CM . . .
. Volume VIII Number 15 . . . . March 29, 2002
In Women of the Third Reich, Austrian historian Anna Maria Sigmund has made an interesting and useful contribution to our understanding of the social backdrop to the development of the National Socialist Nazi party in pre-war and wartime Austria and Germany. As the book's title suggests, her primary interest is the position and role of women in the new society being forged by National Socialism. In an excellent introductory chapter, she outlines the strange and atavistic party philosophy respecting their nature and place: a philosophy that was ironically in almost complete opposition to the atmosphere of emancipation and participation that had emerged during the brief post-war life of the Weimar Republic; and which, even more ironically, was to prove a significant element in the ultimate defeat of the Third Reich itself. Women, for the Nazis, were there to breed and nurture the new Aryan race. Even work in factories and in the support arms of the military was deemed inappropriate; so while beleaguered Britain was able to husband its battle-ready men for military service, leaving to its women a major portion of the tasks of support services and factory labour, Nazi Germany, under its curious social imperative, was forced to divert what might arguably have been a decisive portion of its male resources to those same tasks.
Unfortunately, this very effective introductory chapter is not followed by the sort of analysis that it seems to promise. Rather than an examination of how this philosophy developed and played out in the lives of German women, the remainder of the book offers eight brief but comprehensive biographies of women who, despite wide differences of circumstance and background, share one common characteristic: they defy the characteristics by which the Nazi rhetoric and mythology define German womanhood. The author makes the valid point that, as part of the Nazi elite, these women led lives sheltered from and unknown by the mass of the German population. But by that very fact, they tend to be very much individuals in their own right. We cannot easily generalize from their stories very much about the circumstances and processes by which German womanhood was defined and molded. In this sense, their lives become exceptions to the patterns outlined in the first chapter and not particularly illuminating for any exploration of the themes identified in it.
That said, the biographies themselves are very interesting and well-researched pieces. Among the subjects are two wives of Herman Goering (Carin, "Nordic Idol and Cult Figure," and Emmy, the "Grand Lady"); the wife of Dr Joseph Goebbels, Magda "The First Lady of the Third Reich"; Geli Raubal, Hitler's niece; Eva Braun, the "Secret Love"; Leni Riefenstahl, a major contributor to film propaganda; Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the "Party Comrade"; and Henriette Von Schirach, the "Fuehrer's Disciple." Through their stories we receive, in fascinating detail, pictures of daily life in Germany and Austria during the first half of the century, and intimate glimpses into life within the highest inner circles of Nazi Germany during their precarious rise to power, their days at the pinnacle of that power, and their experiences during the precipitous fall and retribution. The author makes very effective use of personal documents, including diaries, journals, and letters. These excerpts, interwoven through the narrative and coupled with an effective use of contemporary photographs, give an immediacy and personal dimension to the characters.
Though no apologist for the Nazi cause, the author makes an effort to be as neutral as possible in the treatment of these individuals not automatically assuming guilt by association. This approach allows some measure of insight into the ambiguities surrounding those caught up in a movement not of their own making, but of which circumstances made them a part, willingly or not. So much of the written history of the Second World War revolves around the stories of the principal perpetrators and players; yet it might be argued that the fate of ordinary people caught up in such forces is story that is perhaps a more important - and timely source - of historical insight. Notwithstanding the distasteful theme, Sigmund has provided us with just that sort of insight.
Gregor is a Professor of Higher Education, University of Manitoba.
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