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MOTHERS IN THE FATHERLAND : Women, Family Life and Nazi Ideology, 1919-1945 by Claudia Koonz (St. Martin's: $25; 640 pp.)

January 04, 1987|Sara E. Melzer | Melzer teaches women's studies and French literature at UCLA. and

What should history study? Formerly, history, written primarily by men, examined the public life of "great men"--the succession of Popes, monarchs, Presidents and the battles, both military and political, that dominated their world. Recently, however, historians have realized that this way of conceptualizing history is arbitrary and limited. Since women (and other minority groups) were prevented from participating in many public activities, they were essentially excluded from history. Seeking to enlarge the scope of historical analysis, many historians are now beginning to focus on the everyday life of the private sphere in which women play a crucial role, examining the relationship between the private and the public. For example, French historian and sociologist, Michel Foucault, has written on the history of sexuality and on the history of madness.

Claudia Koonz's historical study, "Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, Family Life and Nazi Ideology: 1919-1945," examines the forgotten role of the woman and the family in the Nazi regime. In what way did women participate? Was the nature of their participation different from that of men?

Koonz's book focuses on the chief of the Women's Bureau under Hitler, Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, who established one of the largest women's organizations in history. This organization was concerned primarily with issues pertaining to the family, particularly motherhood. The private sphere of women became inextricably bound up with male, public doctrine because the concept of motherhood and the family lies at the base of an ideology dedicated to a "racial revolution." Since women's bodies provide the means for engineering racial purity (Hitler called women the "germ cells of the nation"), it is not surprising that the Nazi state sought strict control over female reproduction.

Beyond the obvious benefit of producing genetically desirable babies, if properly monitored, mothers perform other functions useful to the state. They lend themselves to the propagation of values the state sought to idealize: love, purity and moral goodness, all stereotypically associated with motherhood. Koonz argues that mothers contributed to Nazi power by maintaining the illusion of love in an atmosphere infused with hate and brutality. The men could thus hide their monstrosity behind the mothers' skirts.

In spite of the recognition and glorification of motherhood's great physiological and ideological benefits, women were outrageously denigrated by Nazi ideology. Koonz catalogues how the Nazi state exploited them. It denied them access to political status, deprived them of birth control, underpaid them as wage workers. But most importantly, it structured society, to a unique degree in Western history, around a radical opposition between the male and the female, the public and the private. This extreme polarization of the sexes was consonant with its racism, which declared women genetically inferior to men and echoed the distinction between "Aryan" and Jew.

If women were treated with such contempt, given "a boot in the face," why, asks Koonz, did women support this regime as ardently as they did? An interesting question, but one that Koonz does not answer very satisfactorily. She argues, essentially, that because of the radical split between the private and the public, the women were left alone in their separate world and "forswore claims to 'masculine' public power and in exchange expected greater influence over their own social realm."

But just what did women do with their greater degree of influence over their own social realm? Koonz concludes that women acted no differently than men. Within their own sphere, women created a private form of social tyranny, one that mirrored the public male forms of tyranny. They were deluded into thinking they controlled their own private world. But, in fact, nothing remained private; the women were manipulated into accommodating the needs of the male-oriented state.

Koonz's book is important because it amasses much new, interesting documentation about the forgotten role of women from 1919-1945. The conclusions it draws from these documents, however, are not very probing. That women have internalized the male, dominant culture, appearing to "choose" male values and modes of behavior, is hardly surprising. Koonz's study is essentially descriptive, historically documenting how concepts of femininity gradually became "masculinized," and absorbed by the dominant culture. It would be more illuminating to examine the psychological factors, such as family structure, that led to the female internalization of male values. Koonz does not mention the male fears of becoming "feminized." Many studies have examined homosexuality and homophobia in Nazism. Finally, were there no women who resisted being "masculinized" and integrated into the dominant culture?

The intended audience of this book is not clear. Koonz states that she writes for an "audience beyond academe" and at times adopts a casual, novelistic tone. But at other times, she inundates the reader with scholarly research in her 640- page study. Clearly, she seeks to bring the two together, but unfortunately is not very successful.

Anyone interested in this period and subject matter will find that this book provides a wealth of information. I can only regret that the information has not been put together in a probing way that does justice to the material.

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