Frauen: German Women Recall The Third Reich

by Alison Owings [Rutgers Univ. Press, 1993], $24.95

Were German (non-Jewish) women of the 1930’s and 40’s more anti-war than German (non-Jewish) men? Did they feel as drawn to Fascist rhetoric? What did they know of Nazi atrocities, and what did they do with that knowledge? In Frauen, Alison Owings takes an unflinching look at a subject many would deem untouchable: the memories of German women who lived through the Third Reich. In light of the abundance of material on men’s experiences in the Third Reich, Owings’ subject is an important one.

The 29 women interviewed in Frauen draw the reader into the day-to-day world of the Third Reich. They range from a woman who married a Jew to a woman who worked as a concentration camp guard, with nearly every imaginable role in between. Their perspectives are definitely ones we have not heard before. Many of these women held a notably apolitical view of the Third Reich that lasted until—and sometimes through— the war. The Third Reich seems to come upon them, in their narration, like a gradual shift in weather, bringing proud parades and escalating pressures to join youth groups. Says one half-Jewish woman: “You simply went along. To place yourself apart would have been superhuman.” Eventually husbands and fiances were taken away as the war became a reality.

Owings’ interviews are unfailingly fascinating. One woman shares vivid recollections of Germany after the stock market crash: “I can remember as a child, that while traveling on the streetcar, people on the platform fell over from hunger.”

Another tells of the very unhappy marriage between her patriotic Jewish father with his “unlucky love for Germany” and her Aryan mother (“If my mother had divorced him, he’d have been in a concentration camp immediately.”) This half-Jewish (or, as she uncomfortably and euphemistically describes herself, “exotic”) woman recounts the warm welcome she felt in the homes of her Aryan schoolmates before 1933; “Those were the things that later made me think many people did not feel so much under Iheir skin hatred against the Jews.”

What precisely did non-Jewish German women think of the plight of the Jews? One refrain common in the book (from those who acknowledge that they knew or suspected mass persecutions) is: “What could one do?” Resistance, as many of the women explain, was all but impossible, and where it was possible, it was most often in the hands of men. Ordinary human fear seems to govern the actions of most of Owings” subjects during wartime; they struggle to feed children, maintain contact with husbands and brothers in the army, and simply progress with their daily lives.

Almost all deny knowledge of mass murder until after the war, emphasizing the existence of a climate of rumor in wartime Germany that made it nearly impossible to discern falsehood from truth, whether the rumor was about concentration camps or about an impending law that all couples without children would be forced to divorce. Frequently encountered among the more extreme of these women is a morbid numbers game: They seem to fixate on a discussion of six million as an impossible number, a lie. This seems to alleviate the need for admission that, as one of Owings’ disgusted .subject responds, “even one is too many.”

Owings’ approach is painful in its honesty; over and over, she shows us how her preconceptions were overturned as she interviewed subjects. Wanting to believe that the majority of German women were naturally anti-war and anti-Hitler (“Women were nurturers and peacemakers, were they not?”), Owings finds instead that many continue to hold a strong attachment to German military glory and to Hitler’s magnetism. Others, of course, do not. There are women who hated the Nazis from the start, women thankful for the stability and economic upturn brought about by Hider’s Third Reich, women who claim compassion for non-Aryans while maintaining that the Second World War was fought by Germany in self-defense, women who took refuge in keeping their mouths shut and leaving politics to others. Indeed, by the end of Frauen, the reader has felt a breathtaking range of emotions towards the interviewees, extending from revulsion to sorrow to admiration.

Owings’ writing is clear and compelling, and she possesses a rare combination of talents: a good command of the dramatic, and the sense to step out of the way at the right moment and let her subjects talk. She wisely chooses to forego an all-consuming concentration on what her subjects really “knew,” and instead examines the small choices that made up these women’s lives particularly during the 30’s. “To me,” she writes, “the most important parts are what happened early on, at the personal stages mere mortals can comprehend.”

Amid all the current debate over whether the German people may still be held accountable for events of 50 years ago, Owings reminds us that the question of “neutral bystanders” is far from academic. “It’s getting worse and worse here,” we are told by one of Owings’ interviewees. “Not a day goes by in which a home for asylum seekers is not attacked or a Jewish cemetery destroyed or a concentration camp memorial ruined. It’s the neo-Nazis, and the government does absolutely nothing against them but talk and talk.”

“Something like the Holocaust would not repeat itself in Germany. We would all go to the barricades. But all,” says another of Owings’ subjects. Yet where are the women at the barricades in today’s Germany, or elsewhere in the world where persecution and prejudice are becoming the order of the day?