A new book pulls back the veil on the widespread involvement of women in the Third Reich’s most murderous and brutal activities. An exclusive excerpt from Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies.
The history of female killers—Hitler’s furies—during the Third Reich has 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.
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. 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 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.
Johanna Altvater was twenty-two years old when she arrived in the Ukrainian-Polish border town of Volodymyr-Volynsky. A county seat, with thirty thousand inhabitants, the town was surrounded by wheat fields and forests delineated by the marshy banks of two rivers, the Bug and the Luga, where Germans liked to go boating and picnicking. The town was also an important military-industrial juncture with soldiers’ barracks, a radio station, an airport, fuel depots, a brick factory, a textile mill, and a clothing factory. For the Jews in town, these installations were critical to their survival as laborers. A few months before Altvater’s September 1941 arrival, members of an SS and police special commando unit had already initiated the first anti-Jewish measures in Volodymyr-Volynsky. With the help of the local German military commander, they formed a Jewish council, then publicly humiliated its members and buried them alive. The Jewish council chief committed suicide with his family. On September 30, Yom Kippur, a larger massacre occurred. Altvater’s boss, a “gimlet-eyed runt” named Wilhelm Westerheide, arrived to take over as regional commissar. It was immediately clear to the Jews who had survived the first wave of massacres that life would not improve under Commissar Westerheide. He started “target shooting” of individual Jews who were loading fuel barrels at the railway station.
Ordinary young women with typical prewar biographies, not just a small group of Nazi fanatics, went east and became involved in the crimes of the Holocaust, including killing.
In the summer of 1942 and fall of 1943, waves of German-led mass shooting actions reduced the Jewish population in the entire region from about twenty thousand to four or five hundred. There, Westerheide and the other district governors in Nazi-occupied Ukraine had learned that their bosses expected them to carry out the Final Solution “one hundred percent.” Though the order was of course not issued directly to “Fräulein Hanna,” Johanna Altvater decided to do her part. She often accompanied her boss on routine trips to the ghetto; she was seen hitching their horses to the gate at the ghetto entrance. On September 16, 1942, Altvater entered the ghetto and approached two Jewish children, a six year-old and a toddler who lived near the ghetto wall. She beckoned to them, gesturing as if she were going to give them a treat. The toddler came over to her. She lifted the child into her arms and held it so tightly that the child screamed and wriggled. Altvater grabbed the child by the legs, held it upside down, and slammed its head against the ghetto wall as if she were banging the dust out of a small carpet. She threw the lifeless child at the feet of its father, who later testified, “Such sadism from a woman I have never seen, I will never forget this.” There were no other German officials present, the father recalled. Altvater murdered this child on her own.
During the liquidation of the ghetto, the German commander of the nearby POW camp saw Fräulein Hanna, in her riding pants, prodding Jewish men, women, and children into a truck. She circulated through the ghetto cracking her whip, trying to bring order to the chaos “like a cattle herder,” as this German observer put it. Altvater entered the building that served as a makeshift hospital. She burst into the children’s ward and walked from bed to bed, eyeing each child. She stopped, picked one up, took it to the balcony, and threw the child to the pavement below. She pushed the older children to the balcony of the ward—which was on the third floor—and shoved them over the rail. Not all of the children died on impact, but those who survived were seriously injured.
After rounding up Jewish children in the ghetto infirmary, for example, Johanna Altvater killed some herself on the spot; others she forced onto a vehicle that took them to a mass murder site where they were shot by male police units. Statistically, if we took the percentage of homicides committed by women in peaceful society and applied it to the genocidal East, where women made up roughly ten percent of the population of Germans, then the estimate of female killers there would be about three thousand. But if we assume, as is likely, that women in genocidal societies—women who are empowered by the state, with “enemy” groups as their targets—are responsible for a greater percentage of murders than women in peacetime societies, then three thousand begins to look unrealistically small.
When it comes to killers like the secretaries, wives, and lovers of SS men in this chapter, we will never have a precise number. But the evidence here does give us new insights about the Holocaust specifically and genocide more broadly. We have always known, of course, that women have the capacity to be violent, and even to kill, but we knew little about the circumstances and ideas that transform women into genocidaires, the varied roles they occupy inside and outside the system, and the forms of behavior they adopt. Now it is possible to imagine that the patterns of violent and murderous behaviors uncovered here occurred across wartime Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, and other parts of Nazi-dominated Europe. German women who went east embodied what the expanding Nazi empire was becoming: ever more violent. Ordinary young women with typical prewar biographies, not just a small group of Nazi fanatics, went east and became involved in the crimes of the Holocaust, including killing.
Fortunately, with the military defeat of Germany, the heyday of the perpetrators would come to an end; the Nazi machinery of destruction would stop. The lives of these German women did not end, however. They returned home to the rubble of the Reich and tried to bury their criminal pasts.
Excerpt from HITLER’S FURIES by Wendy Lower to be published on October 8th, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Wendy Lower. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.