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Femmes Fatales: How German Women Used Femininity for Evil During World War II

As nurses, spouses, or secretaries, German women in the east were helpmeets. A new book examines their roles in the Holocaust.

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Some Red Cross nurses giving hot beverages to the passing soldiers in a sorting station of the German army in Poland, September 1939.(Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images)


We know from witness testimony, and the work of historians, that though there were a handful of women among the most notoriously violent Nazi camp guards and bureaucrats, for the most part, German women were absent from Nazi positions of power. That might lead us to conclude that they were not active participants in the genocide that took place.

In Hitler’s Furies, historian Wendy Lower tells us such a conclusion is wrong. She argues that many young women seeking opportunity during the war headed to the eastern territories where the vast majority of the killing took place. There they took on essential roles as teachers, nurses, secretaries, and wives and lovers. In those capacities, they were not only aiding in the Final Solution but also witnessing it, and in some cases committing acts of violence themselves.

Lower joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to discuss why young German women working in social welfare roles headed to the east, what sort of research was required to uncover the stories of women who wanted to put their pasts behind them, and how her findings about the importance of women in domestic roles complicate our traditional understanding of genocidal systems.

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Femmes Fatales: How German Women Used Femininity for Evil During World War II

As nurses, spouses, or secretaries, German women in the east were helpmeets. A new book examines their roles in the Holocaust.

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