December 18, 1998
Much information has been provided about Hitler and his horrible establishment that was the Third Reich. Although there were many improvements such as an upsweep of national morale and non-existent unemployment, many atrocities took place, including almost monthly decrees diminishing women's status. However, it can be seen in documentaries, how the women at Hitler's speeches would swoon as if they were at a rock concert. The change that overtook the country swept across the nation like a plague, one that greatly affected the female inhabitants of Germany.
Until the First World War, German women were in a social and economic bondage. By the 1920's, the young German democracy was changing fast. In addition to the shame most Germans felt about losing the (first) war, the victors' demands for payment of what Germans considered, and still consider, onerous war debts sent what little of the country's self-esteem into a nosedive. The economy ricocheted wildly. People needed a wheelbarrow instead of a wallet for carrying enough nearly worthless money to buy grocery. With record inflation came record unemployment, and little welfare to ease the misery (xxix Owings). It is no surprise that Germany would embrace such a charismatic leader as Hitler, promising change and shouting affirmations for the German people.
The closest woman that Hitler was ever emotionally attached to was his niece, Geli Raubal. Geli was an attractive young, blond woman with whom Hitler had the only true love affair of his life (Shirer 26). Hitler met Geli in 1928. After falling in love with her, he took her everywhere with him, to meetings and conferences, on long walks in the mountains and to cafés and theaters in Munich. It was probable that Hitler intended to marry Geli. It is unknown if she reciprocated his feelings, but they were both jealous of each other. When she decided to continue her voice studies and pursue an operatic career, Hitler forbade it. He wanted her for himself alone. It is unknown why, but the relationship began falling apart and they argued constantly. Again, she demanded to go to Vienna to study voice. It was overheard that Geli cried to her uncle, "Then you won't let me go to Vienna?" and he was heard to respond, "No!" The next morning Geli Raubal was found shot dead in her room. She had shot herself in the chest. Hitler was devastated. Gregor Strasser, a close friend of Hitler's, recounted that he had to remain for the following two days and nights at Hitler's side to prevent him from taking his own life (Shirer 186-7).
The next woman Hitler became romantically involved with was Eva Braun. Very few Germans knew of Eva Braun, though she had been the mistress of Hitler for more than 12 years. Eva Braun was unobtrusive. Hitler found her company relaxing and he was extremely fond of her. However, she was not allowed to join Hitler at his various headquarters, where he spent most of his war years. (Shirer 1442). Erika Kempka, the Fuehrer's chauffeur, said that Eva Braun "was the unhappiest woman in Germany. She spent most her life waiting for Hitler'" (Shirer 1441). Field Marshal Keitel described her appearance during an interrogation at Nuremberg:
She was very slender, elegant appearance, quite nice legs. One could see that reticent and retiring and a very, very nice person, dark blond. She stood very much in the background and one saw her very rarely (Shirer 1441).
On April 15, she flew to Berlin to finally get married and for her death (Shirer 1441). She was loyal to Hitler till the end.
It is possible that Hitler's love, Geli, influenced his opinion of women. The description of a perfect German woman fits Geli's description. It is also not surprising that like Geli, Eva had suicidal feelings, but unlike Geli, Eva did not have a strong intelligence. Perhaps because of Geli's death and the constant arguments at the end that Hitler had with her, Hitler preferred a woman who was pretty but rarely thought. It is clear that Hitler had formed a repressed view of the perfect German woman.
In his Mein Kampf, Hitler states that "the German girl is a subject and only becomes a citizen when she marries. But the right of citizenship can also be granted to female German subjects active in economic life"(Hitler). Soon, women were trying to clone themselves to fit one image, that of the perfect German woman: a striking blonde with big hips and hair tied back at the nape of the neck or plaited on top of her head with no make-up (Henry and Hillel 35). According to Hitler, a woman's duty was to be "attractive and bear children for the Führer. They were to follow their dedication to Hitler with the hopes of giving him at least one child (Henry and Hillel 34).
According to the Nazis, women were only able to make decisions emotionally and were thus unqualified to hand down justice, among other things. At a time when German women had been given the vote and were struggling for liberation from male domination, the Nazi Party published in January 1921 a statement in which they undertook to exclude women permanently from all important positions in politics. In one fell swoop, the rights that women had fought for were abolished. Hitler in particular spoke of the emancipation of women as an "unnatural symptom like parliamentary democracy." According to party leaders, such tendencies were evidence of frustration due to inadequate functioning of the sex glands (Henry and Hillel 34).
Hitler and his party immediately made use of the media to further their goals. "Aryan" women were exalted as childbearers and keepers of near-sacred hearths, well away from desks and decisions (xxxiii Owings). "The German woman doesn't smoke." "The German woman brings children into the world" and other such messages appeared (173 Owings). Propaganda directed at women, though, of course, it varied according to circumstances, was always inspired by two distinct aims: numerical quantity and racial quality. The former led directly to the campaign on the "birthfront," to meet the growing population needs of the country; the latter was restricted to the élite of the German nation, the blonde blue-eyed Nordics, and led to what was later known as the SS human stud-farms, part of the Lebensborn project.
New marriage laws were under consideration, as well. Hitler put his trusted comrade, Himmler, in charge of the plans. Details included the ability to divorce if after five years a couple remained childless. Whether the couple was happy or not did not matter; the good of the Reich came before the happiness of individuals (Padfield 318). Sterile marriages led to the 1938 divorce law under which, among other things, a wife's sterility or refusal to have children became valid reasons for divorce. The results were not long in coming. Divorces leapt from 42,000 in 1932 to 62,000 in 1938 (Henry and Hillel 37).
There were many negative affects of the propaganda to become the perfect German woman. Make-up was not even left untouched by the effect of the Reich. Make-up was "un-German" and only for faces "marked by the eroticism of eastern females". In Berlin, women wearing make-up were insulted on buses; they were called whores, and sometimes even traitors (Henry and Hillel 35). Slimness was also condemned. It was taken for granted that women who were too slim could not have many children, just as those excessively devoted to their dogs were robbing their future children of the love to which they were entitled (Henry and Hillel 35). Amid the contradictions, Nazi Man somehow managed to put "Aryan" Woman on a pedestal, then surround her by attentive armed guards, much like the "protective custody" accorded enemies of the state. They were lucky they had wombs. Nuns, who didn't use theirs, were treated worse (xxxiv Owings).
Another plan was to establish an Academy for Wisdom and Culture to educate women specially selected for intellect, quick wit, grace of body, complete political reliability and Germanic appearance (Padfield 318). The plan was to make a school that was a cross between a finishing school and a training college for the diplomatic service, a training ground for "proper" wives of party leaders, second wives. The young women's intellect "would be honed by studying history, foreign languages and daily games of chess, their physical grace by sport, especially fencing, riding, swimming and pistol practice; they would also have special courses in cookery and housekeeping" (Padfield 319). Requirements to gain entrance to this elite school would be that the woman have blonde hair and blue eyes. Plans to allow brunettes were to be considered later, but the first goal was to raise the view of the Nordic woman. The women's primary duty afterwards, of course, was to marry Party and SS leaders. The problem, as Himmler saw it, was that too many of the top men in the Reich had married during the "time of struggle" and the women who had been perfectly appropriate to conditions then had failed to rise with their menfolk and fill their new station in life. On public occasions they made the wrong impression; the men took mistresses; scandal was the result. The "Chosen Women" on the other hand would set an example and be a permanent ideal for the whole nation. The present leaders' wives would be granted a respectable pension, he concluded. Later the word Domina was spoken of as a title for the first or senior wife. The Chosen Women would have the right of refusal to a chosen husband for her, provided that she chose a partner from the appropriate circle of rank and position within a given time limit; if she failed to do so within the time limit, the right of choice would revert to the men. Final decisions in marriage would rest with Himmler since the Führer had placed him in charge of the project. In the SS, promotion to the higher ranks would be made dependent on marriage to a "Chosen Woman," making the woman a trophy, or medal to be obtained (Padfield 319).
As early as 1933, changes were made in school curricula with a view to preparing girls for home life instead of university (Henry and Hillel 34). For German girls especially, the economic situation meant a lessening of even marginal educational possibilities. Free public education had ended after the equivalent of the fourth grade (xxixi Owings). Until the turn of the century, most German girls had been denied a good high school education, for few schools existed to teach them, particularly for free. And rich young women in private academies were taught "insipid pablum". German women could not even enroll in universities until 1908 (xxviii Owings).
The Third Reich sought to influence the youth early, to train the children into their proper roles. One of these methods of raining was the Hitler Jugend. The feminine auxiliary of the Hitler Jugend, the Bund deutscher Mädel (BDM), was led by Elizabeth Grieff-Walden (Schuman 75). The younger girls were placed in the group, the Jungmädel. The youth were so brainwashed that it was not unusual for young girls to come home pregnant from Hitler Jugend week-ends. If the parents complained, the response was that the girls had learned their lessons well, to provide a child for the Führer. Not all women enjoyed being pushed back into the kitchen. Margarete Fischer, a woman in her youth during the Third Reich, remembered that the extensive membership of the BDM, helped women stay out of the kitchen. For the first time, women's groups were being led by their female peers. She said:
That all really happened in spite of Hitler's wanting the woman to stay with her saucepan. That on the one hand they should return to what was thought feminine, but on the other hand, through this leadership of women by women, emancipation can be spoken of in the larger breadth (Owings 10).
Among other activities, the Bund deutscher Mädel created a sense of camaraderie by song, not just National Socialist songs, but folk songs, again raising the country's morale. Ursula Meyer, another former member of the BDM recounts that one of the things she enjoyed most about work camp, where girls were conscripted to labor, was that people from all classes bonded. The cohesion that formed was unlike anything she had experienced before. "We had girls from all levels of people, from teachers down to factory workers." (Owings 57).
As has been shown before, German women's change in status was primarily to aide in the Reich's plan to re-populate Germany. The campaign against childlessness in which the Nazis engaged immediately after their accession to power was first concentrated on the emancipated woman. She was to be eliminated at all costs from public life, forced back into the home in accordance with the old principle of the three Ks ñ Küche, Kinder, Kirche ("kitchen, children, church"). In spite of all the discrimination and the attendant disadvantages, most women, surprisingly considered the maternity cult a good thing, a necessity in the national interest (Henry and Hillel 35). So great was the preoccupation with fertility that of the eighteen million German mothers who were expected to devote themselves exclusively to the bringing up of their children, not one was sent to a factory before 1943. Of sixteen million married women at the end of 1938, 22 percent were childless; in Berlin the percentage was 34.5. This was in spite of the "marriage loan" being offered. Each couple was lent 1000 marks, a quarter of which was converted into a gift from the State on the birth of a child. Thus, the birth of the fourth child wiped out the loan completely (Henry and Hillel 36).
Another influence to raise the position of "mother" was the establishment of a holiday. August 12, the birthday of Hitler's own mother, became the Day of the German Mother. Public ceremonies took place at which mothers of large families were decorated with the German Mother's Cross (bronze for four to six children, silver for six to eight, and gold for eight or more). Women in possession of this award were entitled to the public respect enjoyed by front-line soldiers. The official view of the matter was that the dangers to which a mother's health and life were exposed in thus serving her people and her country (in childbirth) were equivalent to those to which the soldier was exposed in battle (Henry and Hillel 36). By August 1939, three million German mothers had been decorated and belonged to what the man in the street called the "Order of the Rabbit" (Kaninchenorden). When wearing their decoration these women were entitled to the Hitler salute from members of the party youth organizations, as well as to all sorts of special allocations, allowances and other privileges. During the war these often took the unexpected form of entitlement to a housemaid chosen from the millions of girls and women from Eastern Europe who were sent to forced labor in Germany. Polish, Russian, Czech and other female deportees were distributed among deserving families "so that the fertility of the German mother should not be diminished by physical work." The party leaders never tired of reiterating that war was less harmful to a nation than a decline in the fertility of its women (36).
Even though women were urged to the kitchen, the female work force still flourished out of necessity. At first, married women doctors were deprived of their jobs "in view of the necessity of devoting themselves to childbearing." Women were expected to get married and then give up their profession. There was great unemployment when Hitler came, and it was often said that if the women married, they had to give up their career so that the men could get work first. This usually wasn't looked upon badly because of the high unemployment rate when Hitler came to power (Owings 58). However, women doctors returned to work when the shortage of male doctors made it necessary to re-employ them. (Henry and Hillel 34).
The mobilization of women for the war economy started as early as 1936. When war broke out, over eight million women worked in Germany, as compared with four million in 1933. For this reason, only few additional women, probably not more than half a million, had been added to the workforce since the outbreak of the first world war. Because of the economy of the middle thirties, nearly all women that could be considered employable were already at work. Women held positions as streetcar conductors, post office clerks, railway clerks, and in other types of work in which they were employed in the first world war (Ebenstein 289). The reserve of women for additional employment was very small. The increase of the compulsory labor service from six months to a year meant that every girl or woman had been subject to labor conscription for a year when she reached the age of eighteen. According to German statistics, 91% of their work had been in agriculture. These girls received only about fifteen cents a day, but the regular year of labor service was not only in the form of compulsory labor. There were many other types ordered from time to time. Thus, it had been decreed at the end of the spring semester in 1941 that all female students would be conscripted for work in munitions factories during their vacations (Ebenstein 289). As a result, women became self-sufficient because of the war and because of the women's groups that had been established. This even had repercussions after the war. When the men came home and tried to reestablish their authoritarian presence, if it didn't lead to divorce, it caused a heavy burden on the marriages (Owings 10).
Women had been restored to the ideal condition of wife and mother, unmarried mother or fiancée (Henry and Hillel 36). However, just as the married, fertile women were honored, hatred fell upon those who were childless. Childless couples, sterile women and even women "too old for childbearing" were made a target of the Nazi breeding experts. There were special concentration camps for women. Many of the inmates were kept there not because of personal activities, but as punishment for alleged misdeeds of their husbands. For example, in the spring of 1934, Gerhart Seger, former member of the Reichstag, managed to escape to Czechoslovakia from the notorious Orenienburg concentration camp. His young wife and nineteen month old baby were at once seized and sent to a concentration camp (Ebenstein 93). Women lost the right to vote. They were not allowed to join political organizations or labor unions, or to help run any aspect of government, or to be on equal legal footing with their husbands, brothers, or sons.
Over the years, especially in the 1940's, when the war did not proceed as Hitler wished, German women were encouraged to extend their hearthdoms after all, even to such sites as bomb factories. Hitler did not believe, however, that women should be drafted for such work any more than for the front lines.
As the Reich rolled on, democratic institutions like voting, a free press, fair trials, were so long gone that most younger women might not have known what they were missing. After a full shift making tank parts, standing in line to shop, cooking for and caring for one's children, and dragging them down to the bomb shelter several times a night, the climb back up above the chiseled letters of Motherhood must have been arduous. But the Führer always was there with a last helpful push, and an honorary Mother's Cross for the really procreative (xxxv Owings).
A putative majority of German women not only accepted the elevated imprisonment but clambered up the pedestal themselves. It looked safer than feminism. And the elevated attention, the first in their lives for some women, was flattering (xxxiv Owings). The cynical homage disguised the truth. German women were treated with such misogynistic manipulation, such disregard for any mental acuity, for not even Nazi women were allowed in the Nazi "parliament" or at the top of their own organization, it is clear that if women were not childbearers they would not have been accorded even second-class status(xxxiv Owings). After the second world war, German women would have to climb the arduous trek to gain their civil rights once again.
Ebenstein, William. The Nazi State. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1943.
Henry, Clarissa and Hillel, Marc. Of Pure Blood. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.
Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Online. URL address: 5 Dec. 1998. (http://www.crusader.net/texts/mk/mkv2ch03.html)
Owings, Allison. Frauen. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1993.
Padfield, Peter. Himmler: Reichsführer. London: Macmillan, 1990.
Schuman, Frederick. The Nazi Dictatorship. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1935.
Shirer, William, L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Ballantine, 1950.