When one thinks of the Nazi killing machine one tends to imagine armies of jackbooted soldiers marching inexorably from one torched and plundered village to the next, herding people together for transportation to the camps or, perhaps, to be hastily murdered in freshly dug pits.
There was another section of Nazi society just as culpable, though to this day they have somehow evaded the cold scrutiny that their actions deserve. To put it mildly, the women of the Third Reich have a lot to answer for.
Thirteen million of them were actively engaged in work for the Nazi party. Half a million of them went eastwards, to Poland and the Ukraine, in the wake of the German advance and they went in many guises
They were secretaries who typed orders to kill, nurses who euthanised patients or aborted unborn children with ‘defects’. They were wives and mothers, willing to ensure the Nazi ideal was promulgated to its nth degree, and they were camp guards who tortured and murdered for pleasure.
The novel, The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink explored these issues through the tale of one young man’s infatuation with a former Nazi camp guard. It presented us with a simple woman who helped to do monstrous things. It showed us evil in its most ordinary form and asked ‘why’.
A fascinating book by Professor Wendy Lower, called Hitler’s Furies: German Women In The Nazi Killing Fields, explores the very same subject to devastating effect. Lower cites case after case of how members of the fair sex were just as depraved as some of their male companions. The evil that they did was hideous.
The few ever called to account were notorious concentration camp guards —such as Irma Grese and Ilse Koch. Now, though, others are being probed by German prosecutors for their wartime roles.
A little old lady by the name of Gertru Elli Schmid (now 92) is one such suspect. She was once an SS guard at Majdanek where an estimated 235,000 people were murdered during the war. After service there she was sent to Auschwitz, where over a million people were exterminated.
Another woman, Charlotte S. (now 94), was a guard at Ravensbrueck concentration camp, where she was remembered for beating prisoners and using her Alsatian dog to attack them.
Such women are the exception in that they may well be punished for their ancient crimes. Most of the following, though, got away with murder.
Pauline Kneissler worked at Grafeneck Castle, a euthanasia ‘hospital’ in southern Germany, and toured mental institutions selecting 70 ‘patients’ a day to be gassed.
Liselotte Meier, an administrator in Belarus, would accompany her SS officer boss on shooting parties to hunt and kill Jews for ‘fun’. She also coordinated arrangements for massacres and decided who lived or died.
Erna Petri followed her husband to Poland where she lived in a mansion and managed a huge slave estate for the SS . On one occasion she found six starving children who had somehow managed to escape. She took them home gave them something warm to drink then led them out to the garden where she shot all six in the head.
Lisel Willhaus, the wife of an SS camp commandant, used to sit on the balcony of their house and take pot shots at Jewish prisoners with her rifle.
Johanna Altvater worked in the Ukraine as a secretary for a regional Nazi leader. During the liquidation of a Jewish ghetto, Fräulein Hanna as she was known marched through the children’s ward of a makeshift hospital. She stopped, picked a child up, took it to the balcony and threw the child to the pavement three floors below. She did the same with other children.
Altvater is said to have often lured children with sweets, shooting them in the mouth when they opened wide to receive their treat. On another occasion she grabbed a child by the ankles and swung her through the air, smashing her head against a wall before depositing her lifeless form at the feet of her horrified father.
There are many more examples of crimes by these and other vile women, but I can’t write them anymore. Apart from Petri, who served over 30 years in prison, all the others escaped punishment.
Of course, not all women of the time were so evil, but they were far from being simple pawns either. They bought into the Nazi ideal wholeheartedly and were placed on a pedestal by its ringleaders.
Simply put, a woman’s role in Nazi Germany was considered sacred – they were the breeding ground for the master race. Special pre-marriage courses were even set up to ensure they became the perfect partner for SS soldiers.
The six-week training programme was run by Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, chief of the Nazi bride schools. The courses, which were run under the close supervision of SS chief Heinrich Himmler, ensured women learned how to become ‘good wives’, but they would also ‘acquire special knowledge of race and genetics’, according to a bridal rulebook of the time.
Females with Jewish or gypsy blood, mental illness or physcial deformity were barred from attending the schools.
Thirteen million women provided idealogical and practical support to one of the world’s most evil social programmes. Not all of them were innocent bystanders to what took place.
Yet, when Hitler’s forces were finally defeated, these same women returned to their lives and never really had to deal with the consequences of their actions. Lower’s book is important because it addresses this oversight and finally calls them to account.
Hitler’s Furies, by Wendy Lower http://goo.gl/ahzrsF