The lives of women in Nazi Germany were shaped by policies and attitudes emanating from the National Socialist (NSDAP) government and the personal views of Adolf Hitler. Nazi ideology held that German women had little or no place in political and professional life. Instead, their primary role was to marry, procreate and raise children.
Hitler had traditionalist ideas of gender. They were probably influenced by his mother, a simple but caring housewife who protected her son from his stern and sometimes brutal father. In Hitler’s mind, the natural role for women was domestic: they existed to tend the home, care for their husbands, bear and raise children.
Hitler believed that women were kinder, gentler and more emotional than men. He did not consider them equipped to survive the turmoil and pressure of workplaces, business or politics. In social settings, Hitler preferred women who were quiet, demure and motherly. He found it difficult to relax around women who were confident, outspoken, well educated or professionally successful.
Evidence of these views can be found in Mein Kampf and some of Hitler’s speeches: “Women are the eternal mothers of the nation”; “women are the eternal companion of men”; “the triumphant task of women is to bear and tend babies”; “men are willing to fight … women must be there to nurse them”.
Hitler rejected any idea or suggestion of gender equality. He dismissed the push for women’s rights and equal pay for women as communist plots. In a 1935 speech, the Nazi leader said that:
“The granting of equal rights to women, which Marxism demands, in reality does not grant equal rights … it instead constitutes a deprivation of rights, since it draws women into realms of society where they are inferior. The woman has her own battlefield. With every child that she brings into the world, she fights her battle for the nation.”
Returning women to motherhood
Hitler’s patriarchal views shaped Nazi policy and propaganda. One of the Nazis’ principal social policies was to return women to motherhood, in order to increase the German population.
In July 1933, the Nazi regime passed the Law for the Encouragement of Marriage. Married couples were given an early form of ‘baby bonus’: a state loan of 1,000 Reichmarks. This loan was partly repaid every time the wife gave birth – one-quarter was redeemed after the first child and the loan was fully discharged after four children. The Nazi government issued these state loans to almost 695,000 married couples between 1933 and 1936.
Women in Nazi Germany were also bombarded with speeches and propaganda. Most of this propaganda suggested their highest aspirations should be to marry, tend the home and raise healthy offspring.
Pregnancy and motherhood were celebrated. Propaganda praised Kindersegen (women with children) as national heroes. Women who bore multiple children were even awarded a medallion, the Ehrenzeichen der Deutschen Mutter (‘Cross of Honour of the German Mother’). This cross was awarded in bronze for a fourth child, in silver for a sixth and gold for an eighth.
“The worth of a nation is shown in the willingness of its women to become valuable mothers … Germany must once again become a fertile land of mothers and children … the existence or non-existence of our people is decided solely by the mother.”
Mayer, Nazi eugenicist
As well as promoting motherhood, the Nazis also placed restrictions on abortion and contraception. These restrictions were driven by practicalities rather than any firm ideological positions.
During the Weimar period, German scientists had led the world in the development of contraceptive devices, particularly condoms, diaphragms and intrauterine devices (IUDs). It further enraged the Nazis that many pioneers of contraceptive medicine were Jewish.
Nazi attitudes to contraception became what historian Jill Stephenson calls “a curious of repression and apparent enlightenment”. The Nazis wanted to increase the birth rate, particularly among Aryans and members of the SS – but they also understood the debilitating effects of sexually-transmitted disease. So while contraception was nominally banned, condoms continued to be available in German cities. They were also stocked and distributed by military physicians.
The Nazi regime also cracked down on abortion. The Nazis imposed tough requirements for pregnancy terminations on medical grounds and harsh penalties for illegal abortions. Nazi propaganda described abortion as a “crime against the body and against the state”.
In 1932, the year before Hitler’s rise to power, just under 44,000 German women applied to terminate a pregnancy and 34,698 of these were approved. Between 1935 and 1940, there were only 14,333 applications and 9,701 approvals.
Conversely, doctors would approve abortions – even encourage them – if the patient happened to be non-Aryan. In November 1938, a Nazi-run state court ruled that abortion should be legal and freely available for all Jewish women.
Women in employment
While the Nazis depicted German mothers as national heroes, single women and working women were treated as second-class citizens.
Hitler was full of scorn for women in paid employment. He called this a Marxist ploy, an attempt to clad women in overalls and work boots to strip them of their femininity.
This derision for single and working women was reflected in policy. Unmarried women were viewed by the law as Staatsangehoriger (‘subjects of the state’), the same legal status later given to Jews and the mentally infirm.
When the Nazis took power in 1933, there were 100,000 female teachers and 3,000 female doctors working in Germany. Most were eventually sacked, forced to resign or pushed into marriage and motherhood.
From 1936, women were prohibited from working as judges, lawyers, principals and a range of other professions. Women were also removed from high-ranking or influential positions in government agencies, charities, schools and hospitals, to be replaced by men. University and college places for women were restricted to a firm quota of 10 per cent.
The Nazis also attempted to ‘re-feminise’ women by stripping away what they considered the decadence of the Weimar era.
Cabarets and jazz clubs were closed down in 1935 (though many underground clubs continued, providing entertainment for SS officers and party members). Nazi-run local governments passed by-laws restricting women from singing, dancing or appearing bare-legged in public.
The Nazis even commissioned fashion designers to develop new styles that reflected National Socialist perceptions of gender. Women were urged to wear dresses and skirts rather than trousers. Clothing made of imported or expensive fabrics was condemned as wasteful. Make-up and excessive or ‘unfeminine’ hairstyles, such as perms or shorter cuts, were also discouraged.
Nazi women’s groups
Two Nazi groups for women, the Nationalsozialistische Frauenschaft (Nazi Women’s League) and Werk Glaube und Schönheit (Work, Faith and Beauty) ran classes that emphasised fitness, beauty and domestic work. The objective of both groups was to produce Aryan women who were loyal to the Nazi regime, appealing to men and prepared for motherhood.
Evaluating Nazi policies with regard to women and population growth turns up mixed results. Hitler’s attempts to court German women and win their loyalty was for the most part successful. Having been largely ignored by previous leaders, thousands of German women considered Hitler their saviour. It was not uncommon for German homes to have a picture of the Fuhrer, even a small shrine bedecked with candles and flowers.
Yet despite their policies and intensive propaganda, the Nazis failed to achieve much population growth. The German birthrate had been steadily falling since the 1880s – the social policies of the NSDAP did increase it, though only slightly:
|Live births per
1. Nazi attitudes toward women reflected the traditionalist, patriarchal views of Adolf Hitler. According to Hitler, women were best equipped to be wives, mothers and housekeepers.
2. Through both Nazi policy and propaganda, professional women were removed and discouraged from paid employment, while single and working women were marginalised.
3. The Nazis also attempted to boost the birthrate by promoting and rewarding motherhood, through propaganda, state-sponsored loans and medals for women who bore four or more children.
4. The Nazi regime also introduced restrictions on abortion and contraception (though only for Aryan women) and attempted to ‘re-feminise’ women by modifying the way they dressed and behaved.
5. These assertive gender policies and propaganda produced only a slight increase in the birthrate in the first five years of Nazi rule.