Nonfiction — print. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 270 pgs. Library copy.
Subtitled “German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields” and a finalist for the National Book Award, Lower accounts for the role of German women during the Third Reich, particularly those who traveled to occupied areas in the East (i.e. Poland, Ukraine, Austria) and served as midwives, teachers/re-educators, secretaries and typists, and concentration camp guards.
Portrayed during the war by the Nazis as wives and mothers — the producers and molders of future generation of Germans loyal to the Nazi regime — and after the war as victims, Lower attempts to dismantle this portrayal by introducing readers to 13 women employed by the Third Reich who she presents as representative of the 500,000 young women Lower says she can place directly in the killing fields.
Are the group of secretaries picnicking near Riga, Latvia who smelled the stench of fresh mass graves and chose a different spot guilty of mass murder? Or, is the agricultural overseer’s wife in the town of Buczacz, Ukraine who “noticed that the water tasted strange and realized that Jewish corpses had polluted the groundwater” (pg. 86) but didn’t intercede? Or, to quote Lower:
“In Holocaust studies, one type of perpetrator, fashioned after Adolf Eichmann and others who organized deportations of Jews from Berlin headquarters, is the male bureaucratic killer, or desk murder. He commits genocide through giving or passing along written orders; thus his pen or typewriter keys become his weapon. This type of modern genocidaire assumes that the paper, like its administrator, remains clean and bloodless. The desk murderer does is official duty. He convinces himself as he orders the deaths of tens of thousands that he has remained decent, civilized, and even innocent of the crime. What about the women who staffed those offices, the female assistants whose agile fingers pressed the keys on the typewriters, and whose clean hands distributed the orders to kill?” (pg. 98-99)
Certainly, I am pleased someone finally addressed the misrepresentation of German women during this time as victims rather than perpetrators. But this is the not the robust analyst I needed to be with Lower largely asserting that because women were in vicinity of where atrocities occurred, they must have participated. To quote Lower, again, in an interview with the New York Times:
“While writing the book, my editor and I made certain decisions about how to present the material to a general audience — for example, I ended up cutting about 100 pages of historiographical analysis, extended footnotes and examples from the original manuscript, and inserted a list of main characters to help readers remember the basic profiles of the 13 featured women.”
Why cut your analysis or the footnotes supporting your theory? At many points in this book, it felt as though Lower had decided her assertion was correct and didn’t need to bother with finding the evidence to support such claims. Given her statement above, it could be possible the necessary footnotes, analysis, and examples were removed, but she and her editor did her book a great disservice in chasing a more general audience. It’s not up to par with other research books; it’s too confusing to be presented to a general audience.
Repeating information at every turn, Lower slips in anecdotal evidence to support her theories but never gives us a clear picture of who the 13 women she outlined at the beginning of the book were. The book is riddled with awkward transitions — again, possibly because whole paragraphs were deleted — and I found myself rereading passages in order to understand exactly what Lower was trying to say. What could have been a groundbreaking and powerful study turned out to be poorly executed forcing me to muddle through until the end in order to reach the footnotes that I had wrongly assumed would support Lower’s assertions.