Witnesses. Accomplices. Killers. One thing is clear from Wendy Lower’s chilling new book Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. Regardless of the prism through which German women viewed the Third Reich’s maddening quest for racial purity few escape Lower’s dogged search for the answer to “why?” Why did this “darkest side of female activism” rear its head and consume a generation of women that found themselves thrust into a war they did not want but nonetheless embraced for their own selfishness and ambition.
For the thousands of women coming of age in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the dividing line between home front and battlefront was practically nonexistent. While most women found ways to distance themselves from the violence of the war, a third of the female population was actively engaged in a Nazi Party organization. Many volunteered to be sent to the Eastern Front where some of the worst atrocities against Jews were documented. Clerical, teaching and nursing jobs became the sinister underpinnings of the Nazi machine, where new career tracks beckoned young women seeking a steady paycheck. How these women, some barely out of their teens, others young mothers, evolved into indifferent bystanders or cold-blooded killers, is the thrust of Lower's dramatic account.
Lower sorts her 13 "main characters" into three categories: witnesses, accomplices and killers. It is the latter perpetrators of genocide that evoke the most study. Women like Johanna Altvater, a secretary who lures Jewish children with candy only to shoot them, or Liesel Willhaus, wife of an SS commander who shoots Jewish slave workers from her balcony with her child in tow, are impossible to fathom. Lower, who is a Holocaust historian, explores shocking behaviors like these in this 68-year-old story of one of the most disturbing puzzles of women's behavior. Hitler's Furies has recently been named a finalist for the National Book Award.