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Hitler's Female Henchmen

Becker/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields returns the Holocaust to something of its original horror. It is a study of German and Austrian women on the eastern front, and the simple revelation behind their story is that women were no less capable of brutality than men. This might seem banal—the banality of evil across the gender line. Yet Lower’s book is thoroughly shocking. What these women saw and did was shocking. What they believed was shocking. What they lied about after the war was shocking. No less shocking is the credulity invested in their lies by Germans and by Germany’s postwar occupiers. The final shock is the lack of earlier interest in their story, despite its enormous scope. At least half a million women went or were sent east during World War II. Some committed atrocities, and most witnessed atrocities. Hitler’s Furies, published 68 years after the war’s end, is, in Lower’s words, a “book about how we fail to reckon with the past.”

Lower is an American historian, and American intellectuals and citizens have long been struggling to reckon with the Holocaust. Worries have even been aired, in Norman Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (2000), for instance, about an American Holocaust industry and about an excess of remembrance, which—by making the horrific familiar—might render the Holocaust normal. But, if anything, sustained study of the Holocaust has resulted in one provocative act of remembrance after another. Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, published in 1963, caused waves of outrage, while Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews, 19331945 brought the Holocaust narrative to a general reading public in 1975. The Maus series, by Art Spiegelman, reached beyond scholarship to storytelling, starting in 1991.

In Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996), Daniel Goldhagen argued that many Germans—not just the SS—were complicit in the Holocaust. Goldhagen’s provocation was a popularized and less careful version of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland from 1993, which persuasively demonstrated the guilt of the ordinary German men who were asked—but not forced—to participate in mass executions, shifting the focus from the Nazi high command to the faces of the actual killers.

Now Hitler’s Furies contributes to this study of “ordinary people” in an important new way. It looks beyond Germany to the eastern front—Poland, the Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine—where many of the deadliest atrocities took place. In this attention to place, Hitler’s Furies continues a project pioneered in Timothy Snyder’s 2010 masterpiece, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Arendt, Dawidowicz, Goldhagen, and Browning’s preoccupation with Germany was necessary, but it also reflected the fact that, until 1991, many crucial archival holdings were off-limits to Western scholars, confiscated by Soviet authorities, shipped to Moscow or dispersed throughout the Soviet Union. Nazi ideology and governance existed in three dimensions, while the Holocaust’s Eastern European terrain was harder to picture.

The idea for Hitler’s Furies came to Lower during a 1992 trip to Kiev. There she came across material previously hidden in archives “behind the Iron Curtain.” Twenty years in the making, Hitler’s Furies tells of the half-million German women who went east during the war. One-third of German women were “actively engaged in a Nazi Party organization,” Lower notes, and they participated in growing numbers from 1933 to 1945. Those who chose to go east were modern, “the daughters of those first-time [female] Weimar voters [who] imagined possibilities in Germany and beyond.” Their vehicle of advancement was the workplace: Female teachers, nurses, secretaries, stenographers, typists, and telephone operators were in demand. These women found the east “a place of liberation” with abundant “freedom for self-expression” and “social mobility.” To this degree, theirs was a conventional twentieth-century progression: the acquisition of valuable skills, the departure from stifling hometown and family circle, the prospect of self-fulfillment through work and travel. Yet there was nothing typical about their destinies in the bloodlands or killing fields, and many women went east with a fierce anti-Semitism in their hearts.

Some 30,000 women were “certified by Himmler’s SS,” directly involved in the planning and execution of the Holocaust. Lower refers to the secretaries of Odilo Globocnik, the SS figure responsible for the murder of Warsaw’s Jews among other crimes, who “‘cheerfully’ prepared lists of Jewish deportees to Treblinka, lists of Jews who died, and lists of confiscated property.” In general, secretaries “contributed to the normalization of the perverse.” Those who killed, the perpetrators, are a group unto themselves. Their numbers are hard to calculate, their deeds as grotesque as any that have been gathered into the history of the Holocaust. A woman named Johanna Altvater had no official mission to murder, but she gladly did so “on her own.” Indeed, her “specialty … was killing children.” Liesel Willhaus would shoot Jews from the balcony of her home, to the applause of her young daughter.

After the crimes came an astonishing miscarriage of justice. Some 20,000 German women were deported to the Soviet Union after the war. Guilty or not, these women were certainly punished. About East and West Germany Lower writes with almost comic understatement that “the record of justice against Nazi perpetrators, male and female, is rather poor. Most women who participated in the Holocaust quietly resumed normal lives.” The evidence of their crimes was often hazy, not documented in the first place or lodged in documents that had been lost or scattered. Most of the eyewitnesses who might have testified against them were dead, and Stalin’s rearrangement of Eastern Europe “accomplished what Hitler’s henchmen had desired: a displacement of local memory.”

That former Nazis and wartime criminals slipped comfortably back into civilian life is well-known, but Hitler’s Furies adds a new note of cynicism. When faced with the possibility of a criminal conviction, female perpetrators presented themselves as apolitical women, far from the machinery of killing, incapable of crime because they were women and mothers. In postwar Germany, Lower writes, “the male judiciary remained skeptical of the testimony of Jews, especially of statements that described atrocious female behavior.” And so, the bleakest page of a bleak book: In many cases, Holocaust survivors were able to testify against women who had committed horrendous crimes, and either the women were not tried or their accusers were not believed. If incarcerated, the women were released—often early. Johanna Altvater—the woman who undertook to murder Jews on her own—was tried and acquitted twice. She worked, after the war, in a child welfare office.

The biography of a woman named Erna Petri is no less extraordinary. Put on trial in East Germany, she “confessed to murdering six Jewish children between six and twelve years of age.” She was found guilty and imprisoned. After German reunification, she negotiated her release, possibly with the help of Stille Hilfe (Silent Aid), a postwar SS organization in Germany. She moved to a Bavarian village “where she enjoyed the Alpine mountains and lakes with Gudrun Burwitz, the daughter of Heinrich Himmler and a prominent member of Silent Aid.” The entire village attended her funeral. This is a new genre of Holocaust story. Unlike Schindler’s List, a cinematic version of it would be unbearable.

Lower’s study contains some lapses. Occasionally, she conflates disparate strains of history. “The longstanding tradition of Prussian militarism,” Lower writes, “not only cultivated a culture of total wars and ‘final solutions,’ but, in its twentieth-century fascist form, integrated women into a martial society as patriotic nurturers and combatants.” Total war is too twentieth-century a phenomenon to have a Prussian precedent, and the final solution emanated from a pathology other than Prussian militarism. When Lower states that “the female biographies studied here are based largely on postwar investigations and trials,” one wonders if her method is not circular, the discovery of criminality in material stemming from the trials of alleged criminals. The author’s exhaustive research and forensic acuity put this worry largely to rest.

The triumph of Lower’s book is its meticulous biographical impulse. Nothing gets muffled in social science, and by tracing the lives of a dozen or so women, Lower brings out the uniqueness of their stories and the gray areas—the difference, for example, between a witness and an accomplice on the one hand and an accomplice and a perpetrator on the other. This measured judgment gives Lower’s documentation its power.

Hitler’s Furies is above all a brave book. It is brave in forcing from the archives a story that no one wanted to tell. It is brave as well in its willingness to imagine women lashing out with the same murderous will and rage as men. In this, it restates old, but still fundamental, questions: Who was guilty? Who knew what was happening in the killing fields? And what became of the guilty after the war? These are questions that even young Germans must continue to ask. The image of Erna Petri and Gudrun Burwitz walking arm in arm around the Bavarian lakes is not from the distant past. It is almost an image from the present, and Hitler’s Furies should negate any sentimental feeling one might have toward these two figures—surely, to those who encountered them then, the pictures of kindness and innocence.

Michael Kimmage is the author, most recently, of In History’s Grip: Philip Roth’s Newark Trilogy (2012).