Mothers in the Fatherland, Interview with author Claudia Koonz on Women in Nazi Germany

Mothers in the Fatherland, Interview with author Claudia Koonz on Women in Nazi Germany

by Fred Pelka

People would turn up in the Nazi camp whom I was utterly surprised to find there

Claudia Koonz remembers being a grade school student in small-town Wisconsin and watching the Army- McCarthy hearings on TV.

“We were let out of school so we could go home and watch, because we would want to tell our grandchildren how we saw McCarthy facing down those communists. I was particularly fascinated by this, by so many ‘decent’ people believing in such hateful doctrines.” It is this fascination with how “decent” people end up countenancing or committing evil that makes Mothers in the Fatherland, Dr. Koonz’ acclaimed examination of women, family and politics in Nazi Germany, so contemporary as well as so important. Rather than rehash the chronology of battles, purges and plots of the men who led the Third Reich to genocide and destruction, Koonz examines how ordinary and extraordinary women embraced Nazism, or were co-opted or destroyed by it. How did women — feminists, anti-feminists, and those in between — react to the terror regime, to the persecution of their Jewish neighbors, to the politicization of church and family life? And what did Nazism, arguably the most misogynist movement of the century, offer its women supporters?

Though some 50,000 books and articles have been written about Nazi Germany since 1945, “the women among Hitler’s supporters,” writes Koonz, “have fallen through the historian’s sieve, unclaimed by feminists and unnoticed by men.” Even so, some (male) historians blame women for Hitler’s rise to power. “Women discovered, elected and idolized Hitler,” writes one West German journalist, while an East German historian comments, “Never in German history had so many women streamed into a political party, and never has a party so degraded women…” “Every woman adores a Fascist,” wrote Sylvia Plath, while William Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, simply dismissed German women as “the least attractive in Europe.”

“If we think of [German] women at all,” writes Koonz, “we imagine masses of plain Eva Brauns with a Leni Riefenstahl [a brilliant Nazi film director who made propaganda films for Hitler] here or there, or perhaps an Irma Griese [the infamous ‘bitch of Auschwitz’], in riding boots and SS uniform.”

Koonz was determined to get beyond these facile generalizations. “Above all,” she writes, she wanted “to record the history of average people without normalizing life in Nazi Germany…How did ‘decent’ people adapt to a state that inverted morality, perverted civilized traditions, and imposed distrust on all forms of social life?”

Hitler’s rise to power followed widespread and wrenching changes in Weimar Germany. As in 1970s’ America, women, pushed by economic forces, were entering the workplace and encountering a backlash by men threatened by their competition. Sexual mores were also changing, as village and peasant life gave way to industrialization. The Nazis were able to drive women and Jews out of the professions, but could do little to stop the erosion of agrarian values.

“In fact,” says Koonz, “there was a deep contradiction within the Nazi women’s movement. The older women, who joined the movement way back when, absolutely hated the Weimar ‘decadence’. But their daughters, raised in the League of German Girls were trained to be independent, pleasure loving and bold, and they found it very easy to slide into a kind of sexual revolution that their mothers hated. Their mothers, in the end, were making statements like, ‘Oh my heavens, this is worse than Weimar!'”

Koonz’ interest in the Nazi era began while she lived in Germany during the late 1950s and early ’60s. Hitchhiking around the country, she was already conducting interviews and gathering data. What she found was a nostalgia for the Nazi era — for public works, the vacations and sports activities, the “community spirit” — for a Nazism without the war and the Gestapo and the death camps.

“I stumbled onto my own interview format,” Koonz writes in the preface to her book, “with my standard opener, ‘What wonderful highways you have here.’

‘”You like our autobahn?’ “‘Oh yes, it seems very fast, and scenic, too.’

‘”You would never guess who built it.'” Koonz returned to the States to pursue her master’s in German history at Columbia, finishing her doctoral dissertation at Rutgers in 1969. She taught history at the College of the Holy Cross in Worchester, MA before moving to her present position at Duke University.

Koonz spent 10 years researching Mothers in the Fatherland. Her book chronicles the experiences of women in the Nazi Party both before and after 1933, of Protestant and Catholic women who, more often than not, collaborated with their Nazi sisters once Hitler took power, and of Jewish women, enduring, resisting and dying. It ends with Dr. Jolana Roth’s account of her life in Auschwitz, where she sorted the clothing of those sent to the gas chambers.

“We could not leave any trace of yellow star, no yellow. I always did my best to leave a torn fragment of a star, so people outside would know where these clothes came from.”

Mothers in the Fatherland is compelling history, beautifully written. From the first page I knew I wanted to interview the author. We talked on two occasions for a total of almost two hours. What follows are excerpts from those interviews.

FP: Why do you think so little attention has been paid to the experiences of German women?

CK: I imagine it’s because women have been thought of as being ahistorical, living outside of history and change, just like any other passive object. And then, feminists don’t really rush to claim this history, of which they’re not very proud.

FP: What prompted you to get involved in this sort of research?

CK: I don’t think anybody ever goes into Nazi German history consciously, as a choice. Everybody backs into it. Everybody has their own reasons. I think many of us share the thrill of using documents that have never been used before. Since Germany was defeated —it wasn’t liberated like France — all of the documents are available. That’s extremely rare. No French historian can get near the kind of documentation on France that we can get close to in Germany. And the German government has been extraordinary in the amount of funding that they’ve put into preserving these papers. So in a way, the world has a chance to look at Germany as a laboratory, to find out what went wrong.

And then, on top of that, to discover that absolutely no one, after all the history that’s been written about Nazism, had written or thought very much about women, was really exciting, too. It made me want to go hunt.

FP: What were your biggest surprises in researching and writing this? Was there anything that completely changed the way you thought about this era of history?

CK: No, things don’t happen like that. There were little discoveries that confirmed theories. Along the way you discover surprising connections. For example, last summer I went back to an archive that had been closed to me while I was writing the book, the Protestant Women’s Association National Archives for Germany. When I first went there to research the book, after they got the sense that I wanted to work on Nazi documents, they wouldn’t let me in. They said the archives were in disarray, and would be put in order when these women went into retirement. I thought, well, when they go into retirement they will, of course, cleanse and purge and shred. I’m sad to say the ladies didn’t go into retirement, they died; so last summer I finally had a chance to work in those archives. Later, at a conference, I talked about a woman who was deeply Protestant, and deeply Nazi. She was, for a brief time, the head of the women’s Protestant organization. I told her story, using the documents I had found, as an example of how somebody could be deeply Protestant and deeply Nazi, and maybe deeply anti-Semitic. Afterwards, the chair of the panel said, “I hope you’ll forgive me for adding a personal anecdote, but the woman whose documents you discovered is my godmother. And until the day she died, I wanted her to talk about this.” So, those kinds of things would happen. People would turn up in the Nazi camp whom I was utterly surprised to find there, cynical as I was.

FP: Were there any attitudes that you took into the process, that you found changed, even reversed, at the end?

CK: I went in thinking that there would be a much clearer line between Nazi and non-Nazi. In fact, I was going to write a book just about Nazi party members. That’s why the thing got so long, because I realized that the force of Nazism didn’t just come from the diehards, it came from all the people who liked Hitler’s stand on particular issues. I ended up writing on Protestants, on Catholics.

FP: In the book you say that “Hitler’s plans for the Third Reich rested on two inflexible goals: Eliminating Jews from ‘Aryan’ society, and reorganizing male/ female relations and family life.” Do you see misogyny and anti-Semitism as being linked, and if so, what is that link?

CK: I think there is a link, but only insofar that if you look at human nature anatomically, if you think that people’s character is affected by their anatomy, then it seems to me that you move very quickly to both thinking that a person’s race matters and their gender matters. If you need to look at the world in biological categories, you draw the two conclusions together.

FP: You also say that in times of social stress people find comfort in rigid social stereotypes. How did that play out in the context of Nazi Germany?

CK: The Germans suffered economic depression far more than any other country. Within two years of the stock market crash on Wall Street, Germany had a one-third unemployment rate, and organizations couldn’t cope. And it seems to me that people get their identity from their families and their organizations. A society in that kind of crisis starts fragmenting. You need community, teamwork, to join other like-minded people. Often, as in sports, that team tends to be same-sex. It could be Catholic, or Protestant, or Jewish, or racial.

FP: And yet you also write that women and men in the resistance were often forced to take on roles traditionally filled by the opposite gender.

CK: It cuts both ways. I was heartened in a way. There was no such thing as sex-separate in the resistance, so that even if they were fulfilling traditional gender stereotype roles, women and men were working together.

FP: In the section of the book that concentrates on the Weimar years, the prelude to Nazism, you noted that Weimar Germany was one of the first nations on earth to extend suffrage to women, and had an equal rights provision in its constitution from the start. Yet Weimar Germany produced this incredibly misogynist movement. What’s the relationship of one to the other?

CK: There’s another ironic relationship in there, too. Nowhere in Europe, and, I would even argue, the United States, were Jews more assimilated, more integrated into society than they were in Weimar Germany. Nowhere did Jews have more rights, nowhere did women have more rights and opportunities.

The backlash came very swiftly. And that really, I think, shows you the danger of half-way emancipation. Sometimes, when there’s the beginning of a frontlash, the backlash is resounding, especially in times of economic crisis. Without the economic crisis we don’t know what would have happened. It might have worked out very well. In fact, the Germans may be picking up right now and carrying out that heritage. Or maybe they’ll carry out the backlash heritage.

FP: I was struck by your description of how the Nazis, at least in some instances, offered women opportunities to build communities that more progressive groups did not. You say, for example, “that Nazi men’s overt hostility unintentionally encouraged women toward autonomy.” And then Elsbeth Zandler, an early leader of the Nazi Women’s Movement, says, “We know that for decades German women have longed to call one another sister.” Is there a parallel here with the sort of solidarity we see in this country on the right?

CK: I see that clearly with the very powerful mobilization against abortion. It comes back to the question of how a same-sex community feels comforting when values are up for question, and maybe your standard of living is sinking as well, so that you feel that you’re doing something wrong. Joining together with other people revives your sense of community. When I look around today I’m very frightened, because it seems to me that the right wing produces very powerful same-sex peergroup associations: Of men, in the National Rifle Association, or of women in the antiabortion movement. The left doesn’t have that appeal. I think that if you’re talking about appealing to mainstream Americans, the appeal for female solidarity is often blunted by fears that people are going to say, “It’s a lesbian conspiracy,” or “these manhaters.” The media always equate feminism with man-hating. Women on the right are never accused of hating men, so they can celebrate female solidarity without triggering the kind of reactions that women on the liberation end of the political spectrum trigger.

FP: I’m also struck by the similarities between some of the Nazi women you quote, and contemporary Americans like Phyllis Schlafly. Is that an unfair comparison?

CK: No. Since I wrote the book, I interviewed several women who have demonstrated against the peace vigil at the test site in Nevada. They live primarily in air-conditioned house trailers, and they say things that sound so much like what the populist Nazis said in the ’20s. Not so much in the ’30s — you have to make a distinction between Nazism when it was out of power, a dissident movement, and then overnight when it became the dominant movement.

Anyway, these women in Nevada feel betrayed by their country. They feel betrayed because nuclear waste is now going to be dumped there. They hate the government. They hate the hippies (they still say “the hippies”), who come and pollute the desert and don’t use enough porta-potties — that’s the women in the peace vigil. They carry signs like “Save the Whales and Nuke the Gays.”

Their cancer rate is very high, because of the tests. So here they are, having been ripped off terribly by government testing since 1945, and yet their jobs depend on the government, they depend on the testing, and they’re fighting in favor of continued testing. But they also hate the nuclear dumps, so they’re fighting against the dumps. They’re just filled with so much hatred that has nowhere to go. What sustains them through all of this is this feeling that they’re an embattled minority. It’s very important to them that they have the equivalent of a uniform. They have blazers and T-shirts and flags and buttons, and that, somehow, sustains them psychologically, collectively.

FP: How has the experience of Nazism affected the feminist movement in Germany?

CK: The Nazi experience left women in Germany with the sense that women are victims. That is to say, they’re very opposed to reproductive experimentation. They’re very suspicious of anything that connects business and the state with private choice. They maintain absolutely their right to abortion, of course, but they’re very suspicious of technology. It’s a very powerful autonomous women’s movement that will have nothing to do with state funding. They wouldn’t take money if it was offered to them. There are also a lot of battered women’s shelters, again, helping women as victims.

If you go to all the women’s places all around Germany, you notice a couple of favorite posters. One is Virginia Woolf, who of course was brilliant, but committed suicide. The other is a picture of Frida Kahlo, a Mexican artist, who cut off all her hair when her husband, Diego Rivera, had an affair, and then painted her self-portrait. These two brilliant women, as victims, are in a way the motifs of the German women’s movement.

German women are not eager in any way, shape, or form to confront their mothers or grandmothers as participants in the Nazi system. The film “Germany, Pale Mother,” was made by a woman, Helma Sanders Brahms, who said, “Finally I want to make a film about the good people under Nazism: Our mothers.” The view is that women just stayed out of politics, and were victimized.

So the impact of Nazism has been powerful. There’s no other way to explain what I think is a really unique women’s movement in Germany, except for the fact that there’s no ERA, no liberal guilt, and no sense at all that women ought to be integrated into any sphere of public life except the Green and Socialist Parties.

FP: How do you mean, there’s no ERA?

CK: That’s what’s interesting — we don’t have an ERA, but we have affirmative action. They have an ERA but no affirmative action, and so naturally — surprise, surprise — they don’t have any jobs. And now they certainly won’t have jobs, with all the new competition, the men coming in from East Germany. There’s just no way that German women will get a toehold.

FP: What you said about the poster of Virginia Woolf is interesting; I would think Sophie Scholl [a leader of the White Rose student resistance movement executed by the Gestapo in 1943] would be a big hero.

CK: Wouldn’t you? Here they have powerful women, Kathe Kollwitz, if they want to have an artist, or Sophie Scholl if they want to have an activist, a brave woman who died in the resistance. There are powerful resistance figures and staunch, old time, turn-ofthe-century feminists like Clara Zetkin. She organized the biggest feminist socialist movement in the world. Her journal had 100,000 subscribers in 1900. They have a very rich heritage, but they don’t seem to draw on it.

FP: What lessons, if any can feminists draw from the German experience of 1919 to 1945?

CK: One thing we have to be aware of is the danger of halfway reforms; the danger of sitting back when a few of us are in such privileged positions we find ourselves being interviewed by journalists on long distance telephones, and sitting back and thinking—”Well, I’m tired, I’m burned out, I have my career.” It’s very important to keep the initiative up, to fight for equality, which gets tough. Often the younger generation of women that we see in college is not angry with the world, because the world is moderately nicer for them. They will get angrier as they get older, but somehow we have to keep going, because otherwise it sets up this situation, which can happen with Black half-progress, as well, that the people who are actually supposed to benefit from the reforms don’t really do so. There’s an elite, a lucky few who benefit, and that’s just enough to terrify male chauvinists or white racists, and not enough to really do much good for the supposed beneficiaries. That’s really dangerous, because that spells backlash as soon as the economy turns down.

The message from the Nazi period is that women are not powerless, that in fact they were very important, and can be co-opted, and can be used as the handmaidens and henchwomen, so we need to think politically.

“The Gamebeard”: The game is called”Jews Leave” and portraysthree Jews with the headline “Off to Palestine.” Game was used to instill anti-Semitism in children at play.

FP: Earlier on you were talking about how people may not have liked particular parts of Hitler’s agenda, but they felt they could pick and choose. It made me think of the public opinion polls that said a majority of Americans opposed Reagan’s Contra war, or his cuts in this or that program, and yet he was still a terrifically popular president. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel there.

CK: Hitler was the teflon Fuhrer. Over and over again we find opinion polls that said most Germans didn’t agree with his extreme racism. They were anti-Semitic, but it turns out that extreme hate-filled racism wasn’t very common. The Nazis never whipped up that kind of enthusiasm for their racial hatred, but they did get apathy. I don’t think we can afford to be apathetic about apathy. When you see homelessness, and people stepping over homeless people, that’s what German historians would call “the development of a cold eye.”

FP: Yet what strikes me is how Americans feel that Nazism was this aberration, entirely peculiar to Germany. How applicable, do you think, is Nazi history to contemporary America?

CK: Here’s the paradox. We Americans say, “Let’s not limit the resistance in Germany to those heroes of July 20, 1944, who were pretty reactionary, actually—sort of 19th century liberals with a capital L. Let’s look at the deeper sections of the population — the working class, Catholic circles, etc. — let’s broaden our concept of resistance, or at least call it opposition, and try to look for messages for our own time.” That’s wonderful for Americans to hear, to see that there was a lot of ordinariness about Nazism, that people could say, “Yeah, I like this idea, I hate this idea,” and they could pick and choose. We think that’s consciousness raising for Americans because it makes us more like Germans.

The Germans hear that message and say, “Hey, isn’t that great? We weren’t so bad after all, so you should all stop ratting on us.”

We might not like German nationalism as we see it unfolding in central Europe; we might not like Japanese nationalism either. But it seems to me that we have to worry about any nation in crisis, facing a defeat in a crusade with an ideological edge, going through economic crisis. Any nation in that situation is capable of terrible barbarism. And if they have computers, and media control and atomic weapons, we don’t know what’s going to happen. Next time it probably won’t be the Germans. Next time it might be us.