On Thursday, February 27, the Athenaeum hosted CMC Professor of History Wendy Lower, who presented her research on women who were active during the Holocaust. During that era, some of the most heinous crimes in history were committed, but the exact involvement of women has always been poorly understand. However, in order to shed light on this subject, Lower decided to delve into this topic to determine just how complicit women were during this time in the acts of violence committed by the Nazis. After extensive research and first-hand investigations, she published her findings in her book Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and is currently being translated into 19 foreign languages.
Before Lower’s speech, CMC’s President, Hiram Chodosh, took to the podium to announce that Lower is the inaugural recipient of the John Roth Professor of History chair. In addition, John Roth himself gave a speech at the Ath on Wednesday in anticipation of Lower’s speech the next day. Roth’s talk, which focused on the ethics, or more specifically, the failure of ethics during the Holocaust, provided context for Lower’s speech.
During Lower’s talk, she explained that women had more direct involvement in the violence of the Holocaust than what might have been previously believed. Lower first became interested in the topic of women in the Holocaust after she traveled to Ukraine a few years after graduating college in order to investigate the fall of the Soviet Union. She was sifting through documents and records when she noticed a list of German women that struck her as peculiar: What were they doing in such a violent community?
In fact, this wasn’t the only such list Lower found, so she began to suspect that this was part of a larger trend. After further research, she found a book entitled The Good Old Days, which described the Holocaust through the eyes of the perpetrators and contained pictures of women consorting with men known to be involved in the crimes.
In order to add further depth to her research, Lower conducted interviews with several women, or their family members, who were personally involved, and she discovered a wide range of attitudes. For example, Lower spoke with a German woman named Annette Schuecking-Homeyer who worked with the German Red Cross to socialize with German soldiers. Schuecking displayed morally conflicted feelings;=. “People with no moral inhibitions have a certain odor,” Shuecking lamented. “What can I do?”
On the other end of the spectrum, though, was one woman who found six escaped Jewish children, put them in her carriage, took them back to her home, and when her husband—a Nazi officer—didn’t come back in time, promptly shot all six.
So the question still remains, what drove these women to get caught up in all this? One possible explanation is that they were a product of the era in which they grew up. Most of these women were part of the baby boomer generation after World War I and came of age in the tough, inflation-affected 1930s. In addition, the government required women to fulfill labor duties, and this environment instilled in them a revolutionary attitude and the desire to make something of themselves, which ultimately could have manifested itself in the desire to take part in such atrocities.
The results of the Holocaust were devastating, but the events and attitudes that led to the ultimate outcome are much more difficult to pinpoint. However, undeterred by the apparent difficulties of the project, Lower delved into this ethical morass and was able to create an insightful and gripping piece of scholarship.