Germany, Women and the Home Front, World War II

Impact of World War II on German women. During World War II, German women actively participated in the war through social organizations, employment, and survival on the home front. Many women supported the regime and its war. Some opposed and resisted it. But all women in Germany bore the brunt of the hardships that beset the home front, including food and material shortages, destruction caused by air raids, grief caused by losses of loved ones on the warfronts, and the retributive actions taken by invading armies.

German women constituted the majority of the home-front population during World War II and were the principle target of many of the Nazi regime’s domestic policy initiatives. Adolf Hitler, chancellor of the Third Reich, was adamant that during the war, women would not be the source of difficulties on the home front that they had been during World War I. His policies on state support for mothers and wives of soldiers were implemented to achieve dual purposes: to keep women (and consequently their husbands) content and to transform German womanhood into the Nazi ideal.

Although Germany had been one of the most progressive feminist societies during the early twentieth century, women generally acquiesced to Hitler’s desires. Many women experienced the implementation of Nazi gender policies not as aggression against women but as a welcome return to traditional values (Gellately 2001, 10-11). The elevation and reverence of motherhood showed the regime’s antifeminism was not inherently antiwoman. Some Nazi party officials did not hide their hostility toward women. Their insulting rhetoric was often discounted, however, either as exceptional in an otherwise agreeable party platform or because the impassioned speeches of the true leader of the Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler, made clear his sympathy for the plight of women (Koonz 1987, 58-61). Many women found comfort in the ideals of the Nazi

Party that relegated women’s lives to the private sphere of Kinder, Kirche, Kuche (children, church, kitchen).

Although the Nazi ideal was for women to get married and create large families, many women were unable to do so. The overall surplus of women in Germany and the lack of available men on the home front meant that many German women were single during the war. Most of these women, especially those from the lower classes, were employed before and during the war. The state targeted those who had escaped employment for recruiting drives, with limited success.

Prior to the war, married women were encouraged to leave the workforce to start or expand families. The government gave financial support based on family size. To women in low-paying jobs, with working husbands, significant government assistance in exchange for unemployment was a good deal. The success of the program has often been debated. Although many married women left the labor force, the overall percentage of women employed in Germany was far higher than in Great Britain or the United States (Gellately 2001, 151).

During the war, unemployed married women who did not have children often created a great deal of resentment among those who were forcibly employed. Women of the lower class, even those with young children, could not afford to live off government benefits. Following long hours of work, working women had to stand in long lines for their rations, while unemployed women were able to get the choicest provisions. Most of those unemployed, childless women had the financial means not to work, giving the resentment clear class undertones. Attempts to recruit those women were largely unsuccessful, in part because the Nazi leadership refused to make employment compulsory (Noakes and Pridham 2000, 316-325).

Rather than force married women and mothers into employment, the Nazi regime imported millions of prisoners of war and slave laborers from conquered and satellite nations. Extensive efforts were made to prevent foreign workers from defiling the German women who shared common workspace. The vast majority of the Gestapo’s manpower was directed at controlling foreign workers and preventing relationships with German women (Gellately 2001, 152). As the war dragged on and times became more desperate, some women did form sexual relationships with non-German men. Many of the denunciations made against women to the Gestapo involved charges of sexual relations with foreigners (Gellately 2001, 197).

Many women found an outlet for their creativity and leadership through work in Nazi social organizations. The umbrella organization for women was the National Socialist Frauen-schaft/Deutsches Frauenwerk (Women’s Organization/Women’s Work, NSF/DFW). Led by Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the NSF/DFW acted as a policing organization for women, its main task to indoctrinate, train, control, and organize German women for the needs of the state. Although part of the Nazi Party apparatus, the NSF/DFW did not provide women with avenues to influence political decisions. The leaders within the organizations were given power to operate within the sphere of women but were always subordinate to the command of the male-dominated party. Despite the lack of real power, women participated in the programs of the an-tifeminist Nazi state in far greater numbers than in the Weimar Republic, which had first enfranchised them (Grunberger 1995, 258). For the most part, women found that the organizations served as support networks, gave them activities to feel useful in the war effort, and provided social benefits for the community.

The situation on the home front never approached the desperation experienced during World War I. Although shortages were felt, women did not suffer from the starvation and disease women had to cope with from 1914 to 1918. In part, this was due to prewar preparation for a wartime economy. It was also due to the importations of millions of prisoners of war, slave labor, and trade with satellite nations, which was far greater than it had been during World War I. Yet the black market was just as strong in 1945 as it had been in 1918. An extensive bartering network existed between the rural and urban areas. Urban women were able to exchange goods that were scarce in the country for food. In this way, many women were able to make ends meet throughout the war (Stephen-son 2001, 99).

German women were active among the resistance movements of the war. Sophie Scholl is perhaps the best-known female resister, famous for her actions as part of the White Rose movement in Munich. Another famous act of resistance, the Rosenstrasse Protest in Berlin in 1943, was made up of several hundred German women protesting the arrest of their Jewish husbands. Many women also participated in underground resistance movements, providing food, shelter, and aid to conspirators and even taking over the operations of resistance movements after the men had been arrested. The Gestapo watched the wives of known conspirators closely; many were harassed, interrogated, or arrested. Many wives of the conspirators in the July 1944 bomb plot were arrested.

Woman of non-Aryan descent suffered through a harsh existence during the war. Those of targeted social and ethnic groups were not spared the brutality of the Holocaust. Jewish women suffered under tremendous strain as they worked to support and feed their families while warding off the hopelessness of their existence. Eventually, those who were not protected as privileged or intermarried Jews were deported to concentration camps. They were separated from their families during the roundups and rarely saw them again. Even those who were protected from the Holocaust had to suffer meek existences, isolated from society. Women of other repressed groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma and Sinti, and the handicapped suffered fates similar to the men.

As the tide of the war turned against Germany, the home front came under increasing strain. The Allies incessantly bombed Germany from 1942 onward. Many women were killed in air raids, many were made homeless, and many were forced to relocate to the interior. Yet even as the air attacks of the Allies penetrated farther into Germany, a greater fear loomed on the horizon: the Red Army. Stories about the Soviet military forces’ inhumanity and barbarity toward women had filtered into Germany during the war. Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda machine created some of the stories to dehumanize the Soviets. Much of it came from soldiers returning from the front, refugees, and news reports. In late 1944 and early 1945, German woman braced themselves for the Soviet onslaught. What occurred barely eclipsed the worst predictions as the Soviet army raped millions of German women in East Prussia and Berlin (Beevor 2002, 410). Tens of thousands of women died from the attacks or committed suicide.

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