In the summer of 1992 I bought a plane ticket to Paris, purchased an old Renault, and drove with a friend to Kiev over hundreds of miles of bad Soviet roads. We had to stop often. The tires blew on the jagged pavement, there was no gas available, and curious peasants and truckers wanted to look under the hood to see a Western automobile engine. On the single highway stretching from Lviv to Kiev, we visited the town of Zhytomyr, a center of Jewish life in the former Pale of Settlement, which during the Second World War had become the headquarters of Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Holocaust. Down the road to the south, in Vinnytsia, was Adolf Hitler’s Wehrwolf compound. The entire region was once a Nazi playground in all its horror.
Seeking to build an empire to last a thousand years, Hitler arrived in this fertile area of Ukraine—the coveted breadbasket of Europe—with legions of developers, administrators, security officials, “racial scientists,” and engineers who were tasked with colonizing and exploiting the region. The Germans blitzkrieged eastward in 1941, ravaged the conquered territory, and evacuated westward in defeat in 1943 and 1944. As the Red Army reoccupied the area, Soviet officials seized countless pages of official German reports, files of photographs and newspapers, and boxes of film reels. They deposited this war booty and classified the “trophy” documents in state and regional archives that would remain behind the Iron Curtain for decades. It was this material that I had come to Ukraine to read.
In the archives in Zhytomyr I came across pages with boot footprints and charred edges. The documents had survived two assaults: a Nazi scorched-earth evacuation that included the burning of incriminating evidence, and the destruction of the city during the fighting of November and December 1943. The files contained broken chains of correspondence, tattered scraps of paper with fading ink, decrees with pompous, illegible signatures left by petty Nazi officials, and police interrogation reports with the shaky scrawls of terrified Ukrainian peasants. I had seen many Nazi documents before, while comfortably ensconced in the microfilm reading room of the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C. But now, seated in the buildings that had been occupied by the Germans, I discovered something besides the rawness of the material I was sifting through. To my surprise, I also found the names of young German women who were active in the region as Hitler’s empire-builders. They appeared on innocuous, bureaucratic lists of kindergarten teachers. With these leads in hand, I returned to the archives in the United States and Germany and started to look more systematically for documentation about German women who were sent east, and specifically about those who witnessed and perpetrated the Holocaust. The files began to grow, and stories started to take shape.
Researching postwar investigative records, I realized that hundreds of women had been called to testify as witnesses and that many were very forthcoming, since prosecutors were more interested in the heinous crimes of their male colleagues and husbands than in those of women. Many of the women remained callous and cavalier in their recounting of what they had seen and experienced. One former kindergarten teacher in Ukraine mentioned “that Jewish thing during the war.” She and her female colleagues had been briefed as they crossed the border from Germany into the eastern occupied zones in 1942. She remembered that a Nazi official in a “gold-brownish uniform” had reassured them that they should not be afraid when they heard gunfire—it was “just that a few Jews were being shot.”
If the shooting of Jews was considered no cause for alarm during the war, then how did women respond when they actually arrived at their posts? Did they turn away, or did they want to see or do more? I read studies by pioneering historians such as Gudrun Schwarz and Elizabeth Harvey that confirmed my suspicions about the participation of German women in the Nazi East but left open questions of wider and deeper culpability. Schwarz had uncovered violent SS wives. She mentioned one in Hrubieszow, Poland, who took the pistol from her husband’s hand and shot Jews during a massacre in the local cemetery. But Schwarz provided no name for this killer. Harvey had established that women teachers were active in Poland and that, on occasion, they visited ghettos and stole Jewish property. The scope of women’s participation in the massacres in the eastern territories remained unclear, however. It seemed that no one had scoured the wartime and postwar records and memoirs with one central question in mind: Did ordinary German women participate in the Nazi mass shooting of Jews? Did German women in places such as Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland participate in the Holocaust in ways that they did not admit to after the war?
In the postwar investigations in Germany, Israel, and Austria, Jewish survivors identified German women as persecutors, not only as gleeful onlookers but also as violent tormentors. But by and large these women could not be named by the survivors, or after the war the women married and took on different names and could not be found. Though there were source limits to my inquiry, over time it became clear that the list of teachers and other female Nazi Party activists that I had found in 1992 in Ukraine was the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of thousands of German women went to the Nazi East—that is, to Poland and the western territories of what was for many years the USSR, including today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—and were indeed integral parts of Hitler’s machinery of destruction.
One of these women was Erna Petri. I discovered her name in the summer of 2004 in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The museum had successfully negotiated the acquisition of microfilmed copies from the files of the former East German secret police (Stasi). Among the records were the interrogations and courtroom proceedings in a case against Erna and her husband, Horst Petri, who were both convicted of shooting Jews on their private estate in Nazi-occupied Poland. In credible detail Erna Petri described the half-naked Jewish boys who whimpered as she drew her pistol. When pressed by the interrogator as to how she, a mother, could murder these children, Petri referred to the anti-Semitism of the regime and her own desire to prove herself to the men. Her misdeeds were not those of a social renegade. To me, she looked like the embodiment of the Nazi regime.
Recorded cases of female killers were to a degree representative of a much bigger phenomenon that had been suppressed, overlooked, and under-researched. Given the ideological indoctrination of the young cohort of men and women who came of age in the Third Reich, their mass mobilization in the eastern campaign, and the culture of genocidal violence embedded in Nazi conquest and colonization, I deduced—as a historian, not a prosecutor—that there were plenty of women who killed Jews and other “enemies” of the Reich, more than had been documented during the war or prosecuted afterward. Though the documented cases of direct killing are not numerous, they must be taken very seriously and not dismissed as anomalies. Hitler’s Furies were not marginal sociopaths. They believed that their violent deeds were justified acts of revenge meted out to enemies of the Reich; such deeds were, in their minds, expressions of loyalty. To Erna Petri, even helpless Jewish boys fleeing from a boxcar bound for the gas chamber were not innocent; they were the ones who almost got away.
It was not by chance that eastern Europe was where Nazis and their collaborators carried out mass murder. Historically, the terrain was home to the largest populations of Jews, many of whom had become, in Nazi thinking, dangerously “bolshevized.” Western European Jews were deported to remote areas of Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia to be shot and gassed in broad daylight.
The history of the Holocaust is wrapped up in the Nazi imperial conquest of eastern Europe, which mobilized all Germans. In Nazi-speak, being part of the Volksgemeinschaft, or People’s Community, meant participating in all the campaigns of the Reich, including the Holocaust. The most powerful agencies, starting with the SS and police, were the main executors; these agencies were controlled by men but also staffed by women. In the government hierarchies, female professionals and spouses attached themselves to men of power and in turn wielded considerable power themselves, including over the lives of the regime’s most vulnerable subjects. Women who were assigned to military support positions to free up men for the front had the authority to issue orders to subordinates. These women filled positions in the Nazi hierarchy from the very bottom to the very top.
Among Hitler’s retinue stationed in the East were his secretaries—women like Christa Schroeder, who took dictation for the Führer in his bunker near Vinnytsia. After touring the Ukrainian countryside, where she caroused with the regional German chiefs and visited the ethnic German (Volksdeutsche) colonies, she pondered the future of the new German Lebensraum (“living space”) in a wartime letter:
Our people immigrating here do not have an easy task, but there are many possibilities to achieve great things. The longer one spends in this immense region and recognizes the enormous opportunity for development, the more the question presents itself as to who will be carrying through these great projects in the future. One comes to the conclusion that the foreign people [Fremdvolk] are not suitable for various reasons, and ultimately because in the course of the generations an admixture of blood between the controlling strata, the German element and the foreign people would occur. That would be a cardinal breach of our understanding of the need to preserve our Nordic racial inheritance and our future would then take a similar course to that of, for example, the Roman Empire.
Schroeder was in an extremely unusual place among a select few, of course; yet her words attest to the fact that secretaries in the field recognized their imperial role and that their understanding of the Nazi mission was articulated in the sort of racialist, colonialist terminology that is usually attributed to the male conquerors and governors.
As self-proclaimed superior rulers, German women in the Nazi East wielded unprecedented power over those designated “subhuman”; they were given a license to abuse and even kill those who were perceived, as one secretary near Minsk said after the war, as the scum of society. These women had proximity to power in the massive state-run machinery of destruction. They also had proximity to the crime scenes; there was no great distance between the settings of small towns, where women went about their daily routines, and the horrors of ghettos, camps, and mass executions. There was no divide between the home front and the battlefront. Women could decide on the spot to join the orgy of violence.
Hitler’s Furies were zealous administrators, robbers, tormentors, and murderers in the bloodlands. They melded into hundreds of thousands—at least half a million—women who went east. The sheer numbers alone establish the significance of German women in the Nazi system of genocidal warfare and imperial rule. The German Red Cross trained six hundred forty thousand women during the Nazi era, and some four hundred thousand were placed in wartime service; the majority of these were sent to the rear areas or near the battle zones in the eastern territories. They worked in field hospitals of the army and Waffen-SS, on train platforms serving refreshments to soldiers and refugees, in hundreds of soldiers’ homes socializing with German troops in Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and the Baltics. The German army trained over five hundred thousand young women in support positions—as radio operators, file-card keepers, flight recorders, and wiretappers—and two hundred thousand of these served in the East. Secretaries organized, tracked, and distributed the massive supplies necessary to keep the war machine running. Myriad organizations sponsored by the Nazi Party (such as the National Socialist Welfare Association) and Himmler’s Race and Resettlement Office deployed German women and girls as social workers, racial examiners, resettlement advisors, educators, and teaching aides. In one region of annexed Poland that was a laboratory for “Germanization,” Nazi leaders deployed thousands of teachers. Hundreds more—including the young teachers mentioned in the files I found in Zhytomyr—were sent to other colonial enclaves of the Reich. As agents of Nazi empire-building, these women were assigned the constructive work of the German “civilizing” process. Yet the destructive and constructive practices of Nazi conquest and occupation were inseparable.
Appalled by the violence of the war and the Holocaust, most female witnesses found ways to distance themselves from it and to minimize their roles as agents of a criminal regime. But for the thirty thousand women certified by Himmler’s SS and police as auxiliaries in gendarme offices, Gestapo headquarters, and prisons, psychological distancing was hardly an option, and the likelihood of direct participation in mass murder was high. In the civil administration of Nazi colonial governors and commissioners, another ten thousand secretaries were spread out across the Nazis’ eastern capitals and district offices in Rovno (now Rivne), Kiev, Lida, Reval (now Tallinn), Grodno, Warsaw, and Radom. These offices were responsible for the dispensation of indigenous populations, including Jews, many of whom had been placed in ghettos and forced-labor assignments managed by these German male and female bureaucrats. Hitler’s Furies were not always agents of the Nazi regime. Often they were mothers, girlfriends, and wives who joined their sons and mates in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltics, and Russia. Some of the worst killers were in this group.
Within this mobilized mass, certain women stand out. Multitasking secretaries were both desk murderers and sadists: some not only typed up liquidation orders but also participated in ghetto massacres and attended mass shootings. Wives and lovers of SS men not only consoled their mates when they returned from their dirty work but, in some cases, also bloodied their own hands. In Nazi thinking, rounding up and shooting Jews for several hours was hard labor, so female consolation extended beyond creating a moral sanctuary at home: women set up refreshment tables with food and drink for their men near mass execution and deportation sites. In a small town in Latvia, a young female stenographer distinguished herself as the life of the party as well as a mass shooter. The entanglement of sexual intimacy and violence was evident as I read the files, but in ways that were more mundane than scenes depicted in vulgar postwar pornography. Romantic outings such as a walk in the woods might bring lovers into visceral contact with the Holocaust. I read about a German commissioner and his lover-secretary in Belarus who organized a wintertime hunt. They failed to find animals, so they shot at Jewish targets who moved slowly in the snow.
Women with official roles in Hitler’s Reich—such as Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the top woman in the Nazi Party—may have been highly visible, but they were largely figureheads, wielding little political power in the formal sense. The contribution of other women in numerous other roles has, in contrast, gone largely unacknowledged and unexplored. This historical blind spot is especially glaring in regard to women in the occupied eastern territories.
All German women were required to work and contribute to the war effort, in paid and unpaid positions. They managed fatherless households, family farms, and businesses. They clocked in at factories and modern office buildings. They dominated in the field of agriculture and in the white-collar “female” professions of nursing and secretarial work. Some twenty-five to thirty percent of the teachers in Weimar and Nazi Germany were women. As the Reich’s terror apparatus expanded, new career tracks opened for women, including employment in concentration camps. While the careers and acts of female camp guards have been scrutinized by journalists and scholars, much less is known about women occupying traditional female roles—women not trained to be cruel—who by chance or design ended up serving the criminal policies of the regime.
Teachers, nurses, secretaries, welfare workers, and wives—these were the women in the eastern territories, where most of the worst crimes of the Reich occurred. For ambitious young women, the possibilities for advancement lay in the emerging Nazi empire abroad. They left behind repressive laws, bourgeois mores, and social traditions that made life in Germany regimented and oppressive. Women in the eastern territories witnessed and committed atrocities in a more open system, and as part of what they saw as a professional opportunity and a liberating experience.
Hitler’s Furies focuses on the transformations of individual women in the inner workings and outer landscapes of the Holocaust—in the offices, among the occupational elite, in the killing fields. Often those who seemed the least likely to perpetrate the Holocaust’s horrors became the most entangled and involved. The women featured in this book came from diverse backgrounds and regions—rural Westphalia, cosmopolitan Vienna, industrial Rhineland—but collectively they form a generational cohort (seventeen to thirty years old). They all came of age with the rise and fall of Hitler.
Sometimes a source allowed me to explore deeper questions. Why were these women violent? What were their postwar perceptions of their time in the East? Without detailed interrogation records, memoirs, and private writings such as diaries or letters, as well as a number of extraordinary interviews, it would have been nearly impossible to determine what the women were thinking, what their attitudes were before, during, and after the war.
After the war most German women did not speak openly about their experiences. They were too ashamed or frightened to tell their stories of what had happened or what they did. Their shame was not necessarily about culpability. Some had good memories of what was supposed to be a bad time. There were ample rations, first-time romances, servants at one’s disposal, nice villas, late-night parties, and plenty of land. Germany’s future seemed limitless, and the country reigned over Europe. For many men and women, in fact, this time preceding Germany’s military defeat marked a high point of their lives.
Their silence about Jews and other victims of the Holocaust also illustrates the selfishness of youth and ambition, the ideological atmosphere in which these German girls grew up, and the postwar staying power of these formative years. As teenagers, eager professionals, and newlyweds, these women were immersed in their own plans, whether dreamed up on a small Swabian farm or in a bustling port city like Hamburg. They wanted respectable occupations and paychecks. They wanted to have friends, nice clothes; they wanted to travel, to experience more freedom of action. When they admired themselves in their new Red Cross uniforms, or proudly displayed their certificates for completing a childcare course sponsored by the Nazi Party, or celebrated their new typing job in a Gestapo office, they became part of the Nazi regime, intentionally or not. It is perhaps not surprising that these young women did not admit to themselves or to us, either then or many years later, in courtrooms or their own memoirs, what their participation in the Nazi regime had actually entailed.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, the stark exposure of the worst female camp guards, such as Irme Grese and Ilse Koch, may have stifled a more nuanced discussion of women’s participation and culpability. Trials generated sensationalistic stories of female sadism, further fueled by a postwar trend in Nazi-style pornography. Meanwhile, the ordinary German woman was depicted popularly as the heroine who had to clean up the mess of Germany’s shameful past, the victim of marauding Red Army rapists, or the flirtatious doll who entertained American GIs. Emerging feminist views stressed the victimization of women, not their criminal agency. This sympathetic image, despite the popularity of such novels as Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, has largely remained. In the cities of Germany today, one finds statues and plaques dedicated to the “rubble women.” In Berlin alone, an estimated sixty thousand women shoveled and hauled away the ruins of the capital, discarding the past for the future. They were celebrated for inspiring the West German economic miracle and the East German workers’ movement.
Among the myths of the postwar period was that of the apolitical woman. After the war many women testified in court or explained in oral histories that they were “just” organizing things in the office or attending to the social aspects of daily life by managing the care or duties of other Germans stationed in the East. They failed to see—or perhaps preferred not to see—how the social became political, and how their seemingly small contribution to everyday operations in the government, military, and Nazi Party organizations added up to a genocidal system. Female fascists—in Nazi Party headquarters in Kiev, in military and SS and police offices in Minsk, and in gated villas in Lublin—were not simply doing “women’s work.” As long as German women are consigned to another sphere or their political influence is minimized, half the population of a genocidal society is, in the historian Ann Taylor Allen’s words, “endowed with innocence of the crimes of the modern state,” and they are placed “outside of history itself.”
The entire population of German women (almost forty million in 1939) cannot be considered a victim group. A third of the female population, thirteen million women, were actively engaged in a Nazi Party organization, and female membership in the Nazi Party increased steadily until the end of the war. Just as the agency of women in history more generally is underappreciated, here too—and perhaps even more problematically, given the moral and legal implications—the agency of women in the crimes of the Third Reich has not been fully elaborated and explained. Vast numbers of ordinary German women were not victims, and routine forms of female participation in the Holocaust have not yet been disclosed.
Generalizations about all German women should certainly be avoided. But how do we begin to get some sense of women’s roles vis-à-vis the Holocaust, from rescuer to bystander to killer, and all the gray areas in between? How can we more accurately place women in the regime’s genocidal machinery? Assigning people to criminal categories such as accomplice and perpetrator does not by itself explain how the system worked and how ordinary women witnessed and participated in the Holocaust. It is more revealing to look at the wider distribution of power in the Nazi system and to identify more precisely who was doing what to whom, and where. For example, a female chief detective in the Reich Security Main Office directly determined the fates of thousands of children, and did so with the assistance of almost two hundred female agents scattered across the Reich. These female detectives collected evidence of “racially degenerate” youths whom they branded future criminals. As “crime fighters,” they devised a color-coding system in their pursuit of some two thousand Jewish children, “gypsy” children, and other “delinquents” incarcerated in special internment camps. Such organizational, clerical skills were considered female, and well suited to the modern, bureaucratic approach to “fighting crime.”
The female witnesses, accomplices, and perpetrators featured here are based on research in wartime German documents, Soviet war-crimes investigations, East German secret police files and trial records, West German and Austrian investigative and trial records, documentation from Simon Wiesenthal’s archive in Vienna, published memoirs, private wartime correspondence and diaries, and interviews with witnesses in Germany and Ukraine. The official wartime documentation—the SS marriage applications, personnel records of the civil administration, Red Cross records, and Nazi Party agency reports—proved valuable for establishing the presence of women in various positions, detailing their biographical data, and elucidating the ideological training of the organizations to which they belonged. But such records, while written and typed by individuals, are all but devoid of personality or motive.
Biographical portraits that delve into personal experiences and outlooks over time require a greater reliance on what German scholars aptly refer to as “ego documents.” These are self-representations created by the subject: testimonies, letters, memoirs, and interviews. These mostly postwar accounts pose many serious problems, but as historical sources they are not to be dismissed. Over time one learns how to read and hear them, how to detect techniques of evasion, exaggerated storytelling, and conformism to literary tropes and clichés. And one tries to corroborate them to test their veracity. It is the blatant subjectivity of these sources that makes them especially valuable.
There are significant differences between the testimony given to a prosecutor, an oral history or interview given to a journalist or historian, and a memoir. The narrator tailors her story to meet the expectations of the listener, and that story may change over time as the narrator learns more about her past from other sources and as the questions of the audience change. Oral histories published in the late 1980s, for example, do not show the same sensitivity to the events of the Holocaust as memoirs published in the early twenty-first century. The more recent memoirs often attempt to deal with the question of knowledge and participation, since the female witness anticipates that the reader or listener will ask her, “What did you know about the persecution of the Jews? What did you see?” Furthermore, memoirs—usually penned by the elderly—are often a collaborative project shared by a parent and her descendants. The aged wartime witnesses wish to leave a legacy, to record a dramatic chapter in the family history; the knowledge that their memoirs will be read by future generations dissuades them from being candid or graphic in recounting their encounters with Jews, their enthusiasm for Nazism, or their participation in mass crimes. Sometimes the language in these accounts is coded, or only hints are given. In several cases I benefited from direct contact with the memoirist and was able to ask for more details.
One should not assume that memoirists and witnesses intend to deceive or hide facts, and that some terrible truth waits to be uncovered. It is natural to repress what is painful as a form of coping. The women who published memoirs wished to be understood and to have their lives affirmed; they did not want to be judged or condemned. As I waded through multiple accounts, it became clear which ones were more credible and valuable than others.
The consensus in Holocaust and genocide studies is that the systems that make mass murder possible would not function without the broad participation of society, and yet nearly all histories of the Holocaust leave out half of those who populated that society, as if women’s history happens somewhere else. It is an illogical approach and puzzling omission. The dramatic stories of these women reveal the darkest side of female activism. They show what can happen when women of varied backgrounds and professions are mobilized for war and acquiesce in genocide.