Interview with Wendy Lower, 2013 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction

Wendy Lower

Hitler's Furies by Wendy Lower Wendy Lower
Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Photo credit: Björn Marquart

Interview by Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale: You describe finding a list of German women—kindergarten teachers—on a trip to Zhytomyr in Ukraine. Were you looking for this evidence or was it a kind of serendipity?

Wendy Lower: It was the summer of 1992, and the archives of the former Soviet Union had just opened their doors to westerners. I knew that Heinrich Himmler had established his field headquarters in Zhytomyr and that there was a regional archive with captured German records. I went to Ukraine looking for local files on the Nazi occupation; what I did not expect to find were files that placed ordinary German women in the genocidal machinery of destruction. I assumed that German women had stayed home in the Reich, and were not sent abroad into warfare. The file of kindergarten teachers that I found seemed like an anomaly, and at first I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Were there more women sent east? What were they doing there? What did they witness? Were they directly involved in the Holocaust? Only later, with more research, did I realize that German women participated fully in the Nazi colonization of Eastern Europe and in the regime’s horrific crimes.

ST: Feminism has changed the practice of historical research in, as you note, a search for the ‘underappreciated’ agency of women. Often this has been a matter of bringing forth episodes of particular courage or creativity. You describe the ability of women to engage in brutality and evil. Can you speak to how this knowledge is good for women's status?

WL: A more critical understanding of women’s history is a sign and source of strength. Sharing only stories of heroism while burying those of cowardice or cruelty would give us a partial history, an incomplete and inaccurate account of who women were and what they did. Writing women’s history is not a hagiographic pursuit. Like men, women are agents of historical change that is both positive and negative, and I hope that my findings will show that women with power are equally susceptible to abusing it.

I looked for women’s agency in any form that I could document. Of course I started with the traditional female occupations of nursing, midwifery, teaching, clerical administration, welfare work, and child rearing. I traced how women in these different fields became direct witnesses, accomplices, and perpetrators. I also discovered female participation in the genocide in unexpected settings. For example, in one of the worst cases that I came across, a female defendant in an East German court confessed to shooting Jewish children on her farm in Nazi-occupied Poland. In her postwar defense, she stated that she wanted to prove herself to the men and that she had been indoctrinated with anti-Semitism. In the unfettered violence of the wild East, young German women and men tested different male-female roles that Holocaust survivors and other witnesses described as a world turned upside down.

ST: You describe the use of ‘ego documents’ such as memoir, written by the subject. How do you learn to read through subjective material—to decode it for fact?

WL: It definitely takes time and experience to be able to discern when someone is evading, exaggerating, or conforming to certain clichés or expectations. Yet it is the blatant subjectivity of these sources—interviews, testimonies, letters, and memoirs—that makes them especially valuable, because they reveal attitudes and emotions that do not appear in official records. But one has to be wary. People change their stories depending on their audience, and not everyone has a good memory.

Listening to the sources, getting into the mind of people, and assessing plausibility is the first part of the decoding job. The rest is detective work. In this case, it entailed searching through written records and photographs in several national and regional archives, plotting remote places on maps, identifying witnesses, culling information from interviews, and collaborating with colleagues who are also turning up new information and leads. So, for instance, many women gave detailed testimonies to prosecutors after the war. How was it that these women knew so much? It could only be because they were near the crime scenes, were involved in the operations in some way, or interacted with the perpetrators. Once a woman revealed that she had been in the East—once I had a name and a place—I could scour the wartime and postwar records to see if her personal account jibed with other sources. If possible, I would then follow up with my subjects directly, questioning them about information that was missing from their memoirs.

ST: You note the importance of youth in movements like Nazism. Do you see any parallels in the multiple resistance and insurgent movements of today—for better or worse?

WL: The Nazi leadership was young—Hitler was only 43 when he became chancellor—and most of the German and non-German killers were in their 20s and 30s; one of the camp guards at Gross-Rosen was just fifteen. The majority of German women who were mobilized for the war in the East were 18 to 25 years old.

It is the idealism, activism, and vulnerability of young people that make them so important to any movement, but especially to extremist movements. Terror regimes prey on young people who are full of energy and hubris because they can be molded into the obedient cadres of mass movements, paramilitary forces, and even perpetrators of genocide. Today unemployed, embittered youth comprise a powerful element of neofascist and xenophobic movements in Greece, Hungary, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe. Young revolutionaries toppled regimes during the Arab Spring, and children have been forced into military service of the most horrific kind in the Congo and elsewhere. We can see in the history of warfare, revolution, and genocide that the youth can easily become the agents and victims of mass violence.

ST: In covering material such as this, what do you do for yourself—to guard against your own reaction coloring the material, and to maintain your own equanimity?

WL: The Holocaust evokes feelings of shock and grief. My research has brought me into close contact with survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators. After reading records of the crimes or listening to a witness, I cannot simply move on to the next document or interview. I was living near Munich on a research fellowship that gave me valuable time to reflect on my findings, to take long walks, and be with family. As much as I strove to reconstruct and understand the mindset of the women and the era that defined their lives, I found ways to keep a distance from ‘their’ past and live in ‘my’ present. I am passionate about my work, so my emotions are unavoidably in the narrative. But if I allowed my outrage and sadness to color the material, then my presentation would be less historically accurate and less credible.

What helped me to continue writing—apart from the ethical imperative to find some truth and meaning in the injustices that I uncovered—was the fact that there are many people today who complain that they are tired of hearing about the Holocaust, simply wish that the history would go away, and assume that we know all there is to know. But we are still uncovering millions of pages and hundreds of thousands of life stories of people who have no voice today and who would be forgotten if not for the work of the scholars in this field. We are still piecing together that puzzle of what happened and trying to understand why.

Sallie Tisdale is the author of seven books, including The Best Thing I Ever Tasted (Riverhead, 2000), a finalist for the James Beard Award for Writing, and Talk Dirty to Me (Doubleday, 1994), which will be reissued later this fall. She was a National Book Awards nonfiction judge in 2010.