Growing Up Female in Nazi Germany.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Growing Up Female in Nazi Germany (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Reese, Dagmar; Templer, William|
Growing Up Female in Nazi Germany. By Dagmar Reese. Translated by
William Templer (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2006. viii
plus 287 pp.).
Recent studies have questioned the long-dominant interpretation of National Socialism's gender and sexual ideology and practice as purely traditional and reactionary. The German edition of Dagmar Reese's book, published in 1989, helped begin this debunking trend. Her study of the National Socialist League of German Girls (Bund Deutscher Model or BDM) argues against the view that National Socialist policies for "Aryan" adolescent girls were solely about preparing them for marriage, homemaking, and prolific reproduction. Little studied before Reese's research, the BDM was seen as apolitical and conventional, a sort of girls' auxiliary to the bigger and, to the Nazis, more significant Hitler Youth (HJ). The BDM, Reese contends, was a more ambiguous and wide-ranging organization than this interpretation allows for. Her rethinking of the BDM's significance applies to the goals of Nazi policy makers, the attitude of parents, and, above all, the experience of members. The state instrumentalized the BDM not only to indoctrinate girls in National Socialist ideology but also to help mobilize them as workers to replace men drafted into military service. Some parents, whether motivated by conservative social concerns or left-wing political resistance, saw the BDM as an arm of the state that, would undermine parental, especially paternal, control over daughters. Many girls, in contrast, liked being partially freed from parental authority and, especially in dull small towns, appreciated the range of activities, such as singing, crafts, and, above all, sports, offered by the BDM.
Before the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, the BDM was, Reese points out, small in size and obviously unconventional: members wore military-style uniforms and drilled in formation, just like boys in the HJ. The BDM grew, she concedes, more traditional over time, especially after 1936 when membership in the BDM (and HJ) became compulsory (unless one had more than 1/8 Jewish ancestry and was prohibited from joining). Signs of the increasing conventionality of Nazi girl-policies were the establishment of BDM-associated home economics schools, the requirement that girls receive domestic training, and the introduction in 1937 of a year of obligatory service for girls. Reese argues, though, that these measures aimed to mobilize reserves of female labor, even as they did so within conventional gendered cultural boundaries. Most conventional was the creation, in response to conservative criticism of the sports-orientation of the BDM, of the BDM-Werk Glaube und Schonheit in 1938. "Faith and Beauty" encompassed, however, only a select group of 17-21 year olds and was best known for its performances of rhythmic gymnastics, not exactly an old-fashioned feminine pastime.
As this summary suggests, the book covers the institutional and ideological history of the BDM. It does that concisely, though, for Reese's main interest is in the everyday history of girls in the Third Reich as experienced through its mass organization for female youth. She wants to explore the "link between social conditions and the subjective experiences of the generation of girls and German youth participating in the National Socialist youth organization" (8). The bulk of the book is devoted to two local case studies based on archival research and roughly twenty-five interviews conducted in each locale. One locality was the small town of Minden, a Protestant region that voted disproportionately for the Nazi party before 1933. The second was the Wedding district of Berlin, aka Red Wedding, a heavily proletarian, highly urbanized area known for its concentration of, initially, Social Democratic and, during the depression, Communist voters. Her discussion of each locale is fascinating, in part because she provides rich and extensive contextualization, including religious, economic, and political histories as well as the family and gender histories of each region. She writes, for example, about patterns of women's employment and about left-wing opposition to religious instruction in schools. She includes many extracts from the interviews, most of which are very illuminating. Reese provides a rare and evocative view into the complex relations between parents, especially fathers, and daughters in working-class families. This material in itself makes the book worth reading.
She makes two sets of arguments about the relationship between the BDM and adolescent girls. The first argument applies to Germany as a whole. Reese postulates that the greater the element of pressure or compulsion involved in getting girls to join the BDM, the less enthusiastically they remembered their experiences in it. Even before membership in the HJ and BDM was made compulsory, girls were subjected to ever more propaganda for the organization from teachers and BDM representatives at school. Still, membership was voluntary and most girls joined eagerly until 1936. Interviewees remember, especially, the organized sports as fun and new for girls. After 1936, their enthusiasm waned as the BDM became a required routine. Indeed, sometimes they cannot remember anything about activities in the BDM in the late 1930s and during the war, although they recall much about unorganized street games (which the regime discouraged but did not suppress). The second set of arguments draws distinctions between small town, middle-class girls and urban, proletarian girls, especially those from left-wing families. In Minden, Reese uncovered more evidence than she predicted of conservative, especially upper middle-class, parental suspicion and even resistance to daughters joining the BDM. As a result, she concludes, the BDM helped "crack" the shell of the Protestant family in Germany (250-251). In Wedding, in contrast, she discovered more evidence than she expected of daughters eager to join the BDM, despite the predictable opposition of Communist and Social Democratic parents, mainly fathers. Reese postulates that the BDM/HJ "facilitated access to activities that were otherwise reserved for a higher social stratum," such as swimming, drama performances, and rural hikes (95).
The book offers, in sum, an informative and illuminating study of gender relations in the Third Reich as well as of the social history of the family in pre-1945 Germany. It has been ably translated by William Templer.
Carnegie Mellon University
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