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The Role of Women in Nazi Germany: A Focus on Motherhood and Homemaking in the Third Reich

  • 04 Pages
  • Published On: 27-10-2023

Role of women in Nazi Germany: The period between 1933-1939

1. Introduction

History books on Nazi Germany have time and again reemphasised the role of women in Nazi Germany, as mothers and homemakers. It is said that the Third Reich used its women population to achieve the goals that it had set for achieving a certain level of population. Women in the Third Reich were seen as vehicles for procreation. The volkisch ideology, which had found some expression before the Nazi Party came to power in Germany had already emphasised on the creation of a pure society, in which women also had the role of motherhood and homemaker, was seen to be more formally incorporated into the policies of the Third Reich.

This essay discusses the position of women in Nazi Germany in the period between 1933, when Hitler first came to power and 1939, at the time of the onset of the Second World War. The essay also discusses how women in Germany embraced the obviously anti-feminist ideologies of the Third Reich. This is possibly due to the fact that the Third Reich endowed motherhood and marriage for women with status and respect. This was done by treating child bearing as a patriotic function and by rewarding women for having more children.

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2. Nazi Germany – Role of women

In Nazi Germany, women had very a specific position in the society and their role was rooted in the traditional conceptualisation of women as mothers and homemakers. This is attributed to Hitler’s perceptions of women. Here, it is pertinent to mention one of the speeches that Hitler gave, and which reemphasised the role of women:

“The feelings and above all the psychology of woman has always had a complementary effect on the mind of man. If the spheres of activity in daily life have sometimes shifted in between man and woman in a way not in accordance with nature, it was not because woman as a woman was striving for power over man; rather it was because man was no longer in a position to completely fulfil his responsibilities. That is a wonderful thing about nature and providence: no conflict between the two sexes is possible as long as each party fulfils the task assigned to them by nature” (Stackelberg & Winkle, 2002, p. 182).

Clearly, Hitler conceptualised the role of women and men in a traditional sense and as per this role, women and men were by nature meant to have a specific role in the family system and society. For women the role was that of a mother and wife and Hitler’s Third Reich managed to endow this role with all the patriotism and sense of loyalty and self-sacrifice necessary, for women in the German society to happily accept their position in the German society in a sense that can only be best described today as anti-feminist.

Hitler became the German Chancellor on 30 January 1933 (Stephenson, 2013, p. 2). It is considered that Hitler and the SS Party had very fixed ideas of the role that women should play in the building of the nation (Stephenson, 2013). In particular, there was emphasis on the child-bearing function of women, which was a change from the earlier German women’s emancipation from the strict rigors of the role in the late nineteenth century (Stephenson, 2013, p. 37). However, when Hitler came to power, the perceptions of woman’s child bearing role was reemphasised, rather forcefully. Hitler is himself known to have said: “The goal of female education must invariably be the future mother” (Bendersky, 2007, p. 130). Therefore, the emphasis of the Third Reich on the role of women as mothers was seen to be an important part of Nazi policy on women.

The volkisch ideology is responsible for the rigid Nazi views on the role that women must play in the society. As per this ideology, women are the breeders of the master race and the guardians of purity and health (Bendersky, 2007, p. 130). The ideology emphasised the benefits of creating a pure and organic society (Payne, 1995, p. 53). In this, the focus on reproduction was undoubtedly one of the major aspects. The Nazi leaders believed that for Germany to become truly a great and powerful nation, it must be racially pure (Stephenson, 2014, pp. 25-26). This could happen only through control on reproduction to ensure that the racially superior ‘Aryans’ would procreate the next pure generation. With this philosophy being so embedded in the ideology of the Nazi Party, it is not surprising that there would be a focus on reproduction and consequently the role of women in procreation. Women were affected by the interventionist approach of the government as the reproduction policy took on a more official and policy oriented form, which ultimately led to the incursions of the government into family itself. It is sometimes said that the Third Reich had an obsession for reproduction, race and selective population growth (Stephenson, 2014, p. 27). The interventions were effected through the SS (Lee, 1996, p. 52). Women were treated as breeders for the pure race, and SS had these race farms throughout Germany, where these women who were approved for their racial characteristics were brought (Lee, 1996).

In general, there was a revival of a philosophy extolling motherhood under the Nazi party, which was carried to extremes and in a frankly misogynist manner (Koonz, 2013, p. 177). The focus was on the restoration of women-hood to the providers of population (Koonz, 2013, p. 178).

Although the volkisch ideology was long established in German literature and society, it was given further impetus by the Nazi government and the benefits of a more rooted society were extolled by the SS Party. Nazi policy towards women was traditionalist and even sexist. This was very different from the position of women under the Weimer Republic, which is said to be the most modern society in the world at that point in time (Payne, 1995, p. 156). However, one of the crisis of the Weimar Republic was that birth rate declined during this period and therefore, the German public were easier to convince of the value of the volkisch ideology for the society. At the time when Hitler came to power in Germany, the population of Germany was 65 million, while the ideal population for the Nazi Party was 250 million in the distant future and at least 100 million in the near future (Bendersky, 2007, p. 130). Therefore, the adoption of the volkisch ideology, with its emphasis on traditional roles, by Hitler and the Nazi Party, is not surprising.

The Nazi party urged women to marry young and to have large families, in the hope of attaining the ideal population level. Those who followed the creed were rewarded. Therefore, the emphasis on the role of women as mothers was state instituted. Child rearing was considered to be more than a social duty, it was now a patriotic duty and those women who performed this duty were recipients of public rewards. In fact, women who had eight or more children were given a Gold Mother’s Cross (Bendersky, 2007). On the other hand, laws restricting the number of women in higher education were made; women under the age of 35 years, were barred from civil services; women were given financial incentives to stay at home and have children (Stackelberg & Winkle, 2002, p. 181). There were other measures that were made by the government in order to encourage women to marry early and have children. An example is the “The Law to Combat Unemployment” of 1933, allowed low interest rates for young married couples, if the wife chose to stay at home instead of working, and each time the couple had a child, the amount to be paid would be reduced by a quarter (Stackelberg & Winkle, 2002, p. 181).

The interesting aspect of the women in Third Reich is that despite the obvious anti-feminist policies and ideology of the Third Reich, women seemed to adopt and even embrace these policies. Historians have even treated this to be a puzzling aspect of the Third Reich (Stackelberg & Winkle, 2002, p. 181). The reason for the ease with which most German women came to accept these policies can be attributed to the fact that the Third Reich endowed the traditional role of women as mothers and homemakers, with high status and respect (Stackelberg & Winkle, 2002, p. 181). The natural role of women is as mothers and homemakers was related to qualities of women such as loyalty, self-sacrifice, devotion which were eulogised in the literature, news and general propaganda of the Third Reich (Stackelberg & Winkle, 2002).

Despite the focus on the role of women as only mothers, wives and homemakers, certain changes were made in the Third Reich policy after the onset of the war as men were enlisted in the Army and women were included into the workforce (Bendersky, 2007, p. 130). At the same time, it is worthwhile to note that contrary to the perception that the place of women was only in the home, the Third Reich did involve women into the grassroots level political activities of the Party. German women did hold public offices and engaged in propaganda, education and social welfare related activities (Bendersky, 2007).

This was a step taken by the Nazi government only because the exigencies of the war demanded it. By 1937, it is true that the earlier policy on employment was women was partially reversed, leading to the ranks of women in employment swelling to about 12.7 million by 1939 (Payne, 1995, p. 482). By 1943, compulsory labour was introduced in Germany for women. (Payne, 1995, p. 482). This was undoubtedly due to the requirement of mobilisation of women and it is seen that in 1943, women between the ages of 17 years to 44 years, were compulsorily required to register for compulsory labour and by 1944, when the German government became really desperate, and at this time 47 percent of women in the afore mentioned age group were employed (Payne, 1995, p. 372).

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Thus, the traditional roles that were envisioned by the Third Reich in the initial years of their governance underwent important changes when there was no choice left but to involve women in the job sector and increase their employment (Overy, 1995). Here, we find that German women were made to do compulsory service as the numbers of men dwindled due to war.

3. Conclusion

In the Germany of the Third Reich, it is true that the role of women was relegated to that of being mothers and homemakers. Women were endowed with this role as per the official policy of the Third Reich and surprisingly, women seem to have adopted this role despite the previous Weimar regime, which saw modernism in gender relations to a great extent. However, the Third Reich was able to make the idea of women as only mothers, with little or no political power, because it appealed to the emotive side of women by painting the traditional role of women as only mothers and wives with a sense of loyalty, pride in self-sacrifice and patriotic duty. Therefore, women were told that by child rearing they were helping Germany achieve the desired goal of population rate, which would ultimately make Germany a powerful state in Europe. Thus, even though today the idea of woman being second rate citizens in Germany during 1933-1939 is accepted as a given by historians, women themselves may not have perceived themselves to be as such. On the contrary, women were made to believe that by giving up their jobs, staying at home and producing children, they were performing a national service. It is also recorded that women were rewarded for having more and more children. All of these factors point to the fact of women not really being made to feel that they were second to men. On the contrary, women generally accepted their traditional roles because they believed that they were performing an important service.

Bibliography

  • Bendersky, J. W., 2007. A Concise History of Nazi Germany. 3 ed. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Lee, S. J., 1996. Weimar and Nazi Germany. Oxford: Heinemann.
  • Koonz, C., 2013. Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family and Nazi Politics. Oxon: Routledge.
  • Overy, R. J., 1995. War and Economy in the Third Reich. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Payne, S. G., 1995. A History of Fascism, 1914–1945. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin .
  • Stackelberg, R. & Winkle, S. A., 2002. The Nazi Germany Sourcebook: An Anthology of Texts. London: Routledge.
  • Stephenson, J., 2013. Women in Nazi Society. Oxon: Routledge .
  • Stephenson, J., 2014. Women in Nazi Germany. Oxon: Routledge .

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