Why were women accomplices to the Nazi Movement?

Prepared by: Erona Kaciu, Beat Sexism UK

The role of German women in Nazi Germany should be perceived through a different spectrum, from the old theory that they were merely victims and witnesses to an accomplice. An accomplice is ‘a person who helps another commit a crime’ thus I am not necessarily arguing that women were the reason that Nazis came into power and all women played a role, but the role of women made it so the Nazis had an easier time conducting their plan. 

The popular view from 1945-80s was women were victims or witnesses, the focus being on men since they seemed to be the obvious perpetrators. This view has changed to place women as an accomplice to the Nazis through their voluntary subordination, geographic mobility, and violence. 

My arguments are based on evidence such as court hearings, propaganda, and survivor testimonies, but also new evidence that had appeared decades after the war including Nazi private pictures and memories from Nazi women. It wasn’t until the 1990s where social historians and feminists have placed the role of women on the home fronts of the operation. Ann Taylor Allen put it in 1997, that we “can no longer treat women as symbols or subjects in a female realm outside of history, but as active agents with moral responsibility for history.” Throughout my study I have used a series of memoirs from Nazi women, testimonies from survivors, pictures captured, and these series of evidence allows me to come to the conclusion that women were more than witnesses but played a role.

To view the subordination of women, we must look at how working-class women were forced into work due to the death of a parent and the need to support their family. For example, ¼ of fathers and mothers died before the girl reached 18 years. 30.6% of German women were working, 87% of these women were over 16 and unmarried demonstrating the need to support themselves. The lack of parent figures highlights the psychological theory of Adorno who theorises the disturbed authority relationship between the parent and child lead them to seek authority figures outside the home. 

This can be applied to Hitler as he’s depicted as a ‘strong man’, women became infatuated by his speeches following Hitler as an authority figure. For example, Hitler mentioned in a 1935 speech that women didn’t have equal rights but suffered ‘a deprivation of rights’ as it drew them to areas she was ‘inferior’ in reinforcing she had ‘her own battlefield’. In this speech, Hitler expressed women were exploited as they were granted lower position jobs and paid less than men. Hitler mentioned ‘women in the workplace is an oppressed and tormented being’ and through raising these horrors they faced in the workplace and chose to voluntarily take part in Hitler’s plan. These speeches had a significant impact as in 1920, an audience addressed by Hitler showed 20/30% were female which may have persuaded them to follow Hitler as he offered relief to their suffering by returning them to the home and supporting their husbands no matter what crimes he committed leading one to believe they were an accomplice.

Through setting up the German League of Girls (Bund Deutscher Mädel, hereinafter BDM) in 1930, young women became incorporated and included into the Nazi plan encouraging women subordinate voluntarily. This inclusion was mentioned by Melita Maschmann who joined as it gave her a sense of purpose and Marianne Gärtner also recalled she enjoyed ‘participating in games, sports […] away from school and home’. These schemes allowed women to feel a sense of purpose by participating in the construction of Hitler’s ‘Great Germany’ persuading more women to support him. 

These girls associated positive memories with Hitler, therefore, they were more likely to subordinate to him and make sure they played their role making them an accomplice. Additionally, the memoir of Renate Finckh mentions she ‘finally found an emotional home, a safe refuge […] I was valued […] I was filled with pride and joy that someone needed me for a higher purpose’. Throughout a girl’s life, boys were prioritised, but Hitler often mentioned a woman’s role in Aryan women being perfect for Aryan men and had a future for them. 

In Hitler’s view, German men and women were working together to make Germany powerful and this made girl’s feel the sense of ‘joy’ she acquired during her time at the BDM. It is obvious that because of this unity, these girls felt a sense of superiority as the ‘Hitler girls belonged together, we formed an elite within the German Volk community’ and would thus conform to Hitler to continue that lifestyle.

Evidence supports women were accomplices due to levels of antisemitism expressed making them more susceptible to voluntarily subordinate. The BDM didn’t force anti-Semitism onto women but when spoken about, women voluntarily chose to listen. For example, Hildegard Koch mentioned ‘our leaders told us that no one could be forced to listen’ suggesting although these women were exposed to anti-Semitism, they didn’t seem to complain and chose to listen to these stories leading to actions like ‘BDM girls refusing to sit on the same bench as the Jewish girls’. Melita disapproved of anti-Semitism but they could ‘either have Jewish friends or be a National socialist suggesting that these women may not have been anti-Semitic but decided to ignore it due to the sense of ‘joy’ and ‘pride’ that the Nazi party made these young girls feel so thought it was right. Consequently, due to the teachings and activities organised for the girls, they became intrigued by the Nazi party and supported Hitler whether it be subordinating or helping the workforce to ensure Hitler’s success.

Early scholars accepted that because the majority of women stayed at home, they were victims or a witness rather than accomplices. Nonetheless, by staying at home, women provided psychological support for their husbands by not paying attention to crimes committed. Men came back home after committing violent acts and saw themselves as unworthy to their girlfriends and wives. Conversely, wives still loved their husbands evident in explicitly violent photographs sent to women by Nazi men which wouldn’t have been done unless they approved of such actions. There were hundreds of thousands of applications of prospectus SS bride suggesting their disregard for the violence.11 If women put in applications to be brides of SS members, we see that they had no problem with the crimes that these men had committed and often provided psychological support, potentially encouraging these behaviours. Lower supports stating the worst female perpetrators were women without an official role as 240,000 German women accepted into society’s new racial nobility. Sybille Steinbacher agrees Nazi wives potentially even motivated these actions. For example, in her study of Auschwitz, she describes the role of domesticity and sustained their husband’s mental state becoming emotionally dependent on their wives. She argues “mass murder and domesticity were not the poles of an opposition but instead tightly interwoven”. Thus, one can consider women as an accomplice as they made sure that men were stable enough to continue on in the fight.

Geography mobility allowed women to carry out jobs ordered by Hitler. Many women desired positions in the Nazi party’s upper management and to even be considered, they needed to complete training in Eastern territories. For example, in 1942 more than three thousand women went to the Nazi East to take part in Hitler’s plan for destruction. By 1945, German women were holding 85% of the billets as accountants, laboratory workers, and administrative workers. If all of these women are going to the East, they cannot be considered a victim group as they voluntarily moved to these regions.

Teachers had an extensive involvement in spreading Hitler’s ideologies presenting them as an accomplice. 2/3 of German women teachers went to training camps where they went through physical and ideological exercises meaning they were aware of their decisions and the large quantities show women may have agreed with their leader and made sure his message was delivered. For example, ideologies such as the superiority of Aryans was emphasised through beating Jewish children or sending them to sit at the back of the class saying ‘you’re not one of us’ creating us vs. them attitude. Figure 1 displays a woman teaching ‘race education’ showing children the desirable characteristics which developed traits that made them differentiate themselves with ‘others’ allowing children to dismiss their attentiveness towards non-Aryans. Furthermore, ideologies were also presented through field trips to psychiatric hospitals so students could appreciate their own ‘racial health’ and feel no empathy towards their ‘inferiors’. This presents women teachers as accomplices to the Nazis as these trips were most likely organised by the woman teachers themselves as Hitler or officials did not have the time to organise small scale projects.

 racial_classes_1 Figure 1: A German student taking part in “race education” classes’ (c. 1935).

Nursing became a popular profession among women leading to them constituting as an accomplice to the Nazis due to the work they carried out, i.e. through eugenics and medical experiments. Although majority of nurses weren’t members of the Nazi party, they needed to be part of one of several nursing organisations who swore allegiance to Hitler e.g. National Socialist Nursing or Red Cross Nurses. 400,000 volunteered as nurses and knew what they were getting themselves into when joining these nursing organisations so should be considered an accomplice as they were participating in medical experiments and euthanasia programmes.

Eugenics ‘is a set of beliefs and practices that aim to improve the genetic quality of a human population’. The eugenics movement was adopted by the Nazis and implemented into the healthcare system forming the justification for the genocide. As a result, sterilisation laws were introduced whereby doctors and nurses would forcibly sterilise people who they deemed ‘unfit for life’ or to ‘end suffering’. Consequently, 400,000 Germans were sterilised and 200,000 German children were euthanised so ‘without the support of doctors and nurses, the holocaust could not have happened’. 

However, through killing organisations such as Aktion T4, children and adults with disabilities were killed without the consent of families even though healthcare nurses themselves would reassure families that their child would get the best care. The T4 programme was made up of six killing centers where nurses filled out questionnaires to decide whether the patient deserved to live or die resulting in many disabled people being sent to gas chambers. With nurses administering the sedative along with choosing the victims, they played a key role in the genocide classing them as an accomplice as they aided crimes that were being committed. This is supported by Wendy Lower who mentions of all-female professions, nursing contained the highest number of documented crimes through the euthanasia programmes and medical experiments. With 50,000 women recruited as nurses in 1939 in the East alone, these women should be considered an accomplice because the number of them volunteering into these programmes demonstrated their willingness to get involved in these crimes.

Nurses were also involved in medical experiments performed on prisoners at camps. For example, in Ravensbruck concentration camp, women became lab rats to study infections in wounds. Female prisoners were operated on to create a wound on their leg that was filled with ground glass, sawdust and dirt to see how wounds developed and nurses were involved in these experiments through participating themselves or selecting and preparing the patients for experiments. Thus, suggesting that they were accomplices to the Nazis because these nurses helped achieve the Aryan race through the assisted killings of people who were ‘unfit for human life’ as well as ensuring the health of their own race by aiding the experiments on people.

Nurses voluntarily subordinated to the Nazis through volunteering into these positions to following doctors’ or other superior nurses’ orders to euthanise someone. This puts them in the category of an accomplice as although in most cases they didn’t directly choose to kill these people, they were the ones administering the sedative if not even choosing who deserved to live or die. This makes them an accomplice as although they did not dictate these positions, they aided in these operations to assure that the crimes were committed successfully.

Through violence we see women playing a role as an accomplice to the Nazis. Daniel Brown argues as Germany entered deeper into the war, more men needed to be recruited and the plan for women changed and the way a ‘German woman could serve the Fatherland […] was in the concentration camp guard force’. As a result, it is predicted that 3,500 German women served as camp guards. When looking at these women camp guard’s testimony and comparing them to the survivor testimonies, we see a clash that represents the lack of official evidence to prove women were involved in violent activities, but no action was taken leaving women portrayed as witnesses in court. For example, Irma Grese earned a high reputation and was given control of 30,000 women, becoming ‘commander in the women’s camp’. During her trial, Abraham Glinowieski’s testimony argued Grese sent ‘thousands and thousands of people, ill and healthy, to the gas chambers’. Furthermore, other testimonies at the Lüneburg trial claim Irma created new methods of torture, for example ‘waiting for a woman to give birth then tying her feet’. However, when analysing her testimonies, she argued she’d ‘never struck prisoners’. Out of all of the 54,141 testimonies on the holocaust documented by SHOAH, 172 of the testimonies mention Irma which is a lot but emphasises that these women were lying and claimed they were not violent or just ‘following orders’. This wasn’t just a one-time phenomenon; we see multiple cases in camps where women were violent, blurring the line between the male and female ss guards. 

Furthermore, Figure 2 shows a woman photographed by Wilhelm Brasse who said a female guard took a stick and beat her about the face. This German woman was just taking out her anger on the girl’. These women couldn’t be named, and they were rarely mentioned in court and not paid attention to in documents. The lack of documented evidence makes it hard to uncover the violence women performed in camps because women in the camps weren’t advertised in the first place, it was not seen as the woman’s ground. Women went to these camps voluntarily showing they were accomplices as no official had forced them, everyone in Germany knew that a woman’s role in the regime was primarily in the home and could’ve chosen to submit to these norms but instead chose to go to these camps to gain a sort of power and help Hitler in his other plans, to exterminate the non-Aryan population and thus becoming an accomplice to the crimes.

7032847_90_0_1319_665_1000x541_80_0_0_ed017d3f525aa4da41a6de547353533fFigure 2: Wilhelm Brasse, ‘Block no. 6: Exhibition: The Life of the Prisoners’

Overall, a recent analysis of evidence has shown the relevance of re-analysing the role of women in Nazi Germany seeing them as more of an accomplice than a witness or victim as most scholars between 1945-80 have argued. In many cases where the blame has been pointed on women, they adopted an ‘I was following orders’ justification, but this supports the view they were an accomplice as we know they weren’t the direct perpetrators but helped the Nazis. Reasons to refer to them as an accomplice range from them voluntarily subordinating, moving to another region to help Hitler as well as participating in violent actions. Nonetheless, violence was less impactful due to the small number of women who participated to make an overall impact.

In my view, the most significant reasons to explain how they were an accomplice would be a combination between the subordination and geographic mobility as the majority of women chose to return to the home providing psychological support for their husbands to keep them going. Additionally, women moved to the Third Reich to integrate people through teaching German while making it a norm for German children to see themselves as superior. Furthermore, when nurses got involved in experiments, they facilitated these killings and still continued when they knew they could’ve subordinated to their primary role as housewives. When these women were caught, they adopted a victim mentality arguing they were just following rules. I agree with scholars that women were not to blame for the destructions caused by Nazi men and recognise that not all women played an involvement, however, can’t be considered anything less than an accomplice because they made it easier for crimes to be committed and helped the cause, even if they were indirectly involved.

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