportations of Jews from Berlin headquarters, is the male bureaucratic killer, or desk murderer.  He commits genocide through giving or passing along written orders; thus his pen or typewriter keys become his weapon.  This type of modern genocidaire assumes that the paper, like its administrator, remains clean and bloodless.  The desk murderer does his official duty.  He convinces himself as he orders the deaths of tens of thousands that he has remained decent, civilized, and even innocent of the crime.  What about the women who staffed those offices, the female assistants whose agile fingers pressed the keys on the typewriters, and whose clean hands distributed the orders to kill? (pp. 98-99)
Nearly seventy years after the last death camps were liberated, the mechanics of the Endlösung still trouble readers and historians alike.  Who was involved or at least complicit in the genocide of Jews and other undesirable ethno-social groups?  To what extent, if any, were these mass killings planned?  Did the Holocaust arise from a Sonderweg, or "special path," that the Germans followed as a response to industrialization and modernity done at a faster pace than those of Western Europe?  Is the Shoah the horrific consequence of the earlier Ostland neo-colonial view of "space and race"?  How does one reconcile the machinery of the gas chambers and desk murderers with images of street violence in the occupied East, as mobs of Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Belarussians, and Ukrainians beat tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Jews, often to death?

To this litany of questions has recently been added another:  what roles did women play in the Holocaust?  For decades, outside of a few memorable cases such as that of the infamous "Bitch of Buchenwald," Ilse Koch, not much attention has been paid to the roles that women played in carrying out the so-called "Final Solution."  In landmark studies such as Christopher Browning's 1993 book, Ordinary Men:  Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solutionin Poland, the "ground level" focus has almost invariably been on men.  Soldiers, Einsatzgruppen, functionaries, and guards, these were the main perpetrators of the killings at their most intimate, face-to-face, level.  But who did the paperwork processing, the nursing, and other tasks both domestic and industrial alike that were a vital component of the concentration camp social societies?  Who helped tend the vast farms on which several thousand Jews and other concentration camp prisoners were forced to work as slaves to supply food for the German armies?  Yet women have often taken a back seat to men in discussions of the Holocaust.

In her National Book Award-nominated history, Hitler's Furies:  German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Wendy Lower begins to explore the matter of those women (mostly) behind the scenes whose actions (or non-actions) aided and abetted genocide.  Utilizing an impressive number of interviews that she conducted with the now-elderly women who were the farmers, the secretaries, and in some cases the murderesses, Lower has pieced together a history that promises to be a significant study.  Yet that word, "promises," is a damning one, as Hitler's Furies fails to become the authoritative or landmark book that it could have become.  It hints at matters, yet does not place them adequately within the framework of current historiographical discussion, leaving the work in that nebulous halfway house between being an oral history of those who were reticent at best to talk of their past lives and a study that places these women and their actions within a larger conceptualization of the Holocaust and its origins and characteristics.

Lower begins her book by introducing several issues that she intends to address.  Among these are institutional power (ranging from direct corporate-style hierarchies to less indirect ones such as the terminology employed in the Third Reich regarding cultures and nations and their degrees of worthiness) and its ability to shape women into the roles desired of them.  Yet, as Lower argues, these women were not passive objects to be set in place but instead were in many cases active agents who themselves engaged in atrocities (and not always then just to please their male companions). This, however, does not mean that the women such as Erna Petri or Liselotte Meier, to name two of the women Lower discusses at length, display a great deal of independence in their actions.  No, their actions, whether they be shooting Jewish fugitives on Petri's manor or Meier's torturing of those rounded up as the German army advanced eastward, are placed within the context of what their male lover/husband did:  Petri following the lead of her abusive husband and Meier that of her officer boyfriend.  While Lower does a good job fleshing out the personalities she discusses, there curiously is a relative lack of discussion of motives beyond the coercive factors of society and ideology.  It is as though Petri, Meier, and the others discussed in the book had lives, dreams, and ambitions of their own, but when it comes to the flashpoint of their roles in the Holocaust, those divergent characteristics fade suddenly into the backdrop of those caught up in the competing whirlwinds of loyalty to male-centric power structures and a sadistic joy in inflicting suffering.  More could have been done to discuss this, but Lower's explanation late in the book felt inadequate in that she relies too heavily on Theodor Adorno's work on authoritarian personality to explain these women's actions.  While certainly there is something to Adorno's view, it does little to account for the complexities of the actions undertaken during this time by both men and women (ranging from outright sedition down through implicit resistance to complicity and then ultimately a surpassing of the authority's desires, as if by doing so, the perpetrator could assert her own stamp on matters); there is much more to the matter.

Of greater interest, yet barely fleshed out, is the idea that neo-colonialist attitudes toward the East and its denizens might explain the actions of Petri and her compatriots:

Petri's testimony is rare.  There are few wartime and postwar records of ordinary German women expounding on their views of Jews and the Holocaust.  More common was a colonist discourse about how stupid, dirty, and lazy "the locals" were, referring to Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews, or veiled references to the dark terrain infested with "Bolsheviks," "criminals," and "partisans," or to the infantilized native who is clever but inferior, and thus dispensable. (p. 156)

This is where I suspect more and more studies of the Holocaust will go, away from focusing strictly on the mechanics of the Final Solution and toward a broader cultural analysis of the times and in particular the World War I era of Ostland and how the Ostland's governmental practices, so reminiscent of late 19th century European neo-colonialism in Africa and Asia, helped shape German attitudes toward Ostland and its natives in a much more insidious fashion than the Nazi ideology on "space" and "race."  Yet despite there being hints of this colonialist attitude in many of the women Lower profiles, she does not give as much credence to this as perhaps she should have.

The sources included in the endnotes is impressive.  Although I haven't kept up with the literature since late 1997, there are a wealth of studies on the issues of women in the Third Reich and roles of women in the Holocaust that appear to be promising reads.  Yet within the body of her study, Lower rarely mentions any of these other historians and their contributions to the field.  Perhaps this is due to Hitler's Furies being marketed more to a general audience than toward an academic one, but ultimately this leads to the sense that Lower's narrative is detached too much from the debates that historians have had on this subject over the past six decades.  While it may be understandable that Lower wants to avoid the old Intentionalist/Functionalist debate regarding the level of intent that the decision-makers had in beginning the Final Solution, the book suffers because there is insufficient grounding of her arguments within the context of larger discussions of the Holocaust's beginning, mechanics, and how its perpetrators justified their actions.  Even the women involved seem at times acting within a narrative vacuum; there is not enough explanation to cover their myriad actions.

Yet despite these serious issues that I have with Hitler's Furies, it is a book that at the very least presents vividly-described actresses and whose discussions at least point the way to possible future paths of exploration within the field.  It is a flawed work, but for non-historian readers curious about the time period, it certainly is a work that will appeal to them.  For many historians of the period, however, Lower's work may be frustrating in the sense that it seems that with just more focus on placing her work within the context of current historiography, her work could have been as important as those of Ian Kershaw and Browning in discussing the mindsets of those involved in the Shoah.  The arguments on complicity and the forms in which it took here will continue to rage on.

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