Women and German fascism

Published : Jul 16, 2004 00:00 IST

Gender and Power in the Third Reich: Female Denouncers and the Gestapo (1933-45) by Vandana Joshi; Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire and New York, 2003; pages xx + 229, 45 (hardbound).

FOR someone in India, reviewing a book related to the Holocaust can be rather disturbing. It also brings memories of the `democratically' sponsored riots by the Gujarat government, during which even people from the margins - women and Adivasis - were drawn into the barbaric expeditions. In fact, the book under review can perhaps open one's mind to the complexities of how repressive and totalitarian regimes can transform human beings and the inner world of the `home'.

Vandana Joshi has researched on a theme that seems to have been ignored even by German historians. Her expertise in the German language enabled her to explore 366 Gestapo files at the State Archives of Dsseldorf in Germany as a major source.

Although the theme of denunciation has been widely examined by scholars, female denouncers do not seem to have attracted much attention. As explained by Vandana Joshi, denunciation in the context of modern European history meant accusations of wrongdoing made by ordinary citizens or officials about fellow citizens or officials to the authorities. These were mostly acts that drew punishment. The concept of denunciation acquired new meanings in Nazi Germany. It set into motion a power struggle among ordinary women, who used it as an instrument to fight their individual battles at various levels in society. In fact, what makes the work striking is that it delineates the way a consensus for fascism was created by women, who were apparently powerless and weak, through their day-to-day lives. Whereas mass organisations of women did exist in Nazi Germany, denunciation provided women with power in their immediate environs. It is perhaps in this sense that the book focusses on gender history and on how the Nazi system worked "from below".

Historians who have focussed on women in Nazi Germany have predictably progressed from the starting point of locating women as victims of patriarchy, as accomplices, and, finally, as perpetrators themselves. Vandana Joshi's method follows a track that accommodates gender as a historical category with all the associated complexities of good and evil. Besides, though she focusses on women denouncers, she tunes her work to the life of women and the overall context of racism and the question of forced foreign identity.

As delineated by the author, Nazism attempted to replace class and gender hierarchies with one based on race. This placed `Aryan' men at the top and `Aryan' women below them. After all, patriarchy was very much a part of Nazism and was harmoniously integrated with it. Although perhaps discriminated against in the job market, women were extremely vital for their reproductive power, which was necessary to procreate, nurture, preserve and defend the `Aryan race'. This division coexisted with a clear preference of the `master' race and the `othering' of `inferior' races. What is fascinating about the book is the way it focusses on the shifts and changes in Nazi policies relating to women and the Jewish people. And, while attempting this, Vandana Joshi elaborates the changing face of patriarchy itself.

Explaining the way in which the two worlds of men and women were located differently, Vandana Joshi highlights how the "small world" of women (that is, home) was expected to provide stability to the big world `outside'. This idea of different spheres introduced a form of fascist empowerment that provided ordinary housewives with a host of possibilities - to be racial educators and guardians of society and get associated with the power structure. It is precisely in such a manner that they legitimised fascism in their day-to-day lives.

On the basis of the Gestapo files, the author lists 52 categories of offences. Interestingly, the category `Communist Party' with 1,440 cases tops the list, followed by `Jews', with 1,289 cases. There were denunciations against some for singing the `Internationale' and listening to Radio Moscow news bulletins. In this context, the author's opinion that the largely male membership of the Communist Party made it more vulnerable, seems to be a serious argument. Nevertheless, given the turbulence of the phase, one can perhaps argue that the situation would have remained unaltered even if there were many more women in the Communist Party. In such a situation they would have been denounced as relatives of the husbands by women denouncers. Vandana Joshi refers to "race defilement" cases where women who were identified as "illegitimate" children of Jewish fathers were charged with concealing their identity and expected to be "treated as... Jew(s)". In fact, this sounds rather familiar to someone living in 21st century India.

A MAJOR contribution of the author is to interrogate historians - including feminists - who virtually legitimise fascism by projecting women as innocent and ignorant of Nazi crimes. It had been acknowledged that the `private' world - the home front - was as vital as the battlefront. This implied the invasive character of the Nazi state. As the author goes on to show, women from the poorer sections of society subverted gender hierarchies at home, while demonstrating allegiance to the totalitarian Nazi regime.

Vandana Joshi refers to the way the private world of `home' got politicised. She mentions cases of many wives in situations as varied as those in which women were exposed to domestic violence and those wherein relationships had soured. As denouncers they tilted the power structure to fight for dignity, with a desire to subvert patriarchy. As outlined, this phenomenon could get incorporated into agendas of revenge. The author refers to women who used the weapon of denunciation against the female relatives of their husbands. She points out that denunciation remained a predominantly female-centred activity, which provided women with an extra-judicial forum to express the anger and resentment caused by the adverse conditions faced by them in their `homes'. It saved unemployed housewives the resources necessary to use the judicial structure to fight their adversaries. In this sense the Gestapo - and in a broader sense the Nazi state - provided them with an alternative space. Stressing the urban and working class component of the denouncers, the author delineates the conditions that made communism and race prominent components that were taken up for investigation by the Gestapo.

While touching upon the social history of Nazi Germany, Vandana Joshi projects the repressive working conditions and the lack of freedom to express views in the public sphere that made some people adopt dual lives. It was in such a context that the inner world seemed safer to criticise. Nevertheless, the private-public dichotomy had been dismantled not only by the fascist state, but also by ordinary women from within their homes.

Vandana Joshi also refers to the sexist perceptions of the regime when it came to relationships involving Jewish men and `Aryan' women. Thus she refers to the dominant assumption of a `Jew' being an "eternal seducer" and a "lecherous parasite" with insatiable desires - perceptions that sound so familiar to the communal location of the `Muslim' in contemporary India.

While referring to the motives of the denouncers, the author focusses on various features that range from anti-Semitism to social and professional jealousies. Vandana Joshi refers to the silence of Jewish women - who were particularly vulnerable to violence, sexual harassment, abuse and assaults by `Aryan' men - in the Gestapo files. This is in sharp contrast to the oral testimonies that she has encountered. In a context where many Jewish women were left to fend for themselves, this is a particularly disturbing feature.

The author also examines the position of the Gestapo when it came to those designated as foreign workers and foreign minorities. The `Aryan' men could get away most of the time and, in cases where their crime could be established, the punishment never lasted for more than three months. What is remarkable is that crimes like rape committed by `Aryan' men were not taken as serious offences - rather "dereliction of duty" was the reason for which they were punished. Cases where German women - the upholders of `Aryan culture' - "polluted" and "defiled" themselves by having friendships with non-`Aryans' were dealt with seriously. If proved, women were subjected to traumatising treatment, which included imprisonment or even being paraded with shaven heads. In fact, public humiliation became a part of Nazi culture. Sexual promiscuity was only allowed to the soldier, but not his wife. At the same time, any relationship between a German woman with a `foreigner' was located very clearly as an act of `sexual aggression'. Paying no heed to the woman's voice, the regime hanged these men since their crime was considered as deserving capital punishment.

Vandana Joshi refers to the emergence of `moral guardians' in Nazi Germany, who `took care' to enforce codes on women whose husbands were out fighting. This is again a feature that we encounter in a weaker form in contemporary times, especially when it comes to targeting people for celebrating the so-called foreign and hence polluting festivals.

This is a path-breaking work and it is indeed creditable that in 2002 the author, an Indian, won the Fraenkel Prize for Contemporary History for it. Vandana Joshi's book would attract not only those interested in history but anyone who wants to have a glimpse of how fascism can alter and transform human beings into beastly creatures.

For someone in India, this book has an additional significance since it would enable the reader at least to conceptualise what `Modi-fication' in its developed form can be like. From their experiences in the past, the people in Hitler's country have learnt to reject fascist politics. Do Indians need to relive this experience in order to learn to do the same?

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