During the Nuremberg trials, as former Nazis were rounded up and made to account for the horrors they perpetrated, one refrain rang out above all others: “I had no choice.” They insisted they didn’t want to commit atrocities, but they would be killed if they refused orders. Most who said that were just trying to save their skin, pass the blame off to someone who outranked them. But some of them were probably telling the truth(ish)…conscripted into a war they didn’t want, they followed orders to survive. But what about the people who weren’t soldiers? The ones who didn’t have orders to follow? What about the women who participated in the war’s atrocities? Why did they do it?
Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies examines the role German women played on the eastern front. Ambitious women who wanted more than being a farmer’s wife, found a place for them in the Gestapo-by the end of the war, the staff was 40% women. They were sent to Ukraine and Poland and Belarus as secretaries, teachers and lawyers. There, they either witnessed or took part in a genocide.
Lower’s book follows 13 women who went East. Some knew something terrible was happening, but kept their head down. They’d block their ears when they’d hear Jews about to be murdered screaming for help. Some knew more-as secretaries they would draft the forced expulsion orders for their bosses to sign. Sometimes they would be at the station, as trains crammed with Jews rolled by. They too, felt that there was nothing they could do. They knew that helping the Jews (if they even wanted to) could get them arrested or killed. Some women even blamed the Jews for not fighting back.
We also meet another group of women-the murderers. Some of the wives and girlfriends of SS officers got a thrill from harming others. Some enjoyed threatening Jews with whips-others went farther and murdered Jewish children. One woman shot at Jews from her balcony with her daughter at her side.
Lower’s book mostly ignores the documented professional female killers-the women in positions of power in the camps or in the SS, to focus on the amateurs. And in a New York Times interview, she basically admits to cutting down her book to make it more palatable to the non-historians out there. Maybe she shouldn’t have edited it. A lot of the book is filler-she doesn’t know why women would kill, and she tells us that for 25 pages. She says thousands of women walked free after committing crimes against humanity, but she only tells us about three and doesn’t mention where she got those numbers (her notes and the end of the book aren’t clear and often contradictory, as if she didn’t think we would check).
Lower seems to think her book is more revelatory than it actually is. The book is poorly written, poorly researched, and covers nothing but old ground. Hitler’s Furies doesn’t tell us anything new. We don’t need to read a history book to know that both men and women are capable of unspeakable cruelty and violence.