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Why did women vote for Hitler? Long-forgotten essays hold some answers
More than 30 essays on the subject "Why I became a Nazi" written by German women in 1934 have been lying fallow in the archives.
The rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party in the 1930s came on the back of votes from millions of ordinary Germans – both men and women.
But aside from a few high-profile figures, such as concentration camp guard Irma Grese and “concentration camp murderess" Ilse Koch, little is known about the everyday women who embraced the National Socialist German Workers' Party, known more commonly as the Nazi Party. What little data we do have on ordinary Nazi women has been largely underused, forgotten or ignored. It has left us with a half-formed understanding of the rise of the Nazi movement, one that is almost exclusively focused on male party members.
And yet more than 30 essays on the subject “Why I became a Nazi" written by German women in 1934 have been lying fallow in the archives of the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto for decades. These essays were only unearthed three years ago when three Florida State University professors arranged to have them transcribed and translated. They have since been made available digitally, but have not received widespread attention.
Not all Cabaret
As scholars of Holocaust studies, crimes against humanity and political behavior, we believe the accounts of these women give an insight into the role of women in the rise of the Nazi party. They also point to the extent to which women's attitudes on feminism differed after the Great War – a time when women were making gains in independence, education, economic opportunity and sexual freedom.
The German women's movement had been among the most powerful and significant in the world for half a century before the Nazis came to power in 1933. Top-quality high schools for girls had existed since the 1870s, and German universities were opened to women at the beginning of the 20th century. Many German women became teachers, lawyers, doctors, journalists and novelists. In 1919, German women got the vote. By 1933, women, of whom there were millions more than men – Berlin had 1,116 women for every 1,000 men – voted in roughly the same percentages as men for Hitler and National Socialist candidates.
'Everyone was everyone's enemy'
The essays unearthed at the Hoover Institution give an insight as to why some of them did.
Dissatisfaction with the attitudes of the Weimar era, the period between the end of World War I and Hitler's rise to power, is clear in the women's writing. Most of the essay writers express distaste with some aspect of the political system. One calls women's voting rights "a disadvantage for Germany," while another describes the political climate as "haywire," and "everyone was everyone's enemy." Margarethe Schrimpff, a 54-year-old woman living just outside of Berlin, describes her experience:
"I attended the meetings of all … parties, from the communists to the nationalists; at one of the democratic meetings in Friedenau [Berlin], where the former Colonial Minister, a Jew by the name of Dernburg, was speaking, I experienced the following: this Jew had the audacity to say, among other things: 'What are the Germans actually capable of; maybe breeding rabbits.'
"Dear readers, do not think that the heavily represented stronger sex jumped up and told this Jew where to go. Far from it. Not one man made a sound, they stayed dead quiet. However, a miserable, frail little woman from the so-called 'weaker sex' raised her hand and forcefully rejected the Jew's brazen remarks; he had in the meantime allegedly disappeared to attend another meeting."
These essays were originally collected by an assistant professor at Columbia University, Theodore Abel, who organized an essay contest with generous prizes with the cooperation of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry. Of nearly 650 essays, roughly 30 were written by women, and Abel set them aside, explaining in a footnote that he intended to examine them separately. But he never did. The men's essays formed the basis for his book, "Why Hitler Came To Power," published in 1938, which remains an important source in the global discourse about the Nazi rise to power.
Summarizing Abel's findings, historian Ian Kershaw wrote in his book on Hitler's rise to power that they showed that the "appeal of Hitler and his movement was not based on any distinctive doctrine." He concluded that almost a third of the men were attracted by the indivisible "national community" – Volksgemeinschaft – ideology of the Nazis, and a similar proportion were swayed by nationalist, super-patriotic and German-romantic notions. In only about an eighth of the cases was anti-Semitism the prime ideological concern, although two-thirds of the essays revealed some form of dislike of Jews. Almost a fifth were motivated by the Hitler cult alone, attracted by the man himself, but the essays reveal differences between men and women in the reason for the enthrallment with the Nazi leader.
The cult of Hitler
For men, the cult of personality appears to center around Hitler as a strong leader charging toward a Germany which defined itself by those it excluded. It's not surprising that women, on the cusp of exclusion themselves, were less captivated by this component of Nazism. Rather, the women's essays tend to refer to religious imagery and sentiment conflating piety with the Hitler cult. The women appear to be moved more by Nazism's proposed solutions to problems such as poverty rather than the supposed grandeur of Nazi ideology in the abstract.
In her essay, Helene Radtke, a 38-year-old wife of a German soldier, describes her "divine duty to forget about all my household chores and to perform my service to my homeland."
Agnes Molster-Surm, a housewife and private tutor, calls Hitler her "God-given Führer and savior, Adolf Hitler, for Germany's honor, Germany's fortune and Germany's freedom!"
Another woman replaced the star on her Christmas tree with a photograph of Hitler surrounded by a halo of candles. These men and women shared the message of National Socialism as if it was gospel and refer to new party members as "converts." One such woman describes early efforts to "convert" her family to Nazism as falling "on stony soil and not even the slightest little green sapling of understanding sprouted." She was later "converted" through conversations with her mailman.
The essays do not only serve as historical curios, but as a warning as to how ordinary people can be attracted to extremist ideology at a time of social distress. Similar language has been used to describe the current political climate in the United States and other countries. Perhaps, as some do today, these women believed all their society's ills could be solved by the restoration of their nation to a perceived state of former glory, no matter the cost.
Sarah R. Warren, Ph.D. student, Florida State University; Daniel Maier-Katkin, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida State University, and Nathan Stoltzfus, Dorothy and Jonathan Rintels Professor of Holocaust Studies, Florida State University
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What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
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