Sybil Oldfield@the Central: Exclusive sample of her most recent publication…

Sybil Oldfield@Left Central 

The following extract is from Thinking Against the Current`: Literature and Political Resistance.  It is exclusively published @the Central with the express permission of the author and publisher.  

Chapter 16

German Women in the Resistance to Hitler

[First published in Sian Reynolds, ed. Women, State and Revolution, Wheatsheaf Books, Harvester Press, Brighton, 1986].

`German women inaugurated the march of women up the Calvary of resistance against Nazism.’ (Vera Laska, 1983)

The extent of German resistance to Nazism and the suffering it endured are still not general public knowledge — not even in Germany, let alone abroad. And even less is known of the resistance put up by German women. The very fact that there have been two Germanies after 1945 means that there has been a division in the writing of German history: in East Germany the history of the German Resistance was almost exclusively that of the Communist German Resistance, whereas until very recently West German historians fore-grounded that of the non-communists. In any event most German historians have focused on resistance by institution or organisation — the churches, the trades unions, the banned political parties — the leadership of all of which was exclusively male. And most English historians of the German Resistance have concentrated on the 20 July 1944 ‘Generals’ Plot’, an attempted Putsch from above, in which again, very few women could be directly involved. For all these reasons the women in the rank and file of the German Resistance have remained largely nameless and invisible1 — invisible that is to us, but not to the Nazis who hunted them down. The very recent German history of resistance by women that has emerged is largely a combination of prison statistics and personal anecdote.2 A systematic coverage of women’s resistance in Germany still has to wait until all the local studies, some of which are already under way, are completed. This essay, therefore, can only be an interim report, the first to my knowledge in English, and will cover the period from 1928 until 1945.

The Position of German Women Before the Rise of Nazism

Prussia, like the rest of the world, had long cherished the belief that poli­tics — matters of State — are essentially the business of men. The influential Heinrich von Treitschke, Professor of History at the University of Berlin, had thundered every year between 1874 and 1895 that:

The features of history are virile, unsuited to sentimental or feminine natures . . . It may be said roughly that the normal woman obtains an insight into justice and government through men’s eyes, just as the normal man has no natural aptitude for petty questions of household management. (Politics, 1916, Book I, The Idea of the State)

Against Treitschke’s view of the State as being essentially the nation-­in-arms and therefore excluding women, the German women’s suffrage movement had had a hard struggle. Nevertheless there had been an organised women’s movement in Germany at least since 1894,3 and during the First World War German women had been enrolled as essential contrib­utors both to the national war effort and to the administration of the State, just like their counterparts in Britain. In 1919, during Germany’s abortive revolution in the wake of her defeat, all German women over 21 were granted the vote. The ensuing decade, however, was a roller-coaster ride into chaos, although some aspects of the Weimar period were actually liberalising and liberating for women. By 1931, for instance, there were 19,000 women students at German universities and women comprised one-third of all teachers. The number of women doctors had multiplied thirteen-fold since the war, and women made up most of the nursing and social work professions. There were also women film stars, actresses, dancers and even 60 women politicians, all of whom were much in the public eye.4 But also under Weimar there was recurrent near-starvation, total economic insecurity and mass unemployment, none of which was liberating either for German women or for German men. One ominous sign of the times was the ‘revolutionary’ National Socialist Party which had as its programme not only the exclusion of Jews from German national life, but also the exclusion of German women from any positions of economic or political power. Already in 1921 the Nazi Party conference had unanimously declared that ‘a woman could not be accepted for a leadership position in the Party.’ And the party’s ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg, declared that the first task of the next Nazi generation of women would be to ‘clear up the mess and emancipate women from women’s emancipation … One thing must be made clear: Man must be and must remain Judge, Soldier and Statesman.’5 Thus those German women who could see beyond the struggle for basic survival during the 1920s were already alerted to the threat presented by militaristic, anti­-feminist Nazism to all those women who wanted not only Kinder, Küche and Kirche, but education, work, a place in the polis and peace in the world as well.

The First Phase of Anti-Nazi Resistance by German Women 1928-1933

German resistance to Hitler began several years before economic catas­trophe and political chaos finally enabled the Nazis to seize power. This resistance, however, was fatally weakened by the official (Stalinist), Communist Party policy of identifying the Social Democrats rather than the Nazis as their chief political enemy — a hostility that was duly returned. The German Left would only learn to make common cause in the struggle against the Nazis once it was too late. It was principally, therefore, left-wing, pacifist (but not Communist Party) women and men who took the Nazi threat seriously as early as 1928 and who worked to rally a political alternative that would not alienate a German electorate already battered by defeat, attempted revolution, foreign occupation and grotesque currency inflation:

By 1928 four large federations of women’s organizations had coalesced, joining millions of women to form Germany’s largest, most powerful bloc of voters … In the 1928 elections, this coalition helped to rally twenty-nine million voters to the Social Democratic Party, to the numerous middle-class parties, and to the Catholic Centre Party. As a result the Nazi Party, with less than a million votes, was soundly defeated.6

But the October 1929 Wall Street crash changed all that. Unexampled mass unemployment in Germany (over 6 million unemployed out of a labour force of 20 million) and a halving of the standard of living in real terms over the next three years caused an all too understandable polarisation in politics. The Brown Shirts profited most from the ensuing violence on the streets and left-wing pacifist women now found them­selves waging a more and more despairing struggle against not a tide but an avalanche. In October 1930, Käthe Kollwitz produced her drawing, Demonstration, as her protest against the brutal suppression by the Nazis of a workers’ rally. In January 1931, the pacifist, Constanze Hallgarten, founded the German League of Mothers as a counterpart to the French Ligue Internationale des Mères et des Educatrices pour la Paix. Within 18 months it had over 10,000 members all over Germany, mostly educated, middle-class women in the large towns and cities. In 1932, 1500 women attended an overflow women’s peace conference in Munich, including Catholic, Social Democrat and radical pacifist women, chaired by Erika Mann. The Nazis tried to break up the conference without success and their newspaper reported it nationally with the scare headlines: ‘Pacifist Scandal in Munich. Women Traitors!’7 On 13 June 1932 Emmy Ender, addressing the Bund Deutscher Frauen, won majority backing for her declaration: ‘National Socialism has grown big in its fight against Jews and women. It will not give up this fight. Today I am for struggle.’8 But ‘today’ was too late. In December 1932 and January 1933 the last meetings of the German branches of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (again with a largely mid­dle-class, educated, left-wing membership, and labelled ‘Jewish/Marxist’ by the Nazis) took place in Stuttgart, Hamburg and Frankfurt. At their Munich meeting in January 1933, the veteran German feminist and paci­fist, Lida Gustava Heymann, aged 65, had to stand guard at the door of the hall:

So imposing was her carriage and expression that several of the Brown Shirts shrank back. Her last appeal to the blind German people rushing towards their fate went: ‘Hitler means war. Protect your children, don’t let yourselves be fooled by words, – behind these words hide the most brutal, strong-arm tactics which you yourselves will be made to feel on your own flesh!’9

The Impact on German Women of the Nazis’ Accession to Power

When Hitler seized power in February 1933, he could exploit a specifi­cally German (or rather Prussian) tradition that women qua women were unfit to take part in matters of State, but he could also rely on a gut assumption that always resurfaces in times of economic depression, and which is far from peculiar to Germany, that a woman’s rightful place is in the home. But Hitler also knew from the outset that he would be confronted by opposition from certain sections of German women within the professional middle class and/or on the Left, who would have to be driven out or eliminated. Therefore he used every means available, ranging from changes in the law and State propaganda to arbitrary mass arrests, imprisonment without trial and even murder, in order to neutralise all opposition including that of women. It is generally assumed that revo­lutions occur in opposition to the State power and that, at least in their early days, they will have a left-wing, democratic, egalitarian and humanely reforming political orientation. But in Hitler’s Germany an extreme right-wing revolution was swiftly put through by the State machine itself, manipulating enthusiastic popular support for Hitler and the Nazi Party. In addition to the now Nazi-dominated armed police and secret police, backed by a network of informers in every city street, the law itself was swiftly changed, converting all political opponents into ‘Illegalen’. Agents-provocateurs and spies were now recruited, or black­mailed into betraying their former comrades.

Before any politically-aware German men or women could begin to resist, therefore, the Nazis got in first. Even as the Reichstag was, unbe­knownst to her, still burning, the communist Lina Haag was arrested in Stuttgart — she being just one among hundreds of left-wing German women immediately picked up for ‘questioning’ and taken into ‘protec­tive custody.’ Women were included in political persecution from the first day. Already in March 1933, the Social Democrat MP Minna Cammens ‘disappeared’ and her ashes were sent to her husband in a cigar box a few days later with orders to keep quiet about her death. The Jewish Social Democrat MP Toni Sender, was warned only just in time of the Nazis’ plans to murder her and she escaped to America. Women writers who refused to write what one of them called Blut-und-Boden-Quatsch, were placed under Schreibverbot and denied access to publication. Veteran German feminists, including Helene Stocker,10Lida Gustava Heymann and Anita Augspurg11 were placed on the first Nazi proscription lists and fled into exile where they died. The pacifists Constanze Hallgarten and Professor Dr Anna Siemsen also went into exile in 1933 but survived. The communist writer Anna Seghers was arrested but escaped with her chil­dren to France and then to Mexico. The actresses Erika Mann, Therese Giese and Helene Weigel all had to become political exiles. Other women, like the Social Democrat MP and leading German feminist, Toni Pfülpf, so despaired over what was happening in Germany, that they killed them­selves.

Many of the new Nazi laws specifically targeted women in Hitler’s attempt to create a new Germany. Women were dismissed from factories, offices and administrative posts under the campaign against ‘double-earners.’ Women were paid to marry and leave the workforce in order to bear children for Germany. ‘For the woman’s world is her husband, her family, her children and her home,’ as Hitler said at the Nuremberg Party Rally in September 1934. Girls were not allowed to take up more than ten per cent of the places in higher education and pressure was placed on women to resign from the professions of law and medicine.12 But the women who braced themselves to resist Hitler as the 1930s ‘progressed,’ did not do so out of outraged feminism. Nazi anti-feminism was subsumed in Nazi anti-humanism, including its militarism and racism, and it was on humanist grounds that the women who resisted Hitler defied him. They scorned his pseudo-scientific classification of the species into a hierarchy of Aryan, Slav, Negro and Jew, and they rejected his reduction of men to mere fighting animals as passionately as they rejected his reduc­tion of women to mere breeding animals.

Many of the women who resisted Hitler were to be accused of being ‘enemies of the State.’13 They defied this new totalitarian, militarist Germany, because they were convinced that its vaunted ‘National Socialist Revolution’ violated every humane moral law. The fact that psychopaths were now in power did not make them sane and just. On the contrary. Lina Haag spoke for all the German women who were to resist Hitler on the grounds of humanism when she asked defiantly:

What is the authority of the State, the power of this State? Terror. The storm-trooper and the policeman who may beat you and arrest you. The SS man and Gestapo official and the concentration camp … [The] horror and fear of that State are its power and authority. It is true that I stood out against that power and authority.14

Or, as Joanna Jacob put it: ‘Every woman (in prison) came from a different group or party, but we all wanted the same thing, to prevent another war and to fight injustice’15


All translations from the German are by the author.

  1. E.g. Grant, Mommsen, Reichardt and Wolf, 1966, and Klessmann and Pingel, 1980, mention not a single woman; A. J. Dulles, 1947, and Peter Hoffmann, 1977, mention only one woman in passing, and Löwenthal and von zur Muhlen, 1982, mention just three women. The general study edited by R. Bridenthal et al., When Biology became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany did not become available in time to be consulted when this essay was being written, but is clearly relevant.
  2. E.g. Gerda Zorn and Gertrud Meyer, Frauen gegen Hitler, 1974, Hanna Elling, Frauen im deutschen Widerstand in 1981 and Vera Laska, ed. Women in the Resistance and in the Holocaust, 1983.
  3. See Daniela Weiland, Geschichte der Frauenemanzipation in Deutschland, 1983, pp. 306-10.
  4. See Bridenthal, 1973 and Tim Mason, ‘Women in Germany, 1925-1940’, History Workshop Journal, Issues 1 and 2, 1976.
  5. Hana Elling, .op. , Roderberg, Frankfurt, 1981, p. 11
  6. Martha Kearns, Käthe Kollwitz, Feminist Press, CUNY, 1976, p. 196.
  7. Elisabeth Brändle-Zeile, Frauen für den Frieden, Stuttgart, DFG-VK, 1983, pp. 45-50.
  8. Richard Evans, The Feminist Movement in Germany 1894-1933, London, Sage, 1976, p.
  9. For the feminist, pacifist life-work of Lida Gustava Heymann, see her memoirs, Erlebtes-Erschautes, 1977.
  10. Helene Stöcker was a radical feminist, champion of the unmarried mother and her child, and a leading figure in War Resisters International.
  11. Dr Anita Augspurg was Germany’s first woman lawyer.
  12. Tim Mason, 1976: ‘In respect of its attitudes and policies towards women, National Socialism was the most repressive and reactionary of all modern political movements.’
  13. g., Lina Haag, Luise Rinser and Sophie Scholl.
  14. Lina Haag, How Long the Night, London, Gollancz, 1948, pp. 101-2.
  15. Quoted in Gerda Szepansky, Frauen leisten Widerstand 1933-45, Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt, 1983, p. 215.

Sybil Oldfield (2013) ‘Thinking Against the Current’: Literature and Political Resistance.  Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press.   ISBN 978-1-84519-594-6

All rights reserved this section has been published with the express permission of the author and publisher. 

Copyright © Sybil Oldfield, 2013.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: