WW2 and Gender Relations in Germany
What was the impact of World War Two on gender relations in Germany? To do so we must examine three substantial areas of importance: ideology, trauma, and egalitarianism. The question of ideology is, of course, most important when considering the Third Reich itself -- which had specific ideas about gender roles -- and ultimately the question of post-war de-Nazification. The subject of trauma is arguably unavoidable in considering gender relations at the war's immediate conclusion and afterward, when the subject of mass rape of the German female population must be considered in light of what it says about gender relations more generally. And the issue of egalitarianism may help to explain why, nearly seventy years after the conclusion of World War Two, the most powerful person in Germany (and arguably in Europe) is currently a woman, Angela Merkel. A focus on these three specific areas may help to shed light on how, precisely, Germany has made the transition from the gender ideas enforced by the Nazis to the gender ideas that have resulted in a female Chancellor in 2014.
Gender played a central role in Nazi ideology. Although we are accustomed to thinking of Nazi ideology largely in terms of anti-Semitism, for example, it is crucial to note that the Nazi rhetoric was actually defined in terms of gender. The Nazis who were to a large degree reacting to the increased demand for female suffrage and emancipation in the period before the First World War. Jonathan Steinberg, for example, quotes the early Nazi leader and politician Alfred Rosenberg, who drew explicit connection between female emancipation and German cultural decline: Rosenberg claimed that "the emancipation of women must lead, again by way of the racial dialectic, to the feminization of men: 'mincing men in patent-leather shoes with purple socks, festooned with bracelets, with delicate rings on their fingers, eyes shaded with blue, and red nostrils. Those are the types which in the future women's state [Frauenstadt] must become the general rule'." (Steinberg 108-9). In other words, there was an explicit element in the Nazi imagination which opposed the implementation of egalitarian gender politics and progressive attitudes toward women: in Rosenberg's argument here, letting women vote will result in an unmasculine, even homosexual, male population. Although Steinberg notes that "what Hitler made of Rosenberg is hard to assess" because "they were never close," we can turn to other primary sources to see hints of the same sort of gender-basis for Nazi ideology at the highest levels (Steinberg 109). A useful example is provided by Leni Riefenstahl. Although a woman, Riefenstahl was a film director (an occupation in 2014 which is still decried for being largely a boys' club) and indeed occupied a central position in Nazi ideology as the most aesthetically distinguished propagandist with pro-Nazi films like Triumph of the Will. In her memoirs, Riefenstahl recounts a curious encounter with Josef Goebbels, drawn from her diary for 6 November 1932:
I saw Dr. Goebbels standing out in the corridor. He was as surprised as I and asked whether he could come in and sit down for a moment. He had an appointment with Hitler in Munich and he told me about his personal problems and the power struggles in the Party. When he noticed how little I knew about all those matters, he changed the topic and shifted, oddly enough, to the theme of homosexuality. He said Hitler had an extreme dislike of homosexual men; but he, Goebbels, was more tolerant, and did not condemn all equally. "In my opinion," I said, "the characteristics of both sexes are present in every human being -- perhaps especially so in artists -- but that has absolutely nothing to do with a defective or inferior character." Surprisingly, Goebbels agreed. (Riefenstahl 126-7)
Although 1932 is very early in Nazi Germany -- and early in Riefenstahl's career, since she had only just been singled out by Hitler as the ideal of German womanhood for the film she was promoting (The Blue Light) at the time of this meeting with Goebbels, and had not yet begun making films for Hitler -- we can see the same threads intertwining in the conversation. Riefenstahl...
Richard Overy's study of German mobilization notes that prevailing historiographical opinion suggests that an anti-female bias did hinder Germany, but Overy himself intends to correct this opinion by suggesting that women had already been more fully absorbed into the German workforce compared to other European countries at the time the war began:
It is argued that Germany, unlike the other combatant powers, failed to mobilize women for the labour force. While it is certainly true that the number of German women employed between 1939 and 1945 hardly increased at all, it would be quite wrong to conclude from this that women were not mobilized for war work. The fact is that by 1939 women already constituted a very much larger part of the workforce than in other industrialized countries…It would be reasonable to argue that there simply was not a much larger pool of women to be absorbed in the German war effort, that Germany was already close to a ceiling on female employment by the outbreak of war. The high 1939 figure reflects the large part played by female labour in the German countryside, which continued during the war as women were forced to cope with farming tasks usually carried out by conscripted men (one million from agriculture by mid-1941). This suggests that women were forced to work harder and for longer hours during the war as well, to make up for the absent male workforce, a fact that the raw data on female employment fails to convey. (Overy 50-1)
So the egalitarian motive had actually made substantial inroads into day-to-day operations in Germany before and during the war, despite the official ideology that condemned it. This paradox of double consciousness, though, did actually continue throughout the war. Gordon Martel notes that "only in the last, desperate days of the war did Hitler approve the formation of female infantry battalions (and even this was more in the hope of shaming more men into doing their duty to the Reich" (Martel 144). In other words, a profound sense of appropriate gender roles was being used by Hitler not to recruit female soldiers, but to use the existence of female soldiers to press more German men into service.
Yet the experience of German women at the end of the war and in its aftermath was colored by one crucial fact: sexual violence at the hands of the Allies (most notably the Russians, but with no exemption from any Allied forces -- in parts of Germany, French colonial troops from North Africa were particularly notorious). Lowe is particularly useful in laying out the horrifying extent of this, which raises the question of what the long-term historical consequences of such activity might be:
Rape has always been associated with warfare: in general, the more brutal the war, the more likely it is to involve the rape of enemy women. ... The worst instances occurred in eastern Europe, in those areas of Silesia and East Prussia where Soviet soldiers first set foot on German soil. But rape was not confined to the areas around where the fighting took place. Far from it -- in fact rape increased everywhere during the war, even in areas where there was no fighting…as the Allied armies converged on Germany from every direction, a wave of sexual violence, along with other crimes, accompanied them. Rape tended to be worst where chaotic conditions existed, for example in the aftermath of heavy fighting, or amongst troops with poor discipline. And, importantly, it was incomparably worse in countries that were conquered rather than liberated. This suggests that revenge and a desire to dominate were important factors -- indeed, probably the main factors -- behind the mass rapes that occurred in 1945. (Lowe 51-2)
As the Third Reich was in its final collapse, then, the gender issue became most salient in this way. The statistics quoted by Lowe are, as he acknowledges, "truly sickening," as he emphases that "rape was not a collection of isolated incidents, but a mass experience endured by the entire female population":
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