In Hitler’s Germany, a woman’s place was in the home — and pregnant. There was no need for makeup, women were told, because they exuded beauty through physical fitness. These traditional roles were reinforced during the war effort. Men marched off to battle while women contributed by teaching “racial hygiene” and tending to the wounded. Or at least, that’s what we were told.

In Wendy Lower’s compelling new book, “Hitler’s Furies,” we learn that many German women played critical and direct roles in the deaths of Jews. Nurses, secretaries and wives were transformed into mass murderers, cruel and apathetic observers of and participants in the extermination of millions of people. By focusing on the role of ordinary women — rather than the already notorious female concentration camp guards — Lower brings to the forefront an unexplored aspect of the Holocaust. She profiles 13 women who became Nazi killers and accomplices, and contends that these women are representative of hundreds of thousands of ordinary German women. Among them are the wives of SS officers, an aspiring lawyer and a shepherd’s daughter.

“The role of German women in Hitler’s war can no longer be understood as their mobilization and victimization on the home front,” writes Lower, who teaches history at Claremont McKenna College. “Instead, Hitler’s Germany produced another kind of female character at war, an expression of female activism and patriotism of the most violent and perverse kind.”

When they boarded trains to Nazi-occupied territories such as Poland and Ukraine, these women were not seeking an opportunity to kill. They were after adventure, a bigger paycheck and romance. Many were initially startled by the murders they soon witnessed. But their subsequent reactions are telling.

Some women simply turned a blind eye to the murders taking place, watching passively as Jews being transported on packed trains called out for help. Others took shopping tours of Jewish slums, picking up cheap items from starving and desperate residents. Instead of being outraged by the squalid conditions, the German women took these as confirmation of their own superiority. Many also took a surprisingly direct hand in the worst of the Holocaust. Lower presents evidence of German women who used Jewish laborers for target practice, singled out some children for cruelty and ordered the murder of others.

‘Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields’ by Wendy Lower (HMH)

In standard histories of the Holocaust, the cruelest acts are ascribed to barbaric men such as the notorious Treblinka guard Ivan Marchenko . But according to Lower, the mass murders wouldn’t have been possible without the help of women. “The first Nazi mass murderess was not the concentration camp guard but the nurse,” Lower writes. “Of all the female professionals, she was the deadliest.” These nurses diagnosed patients, including children, as having physical and mental illness, then used sleeping pills, hypodermic needles and starvation to kill them.

The most chilling tales involve women in acts of cruelty against children. Take Erna Petri, the wife of an SS officer, who came upon children crouching alongside a road. Petri knew that all Jews found roaming the countrywide were to be killed and took the children home to wait for her husband. When he didn’t return, she marched the children to a nearby mass grave and shot them one by one.

Then there was Johanna Altvater, who developed a “nasty habit” of killing children. “One observer noted that Altvater often lured children with candy. When they came to her and opened their mouths,” Lower writes, “she shot them in the mouth with the small silver pistol that she kept at her side.”

Lower documents the cruelty of these women but is less successful in explaining it. Snippets of the women’s stories are spread throughout the book, making it difficult to follow the evolution of a single character. Readers are left wanting to understand the women better.

How to explain the behavior of Altvater, who lifted one child by the foot and smashed its head against a wall? “There were no other German officials present,” Lower writes. “Altvater murdered this child on her own.” We might assume that Altvater suffered from mental illness or was simply a deviant. Lower just lets the actions speak for themselves.

She argues that Hitler’s culture infected women. “The Nazi regime mobilized a generation of young female revolutionaries who were conditioned to accept violence, to incite it, and to commit it, in defense of or as an assertion of Germany’s superiority,” Lower writes. “Genocide is also women’s business. When given the ‘opportunity,’ women too will engage in it, even the bloodiest aspects of it. Minimizing women’s culpability to a few thousand brainwashed and misguided camp guards does not accurately represent the reality of the Holocaust.”

Many of these women slipped back into society after the war. Some explained away their misdeeds by saying they were simply fulfilling their duty, while others blamed the mistakes of youth. No matter the explanation, Lower concludes, many of these women “got away with murder.”

Their descent into brutality was a byproduct of a genocidal regime that extolled women as crucial to the dominance of the Aryan race. It’s easy to tuck “Hitler’s Furies” away and classify it as more proof that the tales of the Holocaust’s sins will never be exhausted. But, perhaps most disturbing, Lower’s careful research proves that the capacity for indifferent cruelty is not reserved for men — it exists in all of us.

Renae Merle is an editor in the Business section of The Washington Post.


German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields

By Wendy Lower

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 270 pp. $26