Top positive review
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Excellent introduction to a complex subject
on 3 February 2002
Until very recently women have not featured in the historical record to the extent that have merited due to the relative lack of importance assigned to the largely nurturing and supportive roles they were confined to. The exceptions where they appear in full brilliance have inevitably been distorted by the male gaze attributing more significance to their sexual allures and feminine wiles in a sphere presumed alien to them. Accurate, objective accounts of the type we are presented with here have indeed been thin on the ground and in spite of the vast proliferation of texts available depicting the contribution to human development by the „weaker sex", Women's History is still not accorded the respect it deserves, but is too often shrugged off as a sub-discipline, tangential to the „bigger issues" such as the conspiracies of court cliques and the machinations of (male) diplomats. One of the author's concerns is to remove women from the invisibility imposed upon them, to give them greater prominence thereby reflecting the reality of everyday interaction in a society where the demographic balance had shifted as a result of the ravages of the First World War on the adult male population.
One of the merits of the text is that it is ideally suited to the general reader, accesible and assuming no prior knowledge whilst providing a compact summary of all the relevant themes for the specialist. It gives insights into the rich complexity of experience under Nazi domination, highlighting the plight of the victims as well as the frustrations of privation as the war progressed. An annexe contains a wide variety of documentary material designed to illustrate the arguments, with the true horror of events becoming apparent in the seemingly trivial details (such as the account by women conscripted as anti-aircraft auxiliaries of how their NCO was mortally wounded by British planes on an air raid and begged them to put him out of his misery). Even mass rape as the ultimate act of humiliation and revenge is discussed, a subject that until the Bosnian conflict was hidden from public view.
The major themes are analysed with unflinching clarity, the depiction of the intrusive nature of the regime being one of the most significant. Dr. Stephenson recounts the inexorable erosion of the the distinction between the public and private spheres, examining how the most intimate realms of human activity were colonised by the regime by politicising reproduction and education and ruthlessly enforcing its principle of classification based on pernicious and repugnant notions of racial purity, whereby human beings were deemed „valuable" or „worthless" depending on a spurious definition of their genetic heritage and as „acceptable" or „asocial" depending on their willingness or ability to conform to Party-devised standards of behaviour and loyalty.
The examination of prevalent social attitudes towards women and how the Nazis appropriated these to their reprehensible cause credibly demonstrates how these determined the lives of women by circumscribing aspirations. What is disturbing is the uncomfortable realisation that many of the Nazi views about women in all their reductiveness, cynicism (regarding all individuals whether they were respectable, „valuable" members of society or „subhuman" outcasts as objects to be exploited) and misogyny are mere amplifications of opinions, which still enjoy common currency, for example, antipathy towards female employment in high status professions or leadership positions (compare this with complaints concerning the glass ceiling), or the justification for lower rates of pay or the remarkable persistent sexual double standards.
The depressing familiarity of some of these views serves as a reminder that the new ideology tapped into and drew strength from existing or latent attitudes within society - it was neither totally arbitrary nor completely illogical, but embedded in the preoccupations, biases and classifications of the society from which it emerged and over which it assumed brutal and bloody control. The seductiveness of the ideology to many women was that it granted them a status, indeed it could be argued even a privileged status, in spite of the fact that the price of this status was to accept marginalisation, being consigned to a visible, yet in terms of genuine political power, completely insignificant, backwater. No matter how perverse its categorisations, they imbued confidence in some, as they represented a recognition of intrinsic value, conferring a certain prestige. The beneficiaries naturally did not devote a great deal of energy to undermining their new, more elevated sense of self by questioning its extreme and crude reductiveness.
Dr. Stephenson gives an incisive and nuanced treatment of the fraught issue of complicity and how women with varying degrees of reluctance or zeal embraced the Nazi message and implemented it in their practical dealings. Women were active accomplices who, with the exception of concentration camp warders or doctors only too eager to sterilise or murder (by „euthanasia") the „undesireables": „worked at arm's length from the major Nazi atrocities. But in a host of small ways they reinforced the regime's demands and helped to marginalise and persecute anathematised groups" (p104). The author carefully peels of the layers of self-exonerating myth by revealing the trade-off. Her women are made of flesh and blood, neither completely alienated nor starved of social interaction, nor Arendt's obedient automatons, sapped of will and the ability to reason beyond Party strictures. Germans were not mysteriously transubstantiated into a nation of fanatics, but ordinary men and women were forced to conclude their own pacts with the devil in a more banal and sordid exercise than succumbing wholesale to the hypnotic charisma of a single individual, whereby self-preservation (or maximising advantage) outweighed other, potentially more altruistic, concerns.
Indeed many of the conventional notions of the impact of Nazi rule on women are shattered, such as the myth that they were to be consigned to a life of genteel, subservient domesticity (summarised in the phrase Kinder, Küche, Kirche). In short, the book offers an excellent introduction to and survey of a fascinating topic, which whets the reader's appetite for further exploration of the themes.