The Books Interview: Wendy Lower

October 09, 2013
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Wendy Lower is a historian and a consultant for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. Her latest book is "Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields", which examines the role played by women in the eastern expansion of the Third Reich during the Second World War. The book presents linked biographies of 13 German women who became witnesses, accomplices and perpetrators of the Nazi genocide on the Eastern Front. I met Lower when she came to London last week.

When did it first occur to you that there was a gap in the historiography of the Holocaust where the role of women is concerned?

The discovery of this this glaring omission or blindspot wasn’t instant—I had to piece things together. As a historian, you begin with the source material. And I began to find documentation about these women and realised that although they were there in the archives, they weren't in the books I was reading. Once I’d established that they were missing from the history books but that there was documentation about them, and that they were significantly present in the killing fields of eastern Europe in various roles, I started to think what this absence meant. Were we missing something in the understanding of how genocide happens by leaving women out? This wasn’t so much about putting women on the map, giving them agency, as really trying to understand genocide in all its dimensions.

So there are certain conceptual unclarities in our notion of genocide that you’re attempting to clear up here?

We have the working definition of genocide developed by Raphael Lemkin. His notion of genocide as the entire destruction of peoples has two components to it: a cultural aspect—the destruction of a people as a cultural entity—and also the physical destruction of peoples. Genocide is obviously about killing, but there are other components having to do with how a population, usually a vulnerable minority, is stamped out of existence, through segregation, deprivation, how it is erased from history. If you look at genocide as both an event, the killing, and as this kind of longer process of erasure, then you certainly can’t take women out of the picture. And this is not confined to modern systems like at Auschwitz. Placing women in these killing fields [in Poland and the former Soviet Union] where genocide occurred in these other forms is important.

The three central chapters of the book are devoted to analyses of “witnesses”, “accomplices” and “perpetrators”. Who are you most interested in?

The story of a perpetrator like Erna Petri is a really outstanding case. I was shocked and disturbed by it and thought, “I’ve got to get to the bottom of this. This story can’t just be set aside—it needs to come out.” But I have to say that in the end the chapter on the accomplices I found to be much more important. I think that’s where the real substance of the book is. After all, the killers were few in number. But when we talk about the machinery of the genocide, it’s the women who are in proximity to the systematic organisation and implementation of it.

And of course—this is a familiar point—it’s that bureaucratic machinery that’s one of the distinctive things about the Nazi Final Solution.

Yes, but in all genocides, whether it’s Rwanda or Cambodia, a defining feature is that it’s systematic, organised—bullets are distributed, machetes are distributed. And women are involved in that. The SS wives who were killer... that’s very distinctive in terms of the racial ideology at work.

Another case you discuss in the book is that of Vera Wohlauf, who was attached to Reserve Police Battalion 101, the unit that played an important role in the administration of the Final Solution in Poland, and which is examined by Christopher Browning in his book Ordinary Men.

I didn’t know whether I should include her in the book or not, because she’s already been dealt with in the literature, both by Browning and by Daniel Goldhagen. Wohlauf was a little bit older than the other women discussed in the book. She had a slightly different background—she was a Hamburg socialite and had some international experience before the Nazi dictatorship consolidated. She spent time in Switzerland and England and was therefore a bit more worldly than some of the others, who were mostly from small towns and hadn’t gone beyond the borders of Germany before they went east. But you could characterise her as someone who was trying to make her way. And in this period one route to social mobility was through marriage. In her second marriage she married an SS man. She went to Poland in the summer of 1942 as an SS bride. She and her husband had only been married a brief time before she joined him in the field, where they had a sort of honeymoon. Their honeymoon took place amidst these mass shooting actions. The focus of Browning and Goldhagen’s work pertains not so much to what Wohlauf did as to the fact of her being present and how it influenced the men. Now that’s important, but I was more interested in her testimony and how she lied after the war about what she did and what she saw. I wanted to get at the issue of her pregnancy: was this really a factor in the eyes of the men? Pregnancy comes up as a defence in three cases in the book. We have women, postwar, telling prosecutors, “You don’t think I would have participated in a ghetto clearing, parading round with a whip and a camera, while pregnant do you?”

Would you say that this book reflects certain wider trends in Holocaust historiography? Would it be fair to say, for instance, that there is a growing interest among historians in what happened to Jews on the Eastern Front, before the creation of the extermination camps?

The history of the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units that operated on the Eastern Front, has been part of the literature for decades. It’s there, for instance, in Raul Hilberg’s pioneering three-volume study on The Destruction of the European Jews. The Einsatzgruppen case at Nuremberg brought a lot of this to light. So that’s standard knowledge. But a lot of that work was done during the Cold War, before the Iron Curtain had come down. And it didn’t capture the attention that places like Auschwitz did. That’s how we differentiate the Holocaust from other genocides—we think about the gassing facilities, how unique they were. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the sudden availability of all this German documentation, down to the unit level, of these mass shootings, the time seemed to be right to go to these places and start to corroborate locally what was going on. More recently, the emergence of bystander testimony from Ukraine, for example, is helping us to understand the involvement of Ukrainian peasants and Ukrainian militia, and what ordinary people in these communities were witnessing. So that area of historiography has really taken off in the last 15 to 20 years, with access to new sources, to the sites themselves, raising new questions about collaboration.

So the collapse of the Soviet Union transformed Holocaust historiography by presenting historians with new archival resources?

Yes. I can’t imagine that this book would have been written if that hadn’t occurred. So I think the collapse of the Soviet Union is really decisive in expanding the field of Holocaust studies—in terms of source material and also a conceptual shift.

Wendy Lower's "Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields" is published by Chatto & Windus (£18.99)