In her latest book, “Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields,” American historian Wendy Lower takes on an under-examined aspect of Holocaust scholarship: What role did ordinary women have in perpetrating the horrors of the Third Reich?
The book, for the most part, takes place not on actual killing fields, but in the administrative offices, villa balconies and hospital corridors of the Reich, the humdrum settings where regular Germans were living their lives and, by the by, plotting the extermination of Jews.
Lower — a professor at Claremont McKenna College; a consultant for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., and a research associate at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich — stumbled upon this subject 20 years ago, when researching Nazi activities in Ukraine and other Eastern outposts of Nazi imperial rule. “Not much had been written about what had happened in Ukraine in the 1930s and 1940s,” she said in a phone interview.
While combing through documentation of local massacres in Ukraine, Lower said, “I found lots of files about young German women who were stationed there, and I was surprised that they’d been part of the occupation force. I’d always thought it was a very military occupation.”
She began to study the “communities developed out of Hitler and Himmler’s imperial plans, their attempt to establish a utopia predicated on genocide and killing of non-Germans,” which perforce included women. Historians have already documented the women who worked as guards at such concentration camps as Ravensbrück and Birkenau, but Lower wanted to learn about “female involvement outside the camp system.”
“It was clear,” she said, “that this diverse mix of German women represented several activities: nurses, teachers, secretaries, welfare workers and wives of Nazi officials.”
She started to comb through records to get a sense of just how many women were dispatched to the Eastern occupied territories to aid in the Nazis’ total war.