Leading Ladies of the Third Reich

The Nazi women protagonists dance like puppets on a string here, detached from any historical, political or social context

Avner Shapira
Avner Shapira

"Neshot hatzameret hanatzit" ("Die Frauen der Nazis" in the German original; "Women of the Third Reich" in English) by Anna Maria Sigmund, translated into Hebrew by Gershon Ritterman, Sifriat Hapoalim, 229 pages

The pogroms on Kristallnacht in November 1938 were catastrophic for Magda Goebbels and her wardrobe. "This is a scandal and a disgrace," the wife of the Nazi propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, told a friend upon learning that the rioters had looted and burned the shop of her favorite dressmaker in Berlin, a Jew. "What a shame to think that elegant fashion will now vanish from the streets of Berlin."

This anecdote does not appear in "Die Frauen der Nazis" ("Women of the Third Reich"), by Austrian historian Anna Maria Sigmund, but even without it, she succeeds in weaving an impressive tapestry of stories that reveals, better than a thousand witnesses, the brutal insensitivity of the leaders of the Third Reich.

Sigmund describes, for example, the Goebbels' quarrel in the summer of 1933, over Magda's insistence that she wanted to be the head of the Reich's ministry of fashion design so that she could make German women more beautiful. She writes about Magda's fury upon discovering that the fuehrer had brought his mistress, Eva Braun, to the Nazi party convention in Nuremberg in September 1935. Magda had always thought of herself as the only woman worthy of Hitler's attention. Wearing a short fur jacket, Braun sat on the dais with the honored guests as the laws "to protect the purity of German blood and German honor" were passed.

Three months earlier, miserable over Hitler's indifference toward her, Braun had attempted suicide for the second time. She swallowed 20 sleeping pills, but was saved by a dress. Her sister, Ilsa Braun, knocked on her door late in evening to return a dress she had borrowed for a dance contest and found her unconscious. Later, Braun developed a clothing fetish that she passed on to her lover. After the attempt on his life on July 20, 1944, Hitler interpreted his survival as a sign from heaven that he had to continue his mission. The uniform he was wearing on the night of the assassination attempt thus became a holy relic. He gave his torn, bloodstained clothing to his mistress. Less than a year later, on their wedding night in Hitler's bunker in Berlin, Eva wore a long silk dress and her finest jewels.

Sigmund does not tell us what Mrs. Hitler wore when she swallowed a cyanide pill in the company of her husband, but other researchers claim she went to her death in a blue dress with white trim. The author does reveal that Magda Goebbels dressed her six children in white and brushed their hair before she put them to bed and poisoned them. Emmy, the second wife of Reich Marshal Hermann Goering, was wearing only a nightgown when she was arrested by the SS after her husband's attempt to seize power on April 23, 1945.

Shadowy lives

These are "fabricated" stories, not in the sense that they are made up (which they are not), but in the sense that the truth they depict is a narrow and very selective version of reality. Sigmund sets out to probe the shadowy lives of women who belonged to the "exclusive club" of the Nazi elite and discover the roles they played, officially and behind the scenes. In the end, however, her book focuses on cocktail parties, gala operas and suppers at The Berghof, Hitler's fortified castle in the Bavarian Alps. Sigmund does not dispel the fog. Her protagonists dance like puppets on a string, detached almost completely from any historical, political or social context. Only on rare occasions does the author remember to draw a connection between the world of these leading ladies and the millions of women in Nazi Germany who were pushed out of public life and turned into baby-makers to provide soldiers for the Reich.

The author recycles the cliche that Hitler was adored and idolized by women. This may have been true for many women, especially in high society, but research done in recent years shows that it is far-fetched to say that women were more enthusiastic supporters of the Nazis than men. She has almost nothing to say about the simple women who were forced to become the "womb of the Reich." Neither does Sigmund mention the deeds of some 10,000 women who served in the SS, or the 3,000 women who helped to run the concentration camps. Her book does not address the role of women in the Nazi resistance movements, or the fact that the body of the German woman, which was meant to be human ammunition in the fight against the Bolshevist enemy, fell victim, in the end, to the violent lust of the Red Army.

Despite all these flaws, this book does make a modest contribution. It shines a few more spotlights on the great masquerade party of the Nazi elite, in which the tragic and the ridiculous dwelt side by side. In "The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge," Rainer Maria Rilke describes the human condition as constant motion on a moving stage. "We discover that we do not know our role," he writes. "We look for a mirror; we want to remove our make-up and take off what is false and be real. But somewhere a piece of disguise that we forgot still sticks to us. A trace of exaggeration remains in our eyebrows; we do not notice that the corners of our mouth are bent. And so we walk around, a mockery and a mere half: neither having achieved being nor actors."

Many of Sigmund's protagonists are exaggerations. Perhaps it is not surprising that most of them hailed from the world of theater and film before they starting attending the "right events" and rubbing shoulders with the "right people." Most of them also found it hard to see what lay behind the glamorous sets, and forgot to take off their masks when the curtain came down on National Socialism.

Shoddy research

The book quotes an open letter written by author-actor Klaus Mann in 1935 to the actress Emmy Sonnemann after her marriage to Hermann Goering: "Never has so much laughter been heard at the provincial theater ... Tell me, behind those rich curtains are there victims of the concentration camps? Are there bodies of people who were tortured to death, or shot to death while trying to escape, or driven to commit suicide in despair? Is there a severed head dripping with blood?"

Not surprisingly, Hitler is the axis around which these Nazi ladies turn. Each one is measured not only by how she helps her husband, but how close she is to the leader of the Reich. Here Sigmund feeds into a popular trend that has spawned heaps of books, research studies and other creative enterprises, whose sole purpose is to show the world that Hitler was a flesh-and-blood human being. Adolf, they say, forgive us. We never knew you in that way.

The basic assumption in this genre is that all the crimes of the Nazis can be funneled into one man, ignoring all the social, economic and political factors that made it possible for Hitler to come to power and consolidate his regime. This is an approach that reflects a preference to ask who Hitler was and who surrounded him, rather than how this man got where he was going and why attempts to topple him failed.

But humanization is doomed to failure because cardboard characters cannot be humanized. If there is any scene that etches itself in the mind among the abundance of details and events in Sigmund's book, it is the innocent childhood recollection of Henriette Hoffman, daughter of Nazi party photographer Heinrich Hoffman, who remembers a visit by Hitler to their home.

"Once Hitler rang the bell," she says, "and I opened the door for him. He sat down at our giant worktable and browsed through the funnies. In the meantime, I was practicing piano ... He pulled up a stool to sit next to me and played a polka," Hoffman relates, as if lifting her words from David Avidan's poem "The Sex Appeal of Old Poets": "The Angel of Death / sits in the waiting room, legs crossed/ reading the funnies / sucking sour candies / listening with rapture / to the wonderful ebbing melody / in the



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