The Third Reich’s policies regarding women stemmed from a mixture of conservative patriarchal values and the active, state-sponsored creation of a society steeped in myth.
The ideal Nazi woman did not work outside of the home and had extremely limited educational and political aspirations. Save a few notable exceptions among the elite ranks of society, a woman’s role in Nazi Germany was to give birth to Aryan babies and raise them as faithful subjects of the Reich.
Women in the short-lived Weimar Republic enjoyed progressive levels of freedom and social status by the standards of the day. Equal opportunities in education and civil service jobs as well as equal pay in the professions were enshrined in the constitution. While socio-economic problems plagued many women, liberal attitudes flourished in the republic.
To provide some context, before the Nazi Party came to power there were 35 female members of the Reichstag, a far greater number of women than the US or UK had in their corresponding houses of government.
A strict patriarchy
Any notions of feminism or equality were quashed by the strictly patriarchal standards of the Third Reich. From the very start, the Nazis went about creating an organised society, where gender roles were rigidly defined and options limited. This is not to say that women were not valued in Nazi Germany, but their main expressed purpose was to make more Aryans.
The mission of women is to be beautiful and to bring children into the world.
As with most of what Hitler considered to be social ills, feminism was linked to Jewish intellectuals and Marxists. He stated that women could not compete with men, so inserting them into male spheres would only hurt their position in society, ultimately depriving them of their rights.
The status of Gleichberechtigung or ‘equal rights’ held by women during the Weimar Republic officially became Gleichstellung, meaning ‘equivalence’. While such a semantic distinction may seem vague, the meaning attached to these words by those in power was all too clear.
Hitler’s fan club
While he was far from a muscular blond Adonis, Hitler’s cult of personality was encouraged among the women of the Third Reich. A major role of women in Nazi Germany was simply popular support for the Führer. A significant amount of new voters who gave their support to the Nazis in the 1933 elections were women and many wives of influential Germans encouraged and facilitated their membership in the Nazi Party.
The National Socialist Women’s League
As the women’s wing of the Nazi Party, it was the responsibility of the NS Frauenschaft to teach Nazi women to be good housekeepers, which included using only German-made products. Led by Reichsfrauenführerin Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, during the war the Women’s League held cooking classes, provided domestic servants to the military, collected scrap metal and handed out refreshments at train stations.
The Fountain of Life
More German babies were central to realising Hitler’s dream of Volksgemeinschaft, a racially pure and homogenous society. One means to this end was the radical Lebensborn, or ‘Fountain of Life’ program, which was implemented in 1936. Under the program, each member of the SS would produce four children, either in or outside of marriage.
Lebensborn homes for unmarried women and their children in Germany, Poland and Norway were essentially baby factories. The emotional fallout experienced by the individuals who were corralled in these institutions is still being felt today.
Another measure to make Germany more fertile took the shape of a Nazi medal that was awarded by Hitler to women who gave birth to at least 8 children.
Despite official policies relegating women to the home, the demands of the war effort did extend to the use of a substantial female work force. At the end of the war there were half a million female auxiliary members of the Wehrmacht in Germany and the occupied territories. Half were volunteers and most worked doing administrative tasks, in hospitals, operating communications equipment and in supplemental defence roles.
Women members of the SS fulfilled similar, mostly bureaucratic roles. Female concentration camp guards, known as Aufseherinnen, numbered less than 0.7% of all guards.