German Women during the Third Reich: The Evolution of the Image of the Female Perpetrator

Rebecca Cordony, University of New England

In the decades following the Second World War and the Holocaust, scholarship concerning the role of women has necessarily expanded. However, whilst there is now a significant amount of literature from scholars and survivors concerning Jewish women’s experiences of the Holocaust, literature analysis reveals the experience of German women continues to remain marginalized and controversial.[1] Questions of female participation and culpability have been overlooked, repressed and the subject of discursive distortion in existing scholarship. Despite an evolution of the image and understanding of the female perpetrator, much scholarship detrimentally remains tied to gender discourse, polarized popular conceptions of females as victims or sadists and the constraints of presuppositions in historiography of the Holocaust more generally. Where our understanding of the male perpetrators of the Third Reich has expanded, studies concerning the role of ordinary women remain wanting. Historical investigation regarding the role of women in the Third Reich is due for a re-examination, one which considers the gendered construct in which these females operated, but does not succumb to the stereotypes it has previously promoted, nor groups all women as a minority group with shared or marginal experiences. Just as the agency of women in history more generally is under-appreciated, the agency of women in the crimes of the Third Reich has not been fully elaborated or explained.[2] The role of women during the Third Reich was fundamental and indispensable and should be positioned in the historiography of the Holocaust accordingly.

In the immediate post-war years when historians turned to investigating the Third Reich and Holocaust, the role of women was absent from scholarship entirely. The focus was within parameters concerning causality and periodization. Questions regarding the extent of Hitler’s power, in the approaches now known as Functionalist, Intentionalist and Structuralist, dominated inquiry. This research, which dominated the field for at least a decade, rendered irrelevant considerations of females and gender more broadly.[3] The considerable absence of females in post-war trials and minimal surviving documentation concerning their role in Nazi Germany only served to reinforce their perceived lack of importance. By the 1950s and 1960s investigations began to focus on the overall mechanisms of perpetration, group behavior and notions of German obedience.   Psychological experiments, like those conducted by Stanley Milgram and Phillip Zimbardo’s notorious Stanford Prison experiment, shaped the literature concerning perpetrator behavior, but neither experiment (nor any others that shaped the scholarly landscape) included women.

When the field of women’s scholarship finally emerged three decades after the war, its focus was emphasizing the Nazi instrumentalisation of women.[4] National Socialist ideology placed a particular importance on domesticity and child-rearing, which were tied to broader ideological goals concerning territorial and population expansion and racial hygiene. By establishing rigid gender roles, women were established as responsible for seeking to marry well, to maintain the home and importantly to reproduce and raise members of the new German Volk. Women’s work was to be in the private, feminine sphere, whilst men’s work was in the public, male sphere. Women who had been able to enjoy a liberation of sorts during the Weimar Republic were now officially called home. They were removed from political life, had employment opportunities restricted and urged to do their duties as wives and mothers. In the early 1930s matters of reproduction and marriage became legalized. The 1933 Law for Encouragement of Marriage offered financial incentive to German couples to marry and reproduce. The 1934 Sterilization Law sought to select only racially pure female candidates for reproduction, with hundreds of thousands of ‘valueless’ and ‘unfit’ German women forcibly sterilized. Propaganda reinforced the responsibility of women as mothers and nurturers, keepers of population growth and protectors of the home. Scholars began to focus not just on the Nazi instrumentalisation of German women, but on the apparent victimization of them under the racialist, anti-liberalist policies of the patriarchal Nazi regime. These scholars suggested they were forcibly relegated to and confined in the private feminine sphere. The radical reversals of the freedoms women were beginning to enjoy during the Weimar years fed feminist rhetoric concerning women’s struggles for self-fulfillment and equality.[5] Katherine Thomas concluded that Hitler had regimented the bodies of women and conditioned women for mass breeding, “like a trapped animal the woman stands, apparently helpless, apparently hopeless…one of the millions of women in Nazi Germany.”[6] She similarly concluded that women were a victim of a patriarchal dictatorial society, where German women had to “live in a man’s world, in a world built and governed by the dictatorship of men, where women have duties only and no rights…they are deliberately kept in a state of permanent fear and insecurity.”[7] David Schoenbaum went so far as to coin the term ‘secondary racism’ to describe the Nazi discriminatory attitudes and policies towards women.[8]   Gisela Bock contended that German women were not only victims of racism, but also of sexism; a particular kind of double oppression, expressed primarily though sterilization.[9] Bock argued that the Nazi goal was essentially to prevent births of the wrong sort of Germans through excluding and sterilizing undesirable women, rather than promoting Aryan motherhood and deprived them of their social identity as mothers.[10] Bock concludes that women were repeatedly humiliated when they were labelled as fit or unfit, valuable or valueless and blamed them for the declining birthrate which caused disproportionate suffering and unquestionable victimization.[11]

Bock’s condemnation of the abuse of women’s rights in Nazi Germany importantly called attention to the role of German females by situating them at the centre of Nazi policy. However, it also served to crystallize growing popular conceptions of women as victims and little else during the Third Reich. Furthermore, it established a certain homogeneity of experience for women, which is inherently problematic. Reinforcing traditional gender discourse emphasizing an agency-less female diverted attention away from holistic considerations and the possibility of nuanced experiences for women, including perpetration or mobilization. Furthermore, with the outbreak of war, there was a reversal of many policies concerning the ‘women question’, as their assistance was needed in the war effort and they were once again called out of their homes. Bock ignores women within this context and as such falls victim to the same stereotypical gender manipulation that allowed the Third Reich to survive. Claudia Koonz vehemently challenged Bock’s position and called attention to these misinterpretations and her singular approach, leading to a feminist historikerstreit in the 1980s.

Koonz agrees that women were at the centre of Nazi policy and ideology, but rather than emphasizing their victimhood, suggests that they were active players in the National Socialist phenomenon.[12] Because women accepted Nazi views about polarity of the sexes and willingly retreated into their own domestic space, Koonz argues that they were complicit in the crimes of the regime.[13] Koonz reinforces this position by referencing the dependency of masculine identity on the imagined female as a mechanism for moralisation of crimes. That is, soldiers who had visions of wives and families waiting for them in the refuge of home were better able to imagine themselves as quiet heroes, which in turn moralised their crimes.[14] Indeed, Nazi leaders relied on “sheltering the family (or its myth) to keep alive an ersatz sense of decency in the men who would work most closely with mass murder”.[15] In this way, women were not victims of Nazi evil, but rather willingly complicit in its crimes. Koonz concludes that, “far from being helpless or even innocent, women made possible a murderous state in the name of concerns they defined as motherly. The fact that women bore no responsibility for issuing orders from Berlin does not obviate their complicity in carrying them out.”[16]

Koonz began the necessary work in demonstrating female agency, not only in supporting their husbands but also in seeking out new opportunities for engagement and employment after the outbreak of war, but she does not fully elaborate on the extent to which women were capable of using this agency. Maintaining focus on alleged ‘motherly’ concerns and the utilisation of the domestic sphere embedded discussions in a gendered discourse that neither Koonz nor Bock were able to ultimately see beyond. The polarisation of opinion which characterised the Bock and Koonz debate succeeded in exposing the general instrumentalisation of women. But this exposé maintained a certain homogeneity: that all women were either victimised, or conversely willingly complicit, and obscured the intricacies of female involvement, particularly their role as perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Whilst there is limited official documentation and no tradition for women to share war stories as there is for men, the involvement of women in the Nazi apparatus is undeniable. Between 1940-1945, some 3,950 women were employed as guards at Ravensbrück and 200 at Auschwitz. In 1942, Himmler realised that women constituted a critical labour force for carrying out genocidal plans and allowed them to join elite terror organisations in a special auxiliary corps of administrators. 7,900 women were employed in the clerical unit of the SS, the SS Frauenkorps, and 10,000 as SS auxiliaries or Helferinnen. 15,000 were employed by the Police and over 500,000 by the Wehrmacht, in a special communication corps of the army for women. 32% of the staff for the Euthanasia or T4 program were women and 240,000 women were married to SS men and followed them to occupied territories in the East, including concentration and extermination camps.[17] These numbers “establish the significance of German women in the Nazi system of genocidal warfare and imperial rule”.[18]   Whilst the policies and structure of these apparatus remained patriarchal in nature, they were staffed by women.[19]  When statistics regarding female involvement emerged, so too did challenges concerning the role of women. These questions sought to transgress concepts of victimisation or limited agency, and to consider the notion of the female perpetrator. However, when historians initially confronted these challenges they turned to flimsy psychological explanations and traditional gendered frameworks to explain women’s participation. [20]

Rolf Wiggershaus suggested deprived backgrounds were to blame for the violent behaviour exhibited by female guards at Ravensbrück, and Rita Thalmann argued female guards compensated for their own enslavement by picking on those more severely oppressed.[21]

The realities of female perpetration were further obscured by representations of female deviance, sexual perversion and monstrous violence perpetuated in popular press, film and literature. German women Irma Grese, Ilse Koch and Maria Mandel and their apparent evil natures became of central interest. Irma Grese, the “Beautiful Beast” or “Beast of Belsen” was said to enjoy whipping prisoners and terrorising them with her dogs. Ilsa Koch, wife of Commandant Karl Koch was transformed into the “Bitch of Buchenwald”, known for her insatiable murderous desires and (still unsubstantiated) use of inmates’ skin, preferably tattooed, to make lampshades. Maria “The Beast” Mandel sent untold numbers of Jews and other prisoners to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.[22] Of further note is the disproportionate application of monikers for female perpetrators as opposed to males. Furthermore, where male perpetrators may have been given a nickname, the adjectives used to describe them are not inherently negative as they are for females. For example, Adolf Eichmann has been called the ‘Architect of the Final Solution’ and Josef Mengele the ‘Angel of Death’. These names do not inherently nor immediately debase or demean the men they are attached to in the same way that words like ‘bitch’ or ‘beast’ do for the women.

The violent crimes and alleged sexual promiscuity of these women became of central interest so notions of eroticised evil came to represent the image of the female perpetrator.[23] Their reported lust for violence, sexual greed and apparent brazenness following their crimes saw them labelled in scholarship and popular press as masculine women. Suggesting that a transgression of gender expectations or inherent female deviance had occurred was the only way to interpret female perpetration. The supposition here is the connection between males and violence is self-evident and more readily acceptable, whereas women must be abnormal, insane, amoral or coerced to obviate from expectations of feminine innocence.[24] Narratives exclude the possibility that women can choose to be violent because violent women interrupt gender stereotypes.[25] Furthermore, an inability to “read violent female figures outside of the construction of masculine traits allows for an over-simplistic reading of their crimes”.[26]   Together with suggestions of sexuality and an eroticisation of female crimes and violence, the physicality of female perpetrators was also made significant, whereas it has been rarely discussed in their male counterparts. In her considerations regarding gender and atrocity, Susannah Heschel concludes that “women guards are described almost uniformly as more cruel than men, not because of the nature of the atrocities they are said to have committed, but either because of the pleasure, usually erotic they allegedly enjoy while tormenting…or because the acts of cruelty either collide with physical beauty or express their physical ugliness.”[27]   Post war popular press paid particular attention to physicality of female guards who were on trial and speculated about sexuality, diverting attention away from the notion that women could have been willing and numerable participants in the crimes of the regime. Newsweek October 1945 described Irma Grese questioned in the dock “bowed her pretty blonde head and hit her lips” and 1948 Time Magazine suggested Ilse Koch “had men flogged for the pleasure it gave her.”[28] Distracting representations like these focussing on sexuality, physicality and deviance were calculated constructs, demonising female perpetrators like Grese and Koch created distance between them and ordinary women who were preserved as peaceful and non-violent.[29] To this end, the innocence of German women and German feminism remained intact and helped to normalize conceptions of male participants in the Holocaust both domestically and internationally. [30] This distorted gender ordering persists today in popular representations of female Nazis. In the 2004 film Downfall Magda Goebbels is depicted as an unrepentant fanatic and in a 2002 British documentary titled ‘The most evil men and women in history’ Ilse Koch features as a sensationalised icon for female violence, likened to Mary Queen of Scots and Count Dracula.[31]

In 2014, Wendy Lower made a well overdue attempt to reinsert considerations of broad female perpetration back into Holocaust scholarship and rhetoric in her book Hitler’s Furies[32]. Lower does not only repeat over scrutinised accounts of female guards, but also examines females in traditional roles, women “not trained to be cruel, but ended up serving criminal policies of the regime”; teachers, nurses, secretaries, wives and administrators.[33] Lower repeatedly emphasises that, “the systems that make mass murder possible do not work without the broad participation of society and yet nearly all histories of the Holocaust leave out half of those who populated that society, as if women’s history happens somewhere else.”[34] Lower reaffirms that genocide is also unquestionably women’s business and minimising women’s culpability to a few thousand “brainwashed and mistreated guards does not accurately represent the reality of the Holocaust”.[35] Female perpetrators, or ‘Hitler’s Furies’ as Lower labels them, were not marginal sociopaths but rather representative of a whole generation of women who came of age during the Third Reich, subject to ideological indoctrination, filled with ambition and part of the fabric of genocidal violence that characterised the Nazi conquest. [36] Lower rightly deduces that the small number of recorded cases reflects how the phenomenon of female participation had been supressed, overlooked and under-researched, and attempts to begin to understand the complicity of ‘ordinary women’, just as has been theorised for their male counterparts. [37] In presenting specific case studies of the participation of female nurses, teachers, secretaries and wives, Lower demonstrates the scope of female participation, individual flexibility and initiative and their broad contribution to the ‘normalisation of the perverse’.[38] Furthermore, the false shield of denying female violence and culpability that has been broadly maintained is destroyed as Lower details accounts of nurses engaged in the T4 program, teachers who denounced Jewish students, wives setting up refreshment tables for men at execution sites and secretaries who took dictation and prepared reports regarding all facets of the Final Solution. A spectrum of participation and culpability is presented that suggests a transgression of the polarized view of victims or agents that has dominated the discourse.

However, whilst an important historiographical corrective, Lower’s work can be episodic and repetitive.[39] Where earlier theses, like those of Bock and Koonz, were too constrained by gender discourse, Lower fails to situate individual experiences within a broader gendered context. [40]   She points to a ‘partnership in crime’ when suggesting males and females worked together but does not analyse the broader gendered system that they were a part of particular to time, culture and regime.[41] In aiming the book at a more general audience, the reader is not oriented toward existing historiographical debates about these women and leaves some claims made by Lower unsubstantiated.[42] Lower’s work belongs to growing gender scholarship regarding German women in the Third Reich, a field which requires further critical expansion. If we wish to truly understand total war societies, the historical record of Nazi Germany must include women’s political agency, complicity and perpetration.[43] Propagated concepts of masculine and feminine roles must be synthesised with the realities of practical roles of both genders. [44] Investigators must consider the impact of constructed narratives of masculinity and femininity and of perpetrators and victims and assess how these are used to stabilise and maintain our assumptions about the perpetration of unspeakable atrocity. [45]

The question of active female involvement and culpability during the Holocaust is deserving of the level of investigation that has been afforded to male perpetrators or indeed to female survivors. A considerable amount of scholarship has examined the increased survival rates amongst female inmates who actively supported each other and maintained a sense of community between themselves. We might also ask whether female guards encouraged and supported each other, and if so to what end? We might also specifically consider the dynamics between female guards and female prisoners and whether this unique female dynamic shaped outcomes for either.[46] A sanctuary for SS women and a myth of women’s neutrality and victimhood has perverted our knowledge of what happened and distorted our understanding of the role of gender.[47]

Whilst the work of scholars like Bock, Koonz and Lower have encouraged the genesis of understanding of the role of the female perpetrator, attempts fail to adequately synthesize and situate these accounts within the general historiography of the Holocaust. The genesis of the evolution of the image of the female perpetrator in Nazi Germany and is far from complete. Historians should be now be working to understand Germany’s ordinary women and their nuanced participation and complicity in the crimes of the Holocaust. Since 2002, over 280 men have been convicted by the International Criminal Court and yet only two women have ever been convicted. [48] These figures suggest that there is still considerable work to do in globally and holistically challenging our assumptions and active constructions regarding female violence and their participation in genocidal campaigns.

[1] Elaine Martin, ‘Women Right/(Re)Write the Nazi Past’, in Gender, Patriarchy and Fascism in The Third Reich, ed. Elaine Martin, (Detroit, 1993), 23.

[2] Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies. German Women in the Killing Fields, (London, 2014), 11.

[3] Claudia Koonz, ‘A Tributary and a Mainstream: Gender, Public Memory and the Historiography of Nazi Germany’, in Gendering Modern German History: Rewriting Historiography, ed. Karen Hagemann and Jean. H. Quataert, (Oxford, 2007), 148.

[4] Koonz, ‘A Tributary and a Mainstream: Gender, Public Memory and the Historiography of Nazi Germany’, 149.

[5] Martin, ‘Women Right/(Re)Write the Nazi Past’, 19.

[6] Katherine Thomas, Women in Nazi Germany, (London, 1943), 96.

[7] Thomas, Women in Nazi Germany, 99.

[8] David Schoenbaum, Hitler’s Social Revolution: Class and Status in Nazi Germany, 1933-1939, (London, 1967), 193.

[9] Gisela Bock, ‘Racism and Sexism in Nazi Germany: Motherhood, Compulsory Sterilisation and The State’, Signs, Vol. 8, No. 3, (1983), 403.

[10] Bock, ‘Racism and Sexism in Nazi Germany: Motherhood, Compulsory Sterilisation and The State’, 410.

[11] Ibid., 405.

[12] Martin, ‘Women Right/(Re)Write the Nazi Past’, 20.

[13] Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland, 127.

[14] Koonz, ‘A Tributary and a Mainstream: Gender, Public Memory and the Historiography of Nazi Germany’, 160.

[15] Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland, 1987, 414.

[16] Ibid., 5.

[17] Lower, Hitler’s Furies. German Women in the Killing Fields, 108.

[18] Ibid., 6.

[19] Jill Stephenson, Women in Nazi Germany, (Great Britain, 2001), 112.

[20] Koonz, ‘A Tributary and a Mainstream: Gender, Public Memory and the Historiography of Nazi Germany’, 150.

[21] Stephenson, Women in Nazi Germany, 114; R. Wiggershaus, Frauen untern Nationalsozialismus, (Wuppertal, 1984), 160.

[22] Antony Rowland, ‘Reading the Female Perpetrator’, Holocaust Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2-3, (2015), 149.

[23] Rowland, ‘Reading the Female Perpetrator’, 145.

[24] Susannah Heschel, ‘Does Atrocity have a Gender?’ in Women in the SS: Lessons and Legacies, ed. Jeffrey M. Diefendorf, (Illinois, 2004), 305.

[25] Annette Smeulers, ‘Female Perpetrators – Ordinary and Extraordinary Women’, International Criminal Law Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, (2015), 218.

[26] Rowland, ‘Reading the Female Perpetrator’, 144.

[27] Heschel, ‘Does Atrocity have a Gender?’, 305.

[28] Ibid., 305.

[29] Annette Smeulers, ‘Female Perpetrators – Ordinary and Extraordinary Women’, 219.

[30] Heschel, ‘Does Atrocity have a Gender?’, 311.

[31] Rowland, ‘Reading the Female Perpetrator’, 149.

[32] Lower, Hitler’s Furies. German Women in the Killing Fields.

[33] Ibid., 10.

[34] Ibid., 14.

[35] Ibid., 166.

[36] Ibid., 4.

[37] Ibid., 4.

[38] Ibid., 102.

[39] Tibor Krausz, ‘Hitler’s Harpies’, The Jerusalem Report, (May 2014), 44

[40] Donna Harsch, ‘Book Review: Hitler’s Furies’, Central European History, Vol. 47, No. 4, (2014), 876.

[41] Harsch, ‘Book Review: Hitler’s Furies’, 877.

[42] Ibid., 877.

[43] Shana Penn, ‘Review of Hitler’s Furies’, Politeja, Vol. 9, No .39, (2015), 427.

[44] Karen Hagemann, ‘Military, War and the Mainstreams: Gendering Modern German Military History’, in Gendering Modern German History: Rewriting Historiography, ed. Karen Hagemann and Jean H Quataert, (Oxford, 2007), 70.

[45] Koonz, ‘A Tributary and a Mainstream: Gender, Public Memory and the Historiography of Nazi Germany’, 161.

[46] Heschel, ‘Does Atrocity have a Gender?’, 308.

[47] Ibid., 318.

[48] Annette Smeulers, ‘Female Perpetrators – Ordinary and Extraordinary Women’, 207.