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Book Review: Birth, Sex and Abuse: Womenʼs Voices Under Nazi Rule

Posted by Helen Smith, Monday 7th August, 2017

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Birth, Sex and Abuse: Women’s Voices Under Nazi Rule, a twelve year multidisciplinary study by Professor Beverley Chalmers, conveys a very human approach. Despite a challenging remit, Chalmers does not lose sight of the individual female perspective throughout the dense volume of work. Chalmers seeks to highlight the testimonial evidence and experiences specific to women during the period of Nazi rule. The author clarifies from the first chapter that her understanding is not limited to the labels of ‘oppressor’ or ‘victim’, and that instead she attempts to channel the voices of all women under occupation and the issues that are related directly to their gender: reproduction, gynecology, childbirth, female societal roles, and the nature of motherhood under Nazi rule.

Whilst the author acknowledges the responsibilities and inherent demands of the female body, she does not subscribe to the stereotype of biological or societal female weakness. The discussion and questioning of systematic rape or torture and how women were uniquely targeted and violated during this period is highlighted through their physiology and by the regime actively enabling and creating policies to incite gender-specific terror.

Chalmers’ remit is so large that it is her foreword that offers the reader the true insight into her approach and desire for a multi-disciplinary focus. This body of work leaves the reader wanting more information on topics not usually presented in one volume. The strongest sections utilize testimony and link the survivors feeling of shame to their desire for ʻnormalcyʼ. Chalmers also seeks to convey the struggle for those women in regaining a sense of self and a sense of their own gender or femininity after experiencing horror. The issues of female rights and gendered violence make the work both hauntingly contemporary and complex.

It is noted by the author that the oral and written testimony used is consciously affected by the women reporting and recounting their horrors, with many not wishing to be perceived as ‘tainted’ from past violent sexual experience or to be labelled as a victim. As the past becomes history, the reader is made aware of the nuances of womenʼs testimony and the fact that it can be influenced by a particularly female future: one of marriage, children and being part of a family, or wider community, trying to rebuild. Sources used were primarily private diaries/memoirs and testimonial interviews. It is clear the survivors very survival and desire for a future and/or a family can exclude the urge to retell and be reconnected to the past.

Professor Chalmers communicates with the reader using two central themes. The first explores the regimeʼs targeting of reproduction and sexuality through positive eugenics. These geno-coercive policies lead, in turn, to intentional genocidal policies and the implementation of genocide and infanticide. The second is the pseudo-medicalisation of women’s rights and the complicity of medical professionals who placed, manipulated and trapped women at times of great vulnerability such as pregnancy and birth.

Propaganda and the ‘women’s place’ in Nazi society

The application of biological policy had a gendered or biological bias, often targeted at women. Their typical family roles and responsibilities (the majority being specific to women - motherhood, caring for family etc) meant they were placed in differing categories to men and could be targeted as women carrying out these roles. These policies often specifically affected them because they were mothers or carers, for example being visibly pregnant, deported with young children, or requiring gynecological care all placed them into danger. This situation was determined or reinforced by their gender.

Chalmers seeks to discover a female voice on both sides of the racial divide. German propaganda such as ‘The NSDAP secures the National Community’ shows the perceived ‘women’s place’ in Nazi society as mothers and sources of future soldiers of the Reich is one such example when set against the Nazi classification of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ life. These ideals of motherhoods were at odds with the reality of the situation where abuse was ubiquitous and control of policies include that of the Kinder, Küche, and Kirche [English: “children, kitchen, church”], A german phrase used in Nazi ideological propaganda used to succinctly define a woman's place or role within society. This policy included the idea that joy in sex lead to eugenic superfluity and should be was strictly imposed. Female purpose and place was delivered according to the regimeʼs own classification of the female self along racial lines.

Limitations are revealed in the severe quotas of female admission to university and the state control of parenthood. Classification and the limitation of women's’ roles in society are revealed in the severe quotas of female admission to university and the state control of parenthood and family. The encouragement of procreation outside of marriage for those whom the Reich acknowledged as racially suitable aryan women was at odds with the illegality of abortion and repression of planned parenthood. The Lebensborn program did include the abduction of forced adoption of aryan children into chosen worthy families. The SS supported this adoption and the procreation of those aryan women classified as genetically desirable. Communication of policies for aryan women that included limitations and state control as well as the outwardly opposite approval of procreation outside marriage and forced adoption of aryan children. This is set against the following paragraph describing the horrors faced by Jewish mothers/pregnant women under state control and gendered policies leading to their death.

Gendered medical experiments

These methods of reproductive terror were magnified and enforced more strictly in the very different context of the transit camps, ghettos and concentration camps, where women prisoners were deemed ‘inferior’ or ‘subhuman’. On this latter point, Chalmers notes that there was an increase in marriage within the ghettos of Europe. This closed and life-threatening environment brought people together who otherwise would never have met, resulting in couplings that would not have been encouraged in other contexts. The systemic regime control imposed on this population of ʻundesirablesʼ meant an inverted policy was decreed, set against the previously described ‘Aryan’ policies. As such births were banned in the ghetto, babies carried to full term were often murdered at birth, whilst gynecological and obstetric care was primitive and forced underground.

Those women who were deported included visibly pregnant and new mothers. Pregnancy and young children were often a cause for fear as pregnant women found it difficult to pass unnoticed. Pregnancy was in some cases considered an act of resistance and resulted in selection for death upon arrival to the camps. In the eyes of the Reich, fears of another future generation of Jews led to the immediate gassing of mothers and young children. Jews were deemed to be contaminating racial lines and ‘Aryan’ blood. Chalmers notes that ‘gendercide’ therefore became a focus of Nazi policy. Furthermore, Dr Mengele and his colleagues sought pregnant women for experimentation.

Chalmers describes this so-called ‘medical research’ bluntly, pointing out that it included mass sterilization among a host of other inhumane practices. Gynaecological procedures and childbirth provided perverse opportunities for voyeurism, control and torture. Nazi propaganda characterizing the ‘Jewish’ doctor as ‘unfit to practice’ is just one example the author uses to describe the inversion of morals and reality, with the point being that in the reality behind the propaganda, Reich-approved doctors were carrying out abuses on an unprecedented scale.

Another notable section deals with the disturbing gendered history of the regimeʼs uses of human blood. In this case, the conditions of war overrode Nazi ideology, which espoused that Jewish blood was ‘impure and worthless’. Ignoring this idea, the German army barbarically collected plasma from Auschwitzʼs already weakened female and child prisoners who were left to perish post-transfusion. Due to the disturbing nature of this history, the author admits a difficulty distancing herself from the material. It should be noted however, that it is not used for shock value, only to illustrate passages that feed into the idea of the whole female consciousness.

Chalmers’ highlights the sexual exchanges taking place during this era, describing it as a survival mode of those using sex to promote, protect or prolong life. This chapter is dealt with in an unsentimental way, channeling the notion of sex being separate from the camps. Chalmers seeks to humanise powerful testimony from Theresienstadt and Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Items were traded for sex, bodies traded to bend rules or in order to feel some sense of humanity or normalcy, to keep children alive or to access camp luxuries such as medicine. By exposing the use of sexuality or female strength to resist, the story again reverses the traditional rape or victim narrative. The author also does not ignore the unconscious instincts of hunger and sexual desire as being prevalent, especially upon liberation. She does however, fail to expand on female homosexuality except for a small note on the all-female camp of Ravensbruck.


To conclude, this study succeeds in starting the conversation and portraying a spectrum of female experience under Nazi rule. Sexuality, gender and the female place in multiple societies within the occupied territories were, and continue to be, emotive and complex. In this volume, Chalmers explores the argument that the term of victim includes all women under her remit of birth, sex and abuse. However, Chalmer’s desire for the single female voice to create this unified narrative causes concern as no two experiences are the same. The previous chapters and their descriptions of racial policies, genocide, transportation, camp experience and torture highlight this view, especially for Jewish and other persecuted women as compared with ‘Aryan’ women with rights as Reich citizens. The author acknowledges and portrays suffering but does not clearly state that this suffering was unequal.

The strength of this volume lies in the decision to harness multiple disciplines and to dedicate academic study to the lives of women in this period. The use of oral testimonies also creates a more complete context and connection for readers. However its weakness lies in the desire to represent birth, sex and abuse as factors present for all women. Chalmer’s offers readers the opportunity to read about women in one volume, however, it is this large remit that ultimately dilutes the brutal reality and final message of those critically important individual voices.


Suggested Further Reading:

The Wiener Library is currently holding an exhibition entitled ‘Science + Suffering: Victims and Perpetrators of Nazi Human Experimentation’, which further explores experimentation on women and children in the camps/forced sterilisation. Open until 29 September.

The Wiener Library also has many books on the gendered experience of the Holocaust, including:

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Gender; Women; Sex; Sterilisation; Euthanasia; Sexual violence; Family policy; Concentration camps; Medical profession; Health


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