The Nazis and Women: Kinder, Küche, Kirche

Girls In Nazi Germany
A group of girls with their dolls ready to take part in a Mothers' and Children's day procession in Berlin, 8th April 1934. FPG / Getty Images

Germany had been no different to other European nations when it came to the development of women’s employment. World War I had brought women into previously closed industries, and although the effects of this phenomenon are often exaggerated, the field was widening. Women were also benefitting from opportunities for better education and the chance to pursue a wider range of careers. In addition, women’s rights movements were effective in attaining better pay, respect and power for women, although there was still a long way to go. In 1930s Germany, these developments ran headfirst into the Nazis.

Kinder, Küche, Kirche

Nazi ideology was biased against women in several ways. The Nazis used a simplified and exaggerated mythology about German life that was inherently misogynistic. They also needed a growing population to fight the wars that would unite the Volk. The result was a Nazi ideology which claimed that women should be restricted to three spheres: Kinder, Küche, Kirche, or "children, kitchen, church." Women were encouraged from a young age to grow into mothers who bore children and then looked after them until they could go and conquer the east. Developments which aided women in determining their own fates, such as contraception, abortion, and laws about relationships, were all restricted and promoted procreation. In fact, fecund mothers could even win medals for large families.

German women did not start having any more children, however. In addition, the pool of women who were invited to have children shrank, as the Nazis only wanted Aryan mothers to have Aryan children. Racism, sterilization, and discriminatory laws tried to reduce the number of births of non-Aryan children. The leading German feminists before the Nazi split; some fled abroad and continued fighting, while some remained behind but stopped challenging the regime in order to live safely.

Nazi Workers

The Nazis aimed to indoctrinate young women from a very early age via schools and groups like the Hitler Youth, but they inherited a Germany where many women already held jobs. However, they also inherited a depressed economy in which many men wished to work in positions already occupied by women.

The Nazis passed legislation to try to reduce women in legal, medical and other jobs, and put maximums in place, such as in education, but there were no mass layoffs. As the economy recovered, so did the number of women in the job market, and totals rose throughout the 1930s. Workers lower on the social scale were targeted with carrots—cash payments for women who got married and quit jobs, and loans for married couples which turned into gift payments after children were born—and sticks—state labor exchanges being told to employ men first.

Much like children were targeted by the Hitler Youth, so women were targeted by Nazi organizations designed to "coordinate" their lives in the required direction. Some weren’t successful. The German Worker’s Enterprise and Nationalist Socialist Womanhood did little for women’s rights, and when they tried they were stopped. But a whole strata of women’s groups were created, and within these the Nazis allowed women to exercise power and run the organizations. There’s been a debate about whether running their own bodies empowered women, or whether running what the male Nazis had left for them counts.

Lebensborn

Some of the Nazis in Germany were less concerned about marriages, and more about mating with the right examples of Aryan blood. In 1935, Himmler used the SS to set up Lebensborn, or Fountain of Life, where women deemed suitably Aryan, but who couldn’t find a suitable husband, could be paired up with SS soldiers in special brothels for a quick pregnancy.

Work and the War

In 1936, Hitler commissioned a plan to get the German economy ready for war, and in 1939 the country went to war. This pulled men away from the workforce and into the military, and also increased the number of jobs available. Women filled those positions and became a relatively large portion of the workforce.

However, the debate remains about whether women workers were wasted by the Nazi regime. On the one hand, women were allowed to take vital jobs. In the end, Germany had a higher proportion of women in the workforce than Britain. On the other hand, Germany refused to take full advantage of a labor pool which could have provided many more women for important wartime work. They didn’t organize women’s labor well when they tried at all, and women’s employment became a microcosm of the Nazi economy. Women also played key roles in the instruments of the Nazi genocides, such as the Holocaust, as well as being victims.