Even though I've read hundreds of novels and history books about the Holocaust, Wendy Lower's study was a revelation. In a way, it shouldn't have been. Having read a lot about the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing squads who murdered Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and others in the east, to make room for Germany's intended rural paradise), euthanasia programs, Gestapo offices, occupation bureaucracies and other elements of the Nazi operations, I knew that there were many nurses, secretaries and wives who were part of or associated with those operations.
But this knowledge stayed in the back of my mind. I never really considered that this meant there were hundreds of thousands of German women who euthanized people on a regular basis, and who pushed the reams of paper dispossessing the Nazis' targets and ordering and reporting on mass murder.. What I really didn't know at all was the level of direct involvement in dispossessing Nazi targets and actually killing them by women sent to work in the east (or who accompanied men sent to the east).
You will not read much of anything in this book about sadistic Nazi prison guards in this book. Lower acknowledges that's what most people think of when the subject of women involved in the Nazi killing machine comes up. But her point is that there were many, many more women who were involved in the genocide. Middle-class and upper-class women felt it was their duty to work in the genocidal bureaucracy. What's more, many bought into the propaganda about the opportunities in the east and headed there with ambitions of achieving a better life.
How could this happen? Lower shows us that most of these women were young; in their twenties. They'd been indoctrinated into the Nazis' racial mindset since their early youth. Women were trained in shooting and had it drummed into their heads that the life of the Aryan nation absolutely depended on eradicating the eternal Jewish and Bolshevik enemies, and subjugating the Slavs. This is an eye-opening illustration of how training could turn significant numbers of people, including women, into uncaring "desk killers" at best, and cold-blooded murderers at worst.
The horror of what Germans did during the war never leaves us, but when Lower throws a light on how the deadly Nazi ideology was able to destroy the humanity of so many women, it intensifies our dismay. It's even more disheartening to learn that even after the war ended, so many of these women never came to terms with their wrongs. They continued to feel that the Jews were a threat and that any punishment the German perpetrators faced was simply revenge persecution. They even had the gall to claim that they were being treated worse than the Jews had been.
The narrative of this book is relatively short and readable for history, making it easily accessible, but it is supported by extensive notes for serious students of history.