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Women and Men Under Nazi Rule

Posted by Julia Liszkiewicz, Friday 20th January, 2017

opinion volunteer blog

Photograph of women sewing in a DP camp

The sewing centre at Kaunitz DP Camp ca. 1946/7; WL 12214

My name is Julia Liszkiewicz and I’m currently completing A Levels in History and Art. I have always had an interest in history which is why I decided to volunteer at The Wiener Library. This is my third blog for The Wiener Library following my articles on Resistance and Youth in Occupied Poland and review of the film ‘Hollow Dog’ about the Holocaust survivor and sculptor Maurice Beck earlier this year.

Women and Men Under Nazi Rule

25 November marked the start of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women which was then followed by 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence and ended with Human Rights Day on 10 December. Current statistics show that one in three women will experience violence in their lifetime, a fact which further highlights the importance of this campaign.

Although 25 November was first designated as a day against violence by the United Nations General Assembly in 1991, women’s activists have identified the 25th as a significant date since 1981; three political activists known as the Mirabel sisters were assassinated in the Dominican Republic on 25 November 1960. The campaign aims to raise awareness and sustainable financing in order to tackle violence against women all around the world. The campaign is branded orange in order to symbolize a brighter future for women and girls and thus represents a key part of the campaign. Orange related activists and fundraisers were organized in over 90 countries and key landmarks including Niagara Falls, the Peace Palace in Hague and Brazil’s Presidential Palace were lit up in campaign colours to show support for the cause. You can see photos from activities around the world by searching the campaign hashtag #orangetheworld on Twitter.

Having learnt about the history of these days I began thinking about violence against women in relation to the Holocaust. The tragedy of the Holocaust, as well as other events during WWII, emphasises the need for the prevention of violence against women and men of all ages, ethnicities, sexualities and religions. Although gender was not  the key theme of the Holocaust and life in Nazi Germany it is important to note that  whilst men and women might have had similar experiences they were by no means identical.

German Civilians

The traditional role of a woman, in the eyes of Hitler and the Nazis, was that of a housewife and mother. German women living under Nazi rule were discouraged from wearing makeup or trousers, being slim or smoking. They were actively encouraged to have as many children as possible,be racially pure and conform to Nazi ideals. Unmarried women were also encouraged to have children; a lot of this was done through policies and schemes such as Lebensborn. This roughly translates to ‘Fountain of Life’ and aimed to raise ‘Aryan’ birth-rates through encouraging anonymous birth and adoption. In 1933 the Law for Encouragement of Marriage introduced a government loan of 1000 Marks (about nine month’s average income) to young families (Trueman, The Role of Women in Nazi Germany). Its aim was to encourage newlyweds to have as many children as possible in order to raise the birth rate in Germany. The more children one had, the less of the loan one had to pay back (after four children the loan was cleared). The start of Nazi rule in Germany forced many women to return to their ‘traditional’ roles as mothers and housewives. In Weimar Germany, there were over 100,000 female teachers and 3000 female doctors, however, by the start of the Second World War very few women worked full time (Trueman).

Jewish Women

Jewish women had a very different experience living under Nazi rule. Whilst the regime targeted all Jewish people, there were specific problems unique to women that made their experiences in ghettos, cities and concentration camps different to those of men. This also applied to other non-Jewish women, such as Roma women, Polish women and women with disabilities who were living in institutions at the time. Pregnant women in ghettos and concentration camps were extremely at risk along with mothers who had small children. They were often labeled as ‘incapable of work’ and were one of the first groups of people to be sent to the gas chambers. Many mothers chose to be sent along with their young children.

Ravensbrück concentration camp opened in May 1939 and was the largest Nazi concentration camp for women, housing a population of 100,000 women (USHMM). Pregnant women in camps tried to hide their pregnancies or were forced to perform illicit abortions, either by themselves or by camp doctors. Jewish women and women of other ethnic minorities also faced forced sterilisation. This was a similar experience for women living in ghettos: Jewish women who became pregnant were ordered by Germans to have an abortion performed by one of the ghetto doctors. In both ghettos and camps, women were vulnerable to beatings and rape. During this time, women were also working in the camps and ghettos. In the Lodz ghetto in 1944, almost one hundred  percent of women were working and thus made up half of the ghetto labour force. They often worked alongside each other in workshops making textiles or ammunition. Because of shared experiences many ‘sister’ relationships appeared in camps as a coping skill unique to women; ‘Lagerschwestern’ (English: camp sisters) refer to ‘family- like’ bonds between women of the camps, which were formed for strength and assistance.

In the early days of war, Allied forces did not expect the Nazis to kill or arrest women and children and therefore prioritised the safety of men. False papers, as well as transportation, was organised to help Jewish men of Nazi-occupied states escape. However, events such as the Paris arrests in July 1942 proved that the Nazis would arrest anyone. 5,802 women and 4,051 children were arrested on 16July compared to 3,031 men (Ofer and Weitzman).

It is true, however, that the initial impact of Nazi rule affected Jewish men more than Jewish women. As men tended to be the sole earners in a household, being stripped of their jobs and savings as well as having businesses taken away was one of the first ways the Nazis persecuted Jewish people. The events of the November Pogrom of 1938 (alternatively known as ‘Kristallnacht’ or ‘The Night of Broken Glass’), showed further differences between the treatment of men and women as it was only Jewish men (around 30,000 of them) who were arrested and sent to concentration camps. In the ghettos, men were at higher risk of being deported to forced labour camps or forced into a day of physical labour outside the ghetto by one of the German supervisors. Therefore many men tried to avoid being outside during the day and thus the burden fell to women to complete day-to-day chores such as trading personal belongings for food.

Similar risks were found in concentration camps. The majority of those subjected to forced labour were men and they were therefore beaten and abused by guards most frequently. The experiences of men also differed dependent on other factors. Elderly or disabled men were were among  the first groups of people to be killed along with pregnant women. 5,000 to 15,000 homosexual men were also imprisoned in concentration camps (USHMM). These men occupied a unique position in the camp structure and often suffered abuse from both guards and prisoners, resulting in a very low survival rate.

Concluding Thoughts

There were many differences and similarities in the ways in which men and women experienced Nazi rule. Sometimes even experiencing the same treatment from Nazis was interpreted differently by men and women. Almost all prisoners were forced to undress in front of guards, however women often found this experience to be more humiliating and traumatic than men did. During this time many women turned away from their traditional roles as the need for survival grew greater. Women carried out more chores and took part in manual labour in order to survive. Both men and women were part of the many resistance groups which formed all across Europe in towns, concentration camps and ghettos. Although gender plays a part in the way people were treated under Nazi rule, other factors such as religion and ethnicity was more important in determining a person’s fate.

The signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948 was a result of the events of the Second World War. It set out and universally protected fundamental human rights. The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women as well as Human Rights Day are both crucial movements towards trying to find peace for all people in our society today.

Works Cited:

Ofer, Dalia and Lenore J. Weitzman. “Women in the Holocaust.” Jewish Women’s Archive, 1 March 2009.

Trueman, C N. “The Role of Women in Nazi Germany.” The History Learning Site, 16 August 2016.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. ‘Persecution of Homosexuals in the Third Reich’. Holocaust Encyclopaedia.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. ‘Women During the Holocaust’. Holocaust Encyclopaedia.

Suggested Further Reading:

The Wiener Library holds many resources on the gendered nature of Nazi rule, some of which is listed below:

For more related sources try searching any of the following in our Collections Catalogue; women; sex; sterilization; Ravensbruck; gender; sexual violence; homosexuals

Photo Credit: Wiener Library Photo Archive WL12214

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