Long Ton – How ideologically coherent and successful were NS women’s policies?

The role of German women in the National Socialist regime has become an increasingly large field of study since the introduction of new approaches and methodologies of the Social Sciences and Gender Studies of the 1970s and 1980s. Gender Studies, in particular, have demonstrated a new perspective on the link and connectedness of the domestic and public sphere in the Third Reich. Thus, new opportunities of research opened up that enables historians to closely examine the relation between not only man and woman, but also state and family. In addition, since the fall of the Soviet Union, NS documents and archives that were previously inaccessible have revealed new dimensions and relations between the role of German women in NS society, the machinations of the regime and re-opened discussions on the agency of German women as state actors and as citizens.

At first glance, NS ideology and propaganda suggested, that the role of women may be incorporated under the hood of the Volksgemeinschaft: the ideal woman is the mother to a new generation of healthy Aryans, the future of the Reich. Accordingly, state policies and laws created under the umbrella of protection of these women had the goal to ensure the healthy nucleus of the healthy Aryan family: a husband, a wife and, ideally, 8+ children. But the often-propagated motif of the Geburtsmaschine, the child-bearing machine, only tells us a superficial side of NS ideology. Therefore, the question raised, how ideologically coherent and successful NS women’s policies really were, needs to be answered. Consequently, this essay aims to present, that although ideologically, the ideas held by the National Socialist regime followed a certain core-thread, which was of particular importance to the leadership, realities of economic pressure and the war effort dictated an increasingly loosened view on motherhood and womanhood in the Third Reich, which can be demonstrated by old laws changed, new laws enacted and the appropriation and transformation of Feminist movement ideas by the Nazi propaganda machine. In order to appropriately discuss this topic, it is also important to interject a short historiographical outline in the following.

Research of the role of women in the Third Reich has transformed considerably since the 1970s. Richard Evans published a study of available and possible sources in 1976, Feminism and Female Emancipation in Germany 1870-1945, in which he discusses directions in which possible research may be headed. At the time, Evans rightfully recognized the divide that historians of the next decades will face, in which Nazism, viewed as either a form of monopoly capitalism or totalitarianism, will severely influence a historian’s positioning and localisation of women in history (Evans, 1976, p.349). In the 1980s, Jost Hermand and Claudia Koonz re-examined the NS conception of the Volk and the Nazis attempt to appropriate Germanic tradition of matriarchy into its modern propaganda machinery. Both have exemplified, that NS ideology as a whole were not necessarily coherent and as a consequence, neither were women’s policies (Jost, 1984; Koonz, 1986). Since the 1990s and the turn of the century, new revelations in archives of the former occupied East established the concept of German women’s agency in the Third Reich. Prior historiography emphasised the role of the passive woman, who was drawn into National Socialist regime. However, we now have conclusive evidence, that shows that women were political denouncers (Joshi, 2002; Stibbe, 2012), Wehrmacht auxiliaries, SS camp guards, nurses in the euthanasia programs and participants of political discourse (Koonz, 1986). This severe shift of historical discourse has been very fruitful and gave the research into the role of women in the Third Reich a very important dimension.

Official NS ideology on the role of women in society and the practical realities differed widely at certain times of the Third Reich. Two distinct time periods can be distinguished: the time period prior to re-armament, around 1936, and the time period after, including the start of the war and mass conscription of male soldiers. From the 1870s to 1930s, Germany saw rapidly declining birth rates. The path to modernisation opened up new economic avenues and career opportunities to women, who have become increasingly aware of the financial burden and stress of a bigger family. In addition, the massive death toll of the First World War, left Germany with a small pool of available men (Stephenson, 2012, p. 37). The Nazis knew, that in order to further their ultimate goals of conquering Europe for Lebensraum, a healthy and growing population must be the foundation of the new Reich. The NS concept of the new Germanic, Aryan mother was incorporated into the Volksgemeinschaft – in order to serve its Volk, women had to adhere to certain principles of Germanic womanhood: self-sufficient, frugal, cleanliness, high morality, orderly and awareness of race and heredity. The woman serves as the core of the shelter of family. She bears the children, is in charge of the household and serves her husband, to assure the survival of the family and therefore the survival of the future and the fate of the nation. In turn, NS policy enacted several laws that would promote and secure marriage and child-bearing, such as the law for the protection of marriage, the marriage loan-scheme, marriage-health laws and the racial Nuremberg laws; maternity-protection laws, post-natal care benefits, midwives-law and the law for the prevention of hereditarily diseased offspring (Stephenson, 2012, p. 41-45). Several state institutions, such as the Hilfswerk Mutter und Kind, were established that aimed to alleviate mothers under financial pressure, including single-mothers. Notably, under Heinrich Himmler of the SS, the Lebensborn (source of life) program was initiated to promote the rise of born children that adhered to NS concepts of racial hygiene, and to create a new generation of a SS elite. Just as the Nazis promoted marriage, children and family, they also actively sought to undermine women’s ability to work. So-called ‘double-earner’ marriages were publicly shamed and de-incentivised (Koonz, 1986, p. 392). The Kraft durch Freude (strength through joy) program incentivised the health of women, removing and protecting them from ‘dangerous’ working conditions. Protections of working hourse, night time hours, hygiene and hazardous conditions were introduced to maintain the health of women. The politics and laws of the Nazis proved to be unsuccessful. Although marriage rates remained steady, birth rates did not significantly rise, with a median birth rate of 1.3 children per marriage (Stephenson, 2012, p. 45). With the beginning of German re-armament and emphasis on German heavy industry during the post-economic depression period, interestingly enough, the divide between NS ideology and practical reality was greatest, when control of the NS regime could not exceed economic pressure.

By 1934, the German leadership has recognized, that to exclude 50% of an available work force, could not sustain the coming war machine and officially recognized the vital role of working women in the German Labour Front (Stephenson, 2012, p. 95). During this time, it becomes recognisable, how NS policy shifted towards appreciating and actually promoting women into the work force. However, when ideology and policy clashed, it also becomes clear, how ineffective and incoherent these new measures were. As Germany’s heavy industry rose, great parts of the population fled from the countryside to the cities. This proved to be an important issue in the agrarian sector and domestic service sector, in which the workforce was depleted (Münkel, 1996, p.427). Under Brüning’s emergency measures and Göring’s 4-year-plan, a compulsory six months Labour Service and one-year work service was introduced, in which a new source of workers was found in unmarried women under 25.The marriage loan law was also changed: before being able to apply, women had to prove prior work experience of at least nine months to become eligible for the loan; in exceptions women did not even have to give up their old job for the loan as well – a necessity prior to the change (Stephenson, 2012, p. 95-99). By the time of mass conscription however, the work force seemed to be exhausted and the Nazis tried to recruit mothers and wives of the middle-class into the work force as well. Some historians have put emphasis on the stronghold of the family home and the domestic sphere, in which the Nazis found little ways to penetrate. However, NS propaganda was successful in convincing this stratum of German women to work, by psychological manipulation: had double-earners been shamed years before, they were now praised as shouldering the work of motherhood and production for the war effort. Notably, Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, leader of the Reichsfrauenwerk convinced millions of German women to join the work force and give up their bodies for the ‘greater good’ (Koonz, 2012, p. 393). The incoherence in NS ideology becomes even more apparent in regard to NS policy in higher education. Although, admittance of women into higher education was restricted, the restriction stemmed from a flood of students and a lack of available infrastructure of tertiary education that had its roots in the Weimar Republic. The economic depression and saturation of the professional job market led to a rigorous selection process, in which only a fraction of willing students were allowed admittance to higher education, influencing both sexes. Combined with NS ideology, official state message read as follows: ‘It is clear that study cannot offer women a suitable general education. Women will in future be employed much less in occupations requiring a period of study…Therefore senior schools will not need to prepare girls for university’ (Stephenson, 2012, p. 131). But the realities of the market pressured the Regime to overthink their stance, yet again. By 1935, a lack of teaching positions and shrinking numbers of university applicants as a whole, both brought about by incentives from the Labour Service and a lack of of-age applicants born during the First World War, forced the Nazis to loosen restrictions on women students in higher education (Stephenson, 2012, p. 134). As a result, the Nazi propaganda machine overturned their narrative: had the prior Women’s movement been perverted by Jewry and Bolshevist-liberals, it was now seen as an important asset for ‘the good of the community’ (Stephenson, 2012, p. 143). In return, the Nazis expected allegiance from these women. Further, NS ideology was overturned as well: intelligence and skilled personnel were now compatible to concepts of womanhood – again, because the shortage of an available work force exerted pressure on the state.

The incoherence in NS ideology may also be observed, if we look at the dimension of women as active agents in the Third Reich. In these examples given, the concepts of womanhood directly contradict NS ideology. As previously mentioned, women could be found in various roles and relations within NS society. Vandana Joshi’s very interesting display of case studies of Gestapo reports (Joshi, 2002), in which women politically denounced their husbands portrayed women as active participants in shaping their present role. Here, women worked against the stereotype of the ‘subservient wives and passive accomplices of their husbands’ and ‘mothers and wives made a vital contribution to Nazi power by preserving the illusion of love in an environment of hatred’ (Joshi, 2002, p. 420). In the case of anti-Semitic female laundry workers in Berlin, NS racial notions of the Volk fully penetrated these women’s view, allowing them to ‘create new fictive bonds and identify themselves as Volksgenossinnen of equal racial and social worth with men’ (Stibbe, 2012, p. 166); these Volksgenossinnen also included Red Cross nurses, Wehrmacht auxiliaries, SS camp guards and teachers and social workers in the occupied East (Stibbe, 2012, p. 168). Regarding the question of complicity of women in the holocaust, Annette Kuhn pointingly summarises in her essay The Perpetration of German Women in the NS-System, 1994:

the NS-System did not have any particular obstacles with the majority of German women of the ‘old’ women’s movement. The willingness to cooperate with the NS-state by female leaders of the bourgeois women’s movement made the ideological transition into the NS-state seamless. The break in norms and continuities from 1933 had been knowingly covered up by the behaviour of the ones responsible of the old women’s organisations and their speeches and scriptures’ (p. 5).

Nazism was neither a coherent, nor a logical ideology. It was not based on facts, but on an effective propaganda machine, that convinced its supporters of the ideal of a Germanic Volksgemeinschaft. Neither, were the states policies. Historiographical discourse has shown, that NS-policy and ideology were not coherent in regard to economic policy or during the war. In adherence, women’s policy in the NS state also proved to be incoherent. It has been shown, that at distinct times of the Third Reich, ideology and practicalities demanded different things at different times, with the main factor being economic pressure to sustain Germany’s re-armament. Although, it can be debated whether the position of German women during the Third Reich significantly differed from other nations at the time, the NS did conceive protection laws of women and mothers that found its way into current laws. The question whether the Nazis were particularly successful in regard to their policies can be definitively answered as no. NS policies did not bear fruit, in fact, they were only able to mobilise even around 30%, comparatively speaking, of the work force to England’s 60% (Koonz, 1986, p.395). The Nazis demonstrably displayed careful catering and adaptation to outside economic pressure and a skill to repackage and incorporate obsolete ideologies, in which they heavily played on the established concepts of the Volk to attain their political goals.

Long Ton


Evans, R. (1976). Feminism and Female Emancipation in Germany 1870-1945. Central

European History, 9(4), 323-351.

Hermand, J. (1984). All Power to the Women: Nazi Concepts of Matriarchy. Journal of

Contemporary History, 19(4), 649-667.

Joshi, V. (2002). The ‘Private’ Became ‘Public’: Wives as Denouncers in the Third

Reich. Journal of Contemporary History, 37(3), 419-435.

Koonz, C. (1986). Mothers in the fatherland: women, the family and Nazi politics. New

York: St. Martin’s Press.

Kuhn, A. (1994). Die Täterschaft deutscher Frauen im NS-System – Traditionen,

Dimensionen, Wandlungen. Frauen im Nationalsozialismus, 4-31. Wiesbaden: Hessische

Landeszentrale für politische Bildung.

Münkel, D. (1996). Nationalsozialistische Agrarpolitik und Bauernalltag. Frankfurt am Main:

Campus Verlag.

Stephenson, J. (2012). Women in Nazi Society. London: Routledge.

Stibbe, M. (2012). In and beyond the racial state: gender and national socialism, 1933-1955,

Politics, Religion & Ideology, 13(2), 159-178.

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