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“How many secretaries were assigned to a regional governor?” she would ask. “How many women were sent to each outpost?” “How many nurses were mobilized?” She also studied SS marriage applications and wartime birth records. “I was trying to put German women on the map of the killing fields,” she said.
The more she researched, the more shocking information she uncovered. “When I was reading testimony from one secretary, I was surprised by how callously she recounted life in the office and how she administered the Holocaust: Her boss had killed 11,000 Jews. What amazed me was how chummy they were, how he dictated letters to her just like any other boss. You can imagine the whole relationship in any modern office environment, the only difference being that they were organizing mass shootings. It became disturbingly obvious to me how instrumental women were in a way we’ve underappreciated and underestimated before.”
That theme runs throughout the book, reversing the common conception of German women not as victims but as perpetrators. Lower estimates that some 500,000 German women shared complicity for the Holocaust.
Lower ended up profiling 13 of these women, excluding countless others in the process. “I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader,” she said. “I wanted to put a human face on the story. I wanted people to understand how ordinary women were sucked into the movement, how they were transformed by the experience, and what happened to them after war.”
Pursuing women’s biographies through these three phases — prewar, war and postwar — proved surpassingly difficult, as well. Because the vast majority of “Hitler’s furies” had never been charged with a crime, they too often just eased back into ordinary life.
“Sometimes the person would just disappear,” Lower said. The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s archives had many testimonies by survivors denouncing women, but “Wiesenthal couldn’t find them,” she said. “They got married after the war and changed their names.” Many of the leads Lower herself followed ended with abruptly terminated phone calls and nasty letters.
Lower’s subjects came from the “Lost Generation” of German women, those who came of age in the wake of Germany’s crushing defeat in World War I. She gives particular attention to the ambitious girls hoping to escape their straitened rural or working-class upbringings, who saw opportunity in Nazism.