Author Wendy Lower describes ordinary women who turned bad — very bad — in her book, “Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Killing Fields.” These were not the tough, brutish concentration-camp guards who were likely sociopathic to begin with. Instead, they were teachers, secretaries, nurses and wives. They “went east” (to Poland and Ukraine) to work for the Nazis, or to accompany their husbands, who worked for the Nazis.

Eastern Europe under Adolf Hitler’s rule was actually a “wild west.” While the Nazis took care to shield the German people from the truth about the war, those working in the east didn’t care. For example, the Einsatzgruppen were SS mobile killing squads. They would force Jews and other victims to dig trenches, shoot them so they would topple into the open space and then bury them as they lay. It’s hard to keep events like that secret, especially if you’re murdering 5,000 people at a time.

Secretaries typed up reports and saw photographs of atrocities. Other women witnessed the rounding up of Jews who were then sent to concentration camps. One wife went to a mass shooting with her husband.

One of the worst was Erna Petri, the wife of an SS officer. She and her family were living the high life in a manor house in Poland. When six Jewish boys running from the Nazis appeared on the property, she shot them dead.

And this is why President Donald Trump’s tweet that depicts him pummeling a man representing the CNN cable news network is no laughing matter.

When we accept violence, when we allow a culture of violence to exist, we are setting ourselves up for disaster.


I have written about Trump’s fascist tendencies before. He’s a bully and a would-be autocrat. And I’ve noted that it is not considered politically correct to compare anyone to Hitler and his minions. But I don’t care. I have been a student of the Holocaust and the Third Reich since I was 12, when I first read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” How could it have happened? Many decades later, I still don’t really know.

This I do know. My first revelation about Hitler’s rise to power was that the government had compiled extensive records about its citizens. When the Final Solution was conceived, this made it much easier for the Gestapo to find Jews and Romas and other people the Third Reich found unacceptable.

Like the proverbial frog in a slowly boiling pot, we already are too far gone to protect our privacy in America. Edward Snowden made that clear.

My second epiphany came when I understood that most people are sheep. They don’t want to think for themselves. This is a silly example, but the recent fad of women wearing brightly colored leggings is a case in point. Some people are so intent on following the herd that they don’t have any idea how ridiculous they look in them.

We think, “I would have spoken up. I would have tried to stop them.” Really? The Gestapo? And jackbooted SS troops?

No, the time to stop them came and went years earlier, when Hitler was rising to power. When the culture of violence was still in its infancy. As it is here, now.


Lower divides her descriptions of the furies into three categories: witnesses, accomplices and perpetrators. The witnesses were the secretaries who processed damning information, and those who saw the victimization of Jews in all its forms. There were those, too, who wanted to witness — they went to a Jewish ghetto for example, to have a look.

But they did nothing.

Lower also calls the secretaries and wives accomplices. They all had access to goods plundered from the Nazis’ victims, such as food, fur coats and jewelry. The author describes one secretary as “more than a passive witness: She participated in the planning of the massacres and was present at more than one of the shootings that occurred in 1942-43.” They forced Jewish workers to renovate their lodgings, and act as maids and butlers.

The perpetrators need no explanation. See Erna Petri above.

At war’s end, the women knew they had done wrong. They hid away their uniforms and plundered items. They did not speak of their time in the war.

As Frank herself wrote, “Despite everything, I believe people are really good at heart.” I agree. But when violence is normalized, our hearts and souls get twisted. Don’t let that happen here.

Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at

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