On 1 April 1933, around two months after Hitler became Chancellor, Germans were instructed to take part in a boycott of Jewish businesses. Martha Brixius and her mother braved the SA men at the door of a shop in Marburg:
It was so terrible – such a very large store and completely empty. The owner came over to us. He was so thankful that someone came. My mother really had nothing to buy ... so she bought two small spools of thread. And in his zeal and happiness that someone was there, this man, Herr Blumenfeld, said: ‘Shall I have them sent to your home?’
The boycott was quickly cancelled amid fears that it would affect foreign investment, but it did have some of the effects Hitler wanted: the Times claimed that it ‘revealed strikingly how preponderant Jewish influence is in business life’; and although Frau Brixius and her mother were not alone in their defiance, most people were either already afraid, or not altogether sure that they didn’t agree with the Nazis. Several of the 29 women who told Alison Owings about their lives during the 12 years of the thousand-year Reich admit that they wanted the Jews ‘pushed back’. But ‘that they would be killed, that would never have been the idea,’ Ursula Meyer-Semlies says, after reeling off a list of businesses in her hometown owned by Jewish people, culminating in the coffin works on the banks of the Memel River.
In Berlin, Lisa Fittko had already become an ‘illegal’ by the time of the boycott: she was left-wing and known to the Nazis. In Solidarity and Treason, her account of her years in the Resistance, in Germany and later in exile, she writes vividly, if somewhat breathlessly, of producing flyers, typing the text to the accompaniment of the triumphal march from Aïda in an attempt to drown out the noise; of the difficulty of maintaining cells of resisters which were continually being depleted as members were arrested; and of the anxious wait to find out if those who were caught would betray their comrades. Many were murdered or sent to camps, others were let go:
Then they shadow them. They watch to see whom these people will contact ... Then they strike: everything is shattered, communications are lost. That’s why everyone released has to be ‘put out in the cold’ at first ... What must it be like to be suspected and shut out by your own comrades! To be entirely alone.
Martha Brixius’s trip to the haberdasher was probably the height of her active resistance to the Third Reich. As Claudia Koonz writes in Mothers in the Fatherland, the ‘silent opposition’ – sometimes described as ‘internal emigration’ – which Brixius and many other Germans now claim to have engaged in during the Third Reich cannot be thought of as resistance ‘if resistance is to have any meaning at all’. Brixius herself says that ‘one cannot expect every human being to be so courageous’ and adds that women were less likely to take that kind of action because they had children to think of. In fact, women were suited to resistance, especially in Germany where it was non-violent and depended largely on an ability to evade notice – it also helped that women were thought by the Nazis to be beneath notice. They could extend their housewifely role by feeding and hiding people, they could conceal leaflets in prams or shopping bags, and like Lisa Fittko, they knew how to type.
Conservative resisters were probably quite content that the jobs best-suited to the women in their groups involved nothing more unconventional than cooking and babysitting. Alison Owings spoke to Freya von Moltke, whose husband, an aristocrat from a famous Prussian military family, was executed shortly before the end of the war (his wife believes he survived as long as he did on the strength of his illustrious name). The von Moltkes founded what the Nazis called the Kreisauer Kreis or Kreisau Circle (she says it’s an excellent name), a talking-shop of patrician resisters who were trying to write a new constitution for a post-Nazi Germany – an action predicated on German defeat and thus treasonable. According to Owings, who read the transcripts of their meetings, to vote in this new state one would have had to be 27 and male. Freya von Moltke believes this is a mistake: ‘I know my husband didn’t think that way.’ Whatever the truth, middle-class resistance groups were often anti-feminist and authoritarian and saw themselves as the natural rulers of their country: the Kreisauer Kreis was opposed to attempts to assassinate Hitler partly because they would endanger the lives of those needed to govern post-war Germany.
The Left never recovered from its disorganisation and division in 1933. The Communists and the Social Democratic Party wildly underestimated the threat represented by Hitler’s access to power, and counselled caution or the inevitability of the proletarian revolution until, using constitutional means to suspend the constitution in the form of the Enabling Act passed by the Reichstag on 23 March 1933, Hitler deprived them of the opportunity either to vote against him or to fight against the armed Nazi coup many had expected. Despite Fittko’s descriptions of the precautions she and her comrades took, those who did resist can’t have been careful enough: of the 300,000 members of the German Communist Party in January 1933, half were dead, in concentration camps or in prison by January 1934. Most of the rest went into exile, as Fittko herself did.
These figures are even more striking when contrasted with the memories the women Owings interviewed have of this period. Most of them were teenagers or in their twenties when Hitler became Chancellor: they were married by 1939 and mothers and sometimes widows by 1945. They spent the Thirties having a good time with the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the League of German Girls, which most of them remember as non-political – ‘naturally there were some nice dance evenings with the Hitler Youth’ – or falling in love, having children and collecting Mother’s Crosses for being good breeders (one woman told Owings that her son had proudly had her medal mounted on velvet). They talk of order and stability after the inflation of the Twenties, of a fall in unemployment, of road construction (only two make the connection between roads and militarisation) and of young people being kept in line – several obviously think that Germany could do with this at the moment. You ‘thanked God you were not a Jew’, Liselotte Otting says, but you had, or now believe you had, other things to think about, you ‘had friendships, had boyfriends, had disappointments’:
In these dreadful years, I was, in human terms, happy in my personal life. While others fought, suffered, died, I was happy. Lived undisturbed, lived in sufficient circumstances, loved and was loved in return. They were the most beautiful years of my life.
Otting was not alone in her ability to turn away from the suffering that was taking place as she and most other Germans were just walking dully along, but as a woman, very definitely the second sex in the Third Reich, her life was far from ‘undisturbed’. In a society defined by race and gender, women’s lives were greatly affected by the regime’s ideological anti-feminism; volksbiologisch considerations were to be the primary ones for them. Koonz quotes the Nazi ideologue Gottfried Feder: ‘The insane dogma of equality led as surely to the emancipation of Jews as to the emancipation of women. The Jew stole the woman from us. We must kill the dragon to restore her to her holy position as servant and maid.’ This might not seem a very alluring prospect, but many women were quite taken with the idea of this mythical handmaiden, especially those frightened by the urban and secular wickedness of the Weimar Republic; many Nazi women and those in the middle-class women’s organisations quite liked the idea of a female Lebensraum covering education, physical education, healthcare, social work and religion and were prepared to give up other rights in return – the right to vote was soon somewhat irrelevant in any case.
By the time the majority of the women Owings interviewed left school most professions were closed to them, other than womanly ones. Regina Frankenfeld studied domestic science and ended up working in Berlin running advice centres with ‘rational ... leaders, not only little mother Müller who meant well’. These centres were the responsibility of the Reichsfrauenführerin, Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the most senior woman in the Nazi hierarchy and the leader of millions of female members of Nazi organisations. Frankenfeld describes Scholtz-Klink as a ‘great idealist’ who had nothing to do with the extermination of the Jews, adding frostily that ‘politics did not consist only of the annihilation of the Jews.’ An unrepentant Scholtz-Klink was interviewed by Claudia Koonz and claimed her ‘job (and we did it well) was to infuse the daily life of all German women – even in the tiniest villages – with Nazi ideals ... We wanted to incorporate all women into the national community. We didn’t waste time trying to boss men around.’ Judging by the lack of access Scholtz-Klink had to male Nazi leaders, this was just as well.
While praising the family, the Nazi state policed it and split the loyalties of its members. Women were pressurised to join the Frauenschaft or girls to join the Bund Deutscher Mädel. Verena Groth, who was half-Jewish, a Mischling, hated being left out: ‘the only one of seven hundred girls ... not to be part of it, when you’re 12, 13 years old, that was very hard.’ Karma Rauhut tried to get out of it: ‘In my village I always said more or less, “I’m in it in Berlin.” And at school I always said: “I’m in the BDM at home.” ’ Her recalcitrance was noted, however, and when she was called to do her mandatory ‘work duty’ she was sent to a ‘regular punishment camp’. Relatives who joined Nazi associations were no longer to be trusted: Rita Kuhn’s mother warned her not to talk to her cousin who was in the Hitler Youth; when Ursula Kretzschmar’s husband criticised Hitler his father threatened to call the Gestapo. Otting’s family continued to meet friends who had become Nazis, at first ‘because one tolerated it and considered it crazy. And afterward ... because one was afraid.’
One early Nazi slogan went: ‘Not for you the working life, better learn to be a wife.’ There were many monetary benefits for women prepared to give up work and have children, and the birthrate did rise in the Thirties, although not very dramatically. However, around a million people were forcibly sterilised during this time, and it seems probable that there were more abortions than there were births to couples who had received Marriage Loans as an inducement to procreate. If, like Tini Weihs, you miscarried, as well as coping with the upset and the stigma of not being good breeding stock, you might also have to prove you hadn’t had an abortion.
Hitler’s attempt to keep women in the home proved rather too successful for the good of his war effort: only a third of German women had jobs compared with around 60 per cent in Britain. Five million German women did no useful war service. So much for total war. Hitler’s opposition to efforts to entice women back to work was backed by deputies like Fritz Sauckel, the Commissioner of Manpower, who said that ‘factory work would inflict both physical and moral harm on German women and damage their psychic and emotional life and possibly their potential as mothers.’ Scholtz-Klink, on the other hand, tried to encourage female mobilisation, but while many women had been willing to follow Nazi policy back into the subsidised and idealised home, they were less willing to combine their duties there with poorly paid work in munitions factories. Hitler was also opposed to women taking on military roles. Erna Tietz became an anti-aircraft gunner and is still annoyed that she was given a vague identification which could have meant that she was in the ‘secretarial pool, or distribution of clothing’: the use of women for military work was supposed to be secret.
Many of the interviews turn, inevitably, on the question of the Jews: on the boycott, on Kristallnacht, on the women’s knowledge, or lack of it, of what was happening in the camps, although as Owings remarks in her Conclusion, ‘it is so much easier to condemn what others did at Auschwitz in the Forties than to condemn what one oneself did at home in the Thirties.’ Many of the women tell the story of the Hausjude, the good Jew who was fond of them and who left in time and is now doing very well in America: Owings calls this figure the ‘first patron saint of post-war Germany’. More than one woman speaks about Jews with their ‘thick fur coats’, gold and diamonds, and many talk about Germans and Jews being different races or describe Jews as Händler, or ‘dealers’. Lisa Fittko was told by a teacher that she exemplified the ‘characteristic Jewish trading mentality’ when she swopped a pink notebook for her friend’s little mirror.
Many of them didn’t really know any Jews, who made up less than 1 per cent of the population and lived mainly in the cities, particularly in Berlin where they constituted 4 per cent of the population. Freya von Moltke had Jewish friends, which, she said, made it ‘very simple to be in opposition’. But many people had links and found it just as easy to forget them. In 1933 the BDF, the League of German Women’s Associations, dissolved, and most of its member groups, including those organised around the Protestant and Catholic Churches, Nazified themselves, as did professional organisations, getting rid of Jewish and other undesirable members with remarkably little upset and a haste that surprised even the Nazis.
One of the more disturbing statistics of Thirties’ Germany is of the number of people who divorced their Jewish partners. The grounds in the new divorce laws of 1938 included racial incompatibility, refusal to procreate and eugenic weakness. In 80 per cent of the 30,000 cases that followed, men divorced their wives. Rita Kuhn, a Mischling with a Jewish father, told Owings about her aunt, who looked like Greta Garbo and married the Count von Rohde without telling him she was Jewish. One night they went to a ball and a man said to the Count that his wife was so beautiful it was hard to believe she was Jewish. He immediately divorced her. She died in Terezín just after the camp was liberated.
Erna Dubnack hid a Jewish friend in her flat in Berlin from January 1943 until the end of the war. The working-class Dubnack befriended Hildegard Naumann, the daughter of a judge, in 1935 shortly before the Nuremberg race laws were enacted, when she saw her sitting forlornly on her own beside a lake near Berlin: ‘I thought, God she’s sitting there so alone. She can play with us and we can swim together.’ Dubnack says she didn’t really think of the dangers when Naumann moved in – ‘We were young. And we were opposed’ – successfully hiding her from her young son and her neighbours (including a watchful SS man) despite the smallness of the apartment and the frequent bombing raids.
Living underground seems to have made Hilde Naumann, and others like her, feel confident enough to venture outside: they seem to have felt transparent, as if they didn’t exist – and, by this time, as far as most Germans were concerned, the Jews had ceased to exist. Jews, as Rita Kuhn underlines, learned early that they had to be ‘practically invisible’ to survive, but most people outside the Nazi Party also spent the war trying not to be noticed and, as Christa Wolf wrote in the semi-autobiographical A Model Childhood, ‘a person who wants to pass unnoticed soon stops noticing anything.’ Hilde Naumann’s invulnerability didn’t last: she survived the war, along with just under 15,000 other Jews who had been hidden, but in April 1946 was run over and killed by an Allied patrol car as she walked down a street still unlit and strewn with debris.
Among the perils of peace, rape was the most prevalent. Dubnack’s sister was raped, but she was not: ‘I made myself look old and held my Peter to me and they probably overlooked me ... That was the worst for us.’ At least two million German women were raped at the end of the war, the majority by Red Army soldiers. Several of the women Owings talked to were raped at this time; most didn’t want to talk about it, or not with the tape recorder running. One of them, Irene Burchert, from the conservative and nationalistic East Prussia, spent four years in a concentration camp in Siberia, and talked of nothing other than the cruelties of the Russians. When asked what she’d learned from the war, she answered: ‘how Communism works.’
Burchert’s family had been waiting in vain for the order to flee to come from the Nazi Ortsgruppenleiter in their village, but the Russians got there first. Some of the most striking reminiscences in Frauen describe the streams of refugees trekking across the devastated Europe of 1945, Germany’s Stunde Null. Countess Maria von Lingen was living in her late husband’s castle in Silesia:
I had straw thrown everywhere for the refugees so they could sleep somewhere or lie down. Then came the treks with very proper people. Count Garnier-Turava and others. I had to put them up in the guest rooms ... They had drafted my entire staff into the munitions factories ... The butler was drafted and killed.
Finally she left herself: ‘All I had was ... two rucksacks and two fur coats and two suitcases and some things to eat.’
On the whole women had had a good vantage point from which to view the Nazi state. Not only had they been the focus of key Nazi policies but they had lived in Germany throughout the Third Reich. Like Martha Brixius they had gone shopping and noticed the disappearance of Jewish shops and customers; they had heard from their children what went on in schools and in the Hitler Youth and BDM; they had seen Jews being evicted from ‘Aryan’ apartment buildings, wearing yellow stars in the street and being deported; they had experienced bombing raids more terrifying than anything many of their male relatives witnessed at the front. Although their memories are partial and to some degree self-serving, Owings believes that most of the women told her what they thought was the truth most of the time. She records their hesitations and evasions but tries not to judge them. She also admits her original hope that women would prove to have been better than men, to have doubted the Nazis; she spoke to an impressively varied group, but what they told her would not enable one to claim any special virtue for women.
In her interview with Owings, Regina Frankenfeld kept insisting on her own honesty and truthfulness, but she ended it by misdating Kristallnacht by four years: it happened, she said, in 1934 when she lived far away from Berlin and could have seen nothing of the destruction of the synagogues and the attacks on the Jewish population. Marianne Karlsruhen can’t remember what her father’s factory made, saying only that it’s ‘completely possible they manufactured something used for the war’, but her obsession with clothes survived under the most difficult conditions and she remembers the exact details of a ‘magical dress’ she bought in Copenhagan.
The Nazi sympathisers concentrate on the memory of their thwarted idealism: Margarete Fischer had a photograph of her meeting Hitler proudly displayed in her living room. (‘I looked exactly the way Hitler wanted German women to look. Blonde, with braids, and tall and slim and lively.’) She believed Hitler was ‘driven by idealism’; after the war she felt that her own idealism had been ‘misused scandalously’. The former Nazis concentrate on Hitler’s appeal to nationalism, patriotism and youthful idealism: ‘Naturally I voted for the NSDAP. Obviously. Which young person would not have, who was open-minded and enthusiastic?’
‘Repression’ has become something of a buzzword in post-war Germany but it seems true, nevertheless, that many Germans have averted their gaze since the war, just as Freya von Moltke said they did before it. As James Fenton wrote in ‘A German Requiem’:
It is not your memories which haunt you.
It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.
What you must go on forgetting all your life.
As Owings points out, they have been helped in this by the absence both of the Jews and often, thanks to Allied bombing, of the places where they had lived.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.