Today I started reading Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower. The book seeks to understand German women’s roles in World War II, especially in their work perpetuating the Holocaust and moving east following Operation Barbarossa. According to Ms. Lower, research on women’s roles during World War II is lacking, and it is has been the historical habit to downplay their roles in search of prosecuting men for their war crimes. Nazi women have even become martyrs, considered apolitical and long-suffering and known for cleaning and restoring Berlin after the Allied victory.
However, according to her research, about 1/3 of all German women (which was 40 million during the war) actively participating in Nazi activities, including as concentration camp guards, doctors and nurses who participating in medical experiments, secretaries, censors, and teachers, among other jobs. As can be guessed, many were not on the periphery of the great Nazi Aryanization scheme but were instead right in the thick of things – such as the approximately 200 women who worked with a Nazi doctor to choose and liquidate Jewish children who might become future criminals.
It is a fascinating read and so informative – and I’m only on page 32. Ms. Lower writes concisely and directly, imbedding statistical information into a larger narrative. She also paints a horrifying picture of the atrocities women (and people in general) can commit when swept up in a totalitarian regime and primarily concerned with their own personal good and gain. Thus far, she’s depicted many young German women in the 30s and 40s as intelligent, ambitious women willing to engage in party politics and inhumane practices to have a more comfortable, attractive life. From my vantage point over 70 years in the future, I feel justified in condemning them.
Nevertheless, there seems to be something familiar about overlooking basic human decency in favor of following the status quo and looking for ways to improve your own life, particularly in my fellow Americans’ desire to somehow become a member of the 1% and their unwillingness to raise the minimum wage. Or perhaps in people’s willingness to disregard white privilege and to ignore the endemic of police brutality and black deaths. Or maybe in the comfortable assertions of both men and women that we don’t need feminism because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with gender relations.
The statement, “Terror regimes feed on the idealism and energy of young people, molding them into the obedient cadres of mass movements, paramilitary forces, and even perpetrators of genocide” (pg 15 – 16) was especially chilling. It vividly brought to mind a video my 8th grade class had watched during our segment on The Diary of Anne Frank. It was called The Wave. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
Reading that statement and then learning about the 400,000 Germans who underwent forced sterilization, the legions of ordinary citizens who informed on their neighbors, and the way some Germans emphasized the loss of material property over the loss of Jewish life (Kristallnacht – the night of broken glass) reminded me that though I might feel justified in condemning “Hitler’s Furies” and numerous bigoted, racist, and complacent Americans, I must also monitor my understanding of social causes and the world around me. I must constantly question my assumptions and research issues from as many sides as possible. I must always ask, “Does this hurt anyone – physically, mentally, or emotionally?” before coming down on that side. And though there may be something empowering and enticing about being a Fury, progress and healing cannot come about until you set aside your vengeance and embrace kindness instead (Yes, that’s right, I just referenced the Oresteia.).