In the years during which I taught a course on the Holocaust at Manchester, one of the topics I covered concerned gender aspects of that historical experience. We looked at women as victims and the ways in which their sufferings were similar to those of men and the ways in which they were different; at specific aspects to do with sexuality, pregnancy and the care of children; at the role of women in the resistance to Nazi brutality; and, inevitably also, at women as bystanders to and perpetrators of genocide. At the time I didn't know of any systematic study on women as perpetrators, but what was scattered across the Holocaust literature was pretty much the same range of behaviour as was to be found for men - from extreme cruelty, through 'run-of-the-mill' harshness, to the occasional example of a more humane woman camp guard who would try to mitigate the treatment being meted out as a matter of routine. In general the judgement of historians and other observers was that the behaviour of women perpetrators matched in cruelty that of male guards.
This may come as a surprise to some, but to me it never was. Women are people and while there are undoubtedly gender differences relevant to the role they can come to play in brutal episodes, as members of our species enough women will share those attributes of human nature that undermine, corrupt and provoke individuals to behave shockingly for there to be an adequate complement of them filling whatever spaces for brutality happen to be available at any given time.
A new book by Wendy Lower - Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields - is reviewed here. It should throw some light on this unhappy topic.
Distilling many years of research into the Holocaust, Lower focuses her account on the experiences of a dozen or so subjects... ranging from provincial schoolteachers and Red Cross nurses to army secretaries and SS officers' molls. Despite coming from all regions of Germany and all walks of life, what they had in common was that they ended up in the Nazi-occupied east, where they became witnesses, accessories or even perpetrators in the Holocaust.
Lower is scrupulously fair to her subjects, providing a potted biography of each, explaining their social and political background and examining the various motives – ambition, love, a lust for adventure – that propelled them to the "killing fields". This objectivity is admirable, particularly as most of the women swiftly conformed to Nazi norms of behaviour, at least in turning a blind eye to the suffering around them. One woman, a Red Cross nurse, organised "shopping trips" to hunt for bargains in the local Jewish ghetto, while another, a secretary, calmly typed up lists of Jews to be "liquidated", then witnessed their subsequent deportation.
Most shocking of all are the accounts of the women who killed. One of Lower's subjects, a secretary-turned-SS-mistress, had the "nasty habit", as one eyewitness put it, of killing Jewish children in the ghetto, whom she would lure with the promise of sweets before shooting them in the mouth with a pistol. Lower presents another chilling example: that of an SS officer's wife in occupied Poland who discovered a group of six Jewish children who had escaped from a death-camp transport. A mother, she took them home, fed and cared for them, then led them out into the forest and shot each one in the back of the head.
Despite these horrors, Lower's book resists the temptation to wallow in emotive rhetoric; nor is it drily academic. She writes engagingly, wears her considerable erudition lightly and has opted to stick with a broad narrative account, comparing and contrasting but never allowing her analysis to outweigh the fundamental humanity of the stories. The book's power lies in its restraint.
Neither can Hitler's Furies be imagined as some sort of Woman's Hour rereading of the Holocaust. There is no special pleading for the subjects and the gender studies aspect of the book is kept well within bounds. Indeed, in analysing the women's progress from nurses and secretaries to accomplices and perpetrators, Lower is at times eager to emphasise that the forces that drove and shaped them were in some ways the same forces experienced by Germany's men - the seductive appeal of Nazism, the heady lawlessness of the occupied eastern territories and the "new morality" of the SS.
It's worth remembering here that many of those women who committed crimes could not resort to the time-worn excuse that they were "following orders". They were not. They were merely reacting and adapting to their surroundings.
Heady lawlessness - never forget that.