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10 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Crimes by the unexpected. A lesson for one, and one for all., 28 Oct. 2013
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This review is from: Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (Hardcover)
When war is discussed certain individuals still claim how much better the world and life would become if run by peace-loving women, rather than violent, insensitive men. If one responded with what about Margaret Thatcher, it is likely her name would be treated as an exception. But, was Margaret Thatcher, Catherine the Great, and the Plantagenet queens further back in time, or Lady Macbeth in literature, exceptions, or examples of the rule of their times?

Before the end of World War II, and working as Prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, the German- Jewish born lawyer Robert M. Kempner and his wife Ruth wrote an official study entitled "Women in Nazi Germany" (1944), warning of fanaticism of women, estimating around 6 million were indoctrinated and of these 600,000 were still dangerous in future. Sadly, few then of importance took any notice.

Years later the historians Gudrun Schwarz (1997)Eine Frau an seiner Seite: Ehefrauen in der "SS-Sippengemeinschaft" and Elizabeth Harvey (2003) Women and the Nazi East: Agents and Witnesses of Germanization started to uncover real stories. Wendy Lower's Hitler's Furies is a research on 13 case-studies from all categories of young adventurous, career-minded "missionary" women who were transferred to spread Nazi culture: nurses, school teachers, secretaries, and wives of SS officers, each analysed in separate chapters as witnesses, accomplices (with the use of four rare post-war autobiographical publications), and perpetrators of the crimes in the "Wild" Eastern occupied countries. It is quite a unique historical project, using legal forensic investigative techniques about evil, and its causes, with sickening morbid details of the cruelties, and at first thought totally unbelievable to have been performed by ordinary German girls.

As witnesses to the murders Lower stresses that the effect hardened their determination; it eroded their sense of morality, and so they had to turn to opiates, such as sexual pleasures -consoling war scarred soldiers behind the lines, or alcohol, to escape the feeling of grief, the remorse and helpless guilt when partaking in further more brutal normal activities. Since, however, these persons could have resigned at any instant without facing punishments, over time their basic Christian morality appeared severely eroded as they continued to find enjoyment and photographed at picnics, bathe in swimming holes, as well as shooting at hunting parties on sites of fresh mounds of recent massacres where scattered personal articles of clothing were much in view.

Among the vilest perpetrators was the nurse Pauline Kneissler (b Odessa, 1900), who already prior to the outbreak of war was administering fatal injections, before experimenting with gas (as "death by gas" was deemed not "to hurt") on asylum inmates in Germany, considered persons "unworthy of life", as part of Nazi euthanasic policies of "racial hygiene". So when she was called to Poland and Belarus to inject doses on "sub humans" Soviet POWs, on non-Aryans such as Jews, and even on physically and mentally disturbed German military casualties of the failed Moscow offensive 1941-2, it appeared part of her normal double-think sacrificial war saving duties to eradicate any weakness and disease for the higher good. Obviously, families of the soldiers were never informed that they had been murdered or used as scientific guinea pigs; quite the contrary, they were all led to believe they had all gallantly fallen on the field of battle for Führer and the Fatherland.

Of the nasty secretaries was Joanna Altvater (b Minden), who was sent to Volodymyr-Volynsjky, in the Ukraine. It was there that "Fraulein Hanna" was remembered sadistically strangling a Jewish toddler, then picking up an older child, in September 1942, beating him like a carpet against the ghetto wall until he was lifeless, and finally throwing with glee the cadaver at the feet of its father. She was infamously remembered for her special "habit" of luring children with promises of sweets, and once they had opened their mouths she fired them with her personal pistol.

The worst category contained the wives of SS officers. It seemed that their own personal fanaticism bloomed once they became consorts of special killers, and raised among the elite of the Nazi social hierarchy. Three names repeatedly crop up: Gertrude Segel Landau and Josefine Krepp Block, both Viennese, and Erna Petri from Thuringia. Not only was it reported that when they moved in public they behaved like their spouses; they even adopted a male appearance, almost as if, according to the author, traditional male and female roles were confused. In reality, the two distinct roles were fused, mutating into one, with a single goal -death, making onlookers, both Jewish and SS, have greater fear of the unpredictable gentler but vicious sex. In many ways they got any with murder because they were officially present with their husbands and chattels.

The final two chapters focus on the protagonists' lives after the war; how they were treated in their respective states, and on explanations of the nature of violence in Nazi Germany. It was never considered an aberration; it was thus not a departure from the typical female or nature of the given society. For Hannah Arendt The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harvest Book), violence was the method to impose mastery and oppression over the conquered, or as Prosecutor Weissing noted in the trial of Altvater "the individuals were not insane, it was the Nazi system that was crazy" - which almost justified the evil cruel acts committed, and since the new world was not "crazy", Altvater with proven acts of violence against children was now thought "normal" and eligible to work in a child welfare office in a democratic state. Imagine that today in Britain if that was possible for sex offenders and paedophiles!

All but one of these women lived fairly comfortable lives. In Austria, despite the presence of the Nazi-hunter Weisenthal organization, most trials occurred up to 1950, with no convictions being passed after 1970; in West Germany trials went on longer but without clear results as society refused to judge that "failed" period; in fact it started glorifying the role of its passive Hausfraus at home, helpless when facing the violence of hoards of invading Soviets. The establishment was virtually mouthing Goebbels' ideas; consequently, it was hardly surprising that one of the accused of this study, conditioned with state anti-Semitism, declared without fear that Germans were now facing "Jewish justice", the "foreign" victor demanding revenge against the native weak, which was not justice. No sign or feeling of contrition.

The exception, the above mentioned accused, Erna Petri, lived in the former East Germany, a state where 220 female defendants were tried between 1945-90. As the crimes were Nazi, the judge in the early 1960s did not consider a changed system sufficient to explain reformed individuals as the idealist lawyers in the West: she and her husband, Horst, were convicted for the crimes they had committed despite the passage of time. He was blamed for her murders - which was only half correct. What early historians had failed to ask these women was not were their jobs in the east; rather to list the activities this entailed.

The author recognised that many women in court tried to hide their pasts whether by changing details, denying incidents, or outright lying, but it is very possible that some not for the length of time will have consciously wiping clean those episodes causing the greatest discomfort and trauma - something akin to veterans suffering with PTSD requiring group counselling, and drugs to make the horrid past come alive, in order to be completely exorcized.

Wendy Lower's brilliant work is not just a must for students of Nazi Germany or of the Holocaust; it is a wonderful sociological study on early 20th century extremism and violence, a book that would act as a useful tome in a comparative study with other types of totalitarianism - in addition to the usual Soviet Union might be added the Khmer Rouge's Cambodia of the 1970s, and Qaddafi's Libya; a historical example of civilian violence in war compared with late examples such as ex-Yugoslavia and Ruanda in the 1990s, as well as a study on fanaticism to be compared with that of "ordinary" women in extreme religious, political or local gang environments. It is welcome background reading for international lawyers, and the general reader will find it very interesting, too. A word of warning: it is toxic material, and is sickening in parts.

Finally, all MEPs and workers of the EU, now winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, should consider the formula "Peace is the continuation of War by other means" not as empty, meaningless balderdash. If the EU has achieved in ending War in Europe, they must be reminded that they have not put the lid on possible extremisms. They still exist, and are growing. This work of history describes what women are capable of doing. The EU in turn must learn not to behave in an extreme fashion. Hitler's Furies or Lower's passion is a lesson for all.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 2 Jan 2014, 10:22:35 GMT
Dan Filson says:
By far the most informative and erudite review of this book. Whether it would be comfortable reading I doubt, but it - the book - adds, it seems, to the sum of human knowledge.
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