Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hitler's Furies

Hitler's Furies was interesting.  I guess I've always assumed women were complicit in the holocaust (and not in the sexploitation way like Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS).  It seems to me you can't run a genocide without the full participation of the culture, at least in the 1940s (I think governments have only gotten more skilled at deceit).

Wendy Lower's book tries to cover that aspect of the war, but eventually falls short.  She says herself that there's a lot working against her.  Societal expectations that women weren't truly involved in the killings, or ever involved in killings of any sort, particularly children.  Modified histories by individuals keen to cover their involvement or who still believe the Nazis were in the right, but know history is against them.  Time - some of those she interviewed died during her research period and World War II and even the post-war trials are now far in the past.  And a variety of rationales and silence that have been perfected over the decades, from "I was just doing my job" to "My dead husband did it and I was trying to protect him with my original testimony" to "I didn't know that's what they were doing next door."  The result is that she has a very small set of use cases to work from and Lower has to rely on more of a conjecture approach, pondering how many other women might have been involved based on modern crime statistics, Nazi-era internalization of Jews as less than human, psychology, and what little she does have as indicative of mothers, wives, nurses, administrators, and guards.  It falls a bit thin when it comes to facts and first person accounts, and it doesn't help that her end notes are truly at the end without reference within the text.  I found myself wondering whether I should have checked out two copies of the book so I could keep one open to the back as I read along.

Still, some parts stuck out as particularly horrifying.

On page 86, Lower details how the disposed bodies were everywhere.  That not knowing wasn't necessarily a plausible excuse because you could smell decomposing bodies when you picnicked.  Your feet would sink into ad hoc graves.  And road gravel was sometimes loose because bodies were buried in the middle of the road.  "The sites of mass murder were not in out-of-the-way places; rather, they often encroached on the shortcuts and paths that connected towns."

On page 93 and elsewhere she accounts that whole sections of towns were cleared out, such as 10,000 (out of a town population of 15,000) were murdered in Novogorod Volynsk, and that Germans would recount pillaging in neighborhoods left vacant but still littered with Hebrew texts and personal belongings.  The visual of the texts scattered on the floors is a powerful knowing that the owners wouldn't leave them there unless they had no other choice.

The story of one woman feeding starving children who had escaped from a boxcar only to subsequently walk them to a mass killing pit and personally shoot them in the head one by one while they cried isn't an image I'm likely to forget.  And to leverage feeding them as a sympathetic instance in a trial rather than as an indicator of someone particularly cruel or psychotic (to feed them acknowledges them as human in my opinion, but then again I was never in Nazi-era Germany) speaks to the how deeply society was skewed.

There are significant portions dedicated to the aspects of the Holocaust run by those who weren't soldiers as those were more likely roles for women.  Administrators who handled the paperwork.  Women comforted the men who couldn't handle the killing and got them going again. Nurses potentially euthanized German soldiers injured on the Eastern Front (rumored under Action T4 - see Opposition).  And "The first Nazi mass murderess was not the concentration camp guard but the nurse.  Of all the female professionals, she was the deadliest.  Centrally planned mass killing operations began neither in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau nor in the mass shooting sites of Ukraine; they began instead in the hospitals of the Reich.  The first methods were the sleeping pill, the hypodermic needle, and starvation.  The first victims were children.  During the war, nurses gave thousands of deformed babies and disabled adolescents overdoes of barbiturates, lethal injections of morphine, and denied them food and water." (120).  Lower states elsewhere that midwifery was a role of power, and midwives could condemn a child as non-Aryan, resulting in the death of the child and potentially the mother, based on an assessment of the features sometimes tinged with personal bias.  The Child Euthanasia entry on Wikipedia covers many of the details including financial remuneration for reporting a child.

I found the Nazi mottoes and linguistic constructions Lower cites more frightening than Orwellian mottos and those from The Circle:
  • "Kinder, Kuche, Kirche" - children, kitchen, and church (30)
  • "Juden Kaput!" Which gave me the willies.  Turning that phrase into a slogan, including for women's rallies, sums up the mindset.
  • Ostrausch - the intoxication of the East (164) - the idea that going to the East, Poland and Ukraine, was akin to the wild west of the US and gave one a euphoria that led to a certain hedonism, wildness, and that even nobility.
One can smell a bit of Orwell's 1984 in the language, and if you look back at possible origins of his Newspeak (Wikipedia): "The Principles of Newspeak" is an academic essay appended to the novel. It describes the development of Newspeak, the Party's minimalist artificial language meant to ideologically align thought and action with the principles of Ingsoc by making "all other modes of thought impossible". (For linguistic theories about how language may direct thought, see the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.) Note also the possible influence of the German book LTI - Lingua Tertii Imperii, published in 1947, which details how the Nazis controlled society by controlling language.

I'm going to end on the stupidest thing - in my opinion - I read in Hitler's Furies, because it speaks to what Lower was up against in trying to research the book and craft an idea of women's role in genocide.  Good historical work is often built on the accumulation of sound theory as historians leverage the ideas of each other and other disciplines and first person narrative.  Because so much of the first person narrative is potentially lies or obfuscation, Lower relies more heavily on the other aspects.  Trying to analyze the role of women in the Nazi regime obviously abuts the fields of criminality and psychology and those studies are full of a preponderance of nonsense about women as mothers, sex fiends, wives, and more. Before you can craft a meaningful story about women's roles in The Holocaust, you have to overcome meaningless statements like, "Another dubious theory posits that women have committed more crimes than have been documented, given that women are "naturally deceitful" and secretive.  The "evidence" provided is women's skill at concealing menstruation and faking orgasms (158)."  And yet those were attitudes that were believed and applied during the era and therefore important to acknowledge, not as fact, but as perception of fact that was acted upon by courts and doctors and actively leveraged by women themselves when faced with punishment.

A good book in many parts, just not executed well as a whole.

No comments: