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The Sunday Telegraph (London)
November 17, 1996
Wives Against the Nazis by Richard Evans

            Earlier this year [1996], the young American historian Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners created a furor with its sweeping and sensational claim that "ordinary Germans" in Hitler's Reich were anti-Semites who had been longing for decades for the chance to kill the Jews.  This timely new book by another young American historian presents another side to the picture.  Stoltzfus is a careful and subtle historian and the result of his labours is no less sensational and thought-provoking.

            Stoltzfus tells the story of the German women who married Jews and stuck by their husbands throughout the Third Reich.  Almost one in ten Jews in Nazi Germany were married to non-Jews; there were still nearly 30,000 such people left in Germany at the end of 1942, a year which saw Hitler's infamous "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" reach its height, with the cattle trucks rumbling toward the killing centers of Auschwitz and Treblinka in an unending stream.  At this point, the Nazi Gauleiter of Berlin, Josef Goebbels, decided on a "final round-up" of the city's remaining Jews.

            On Feb. 27, 1943, these entirely innocent people were arrested by the SS and taken to various detention centres.  Most of those married to German women were taken to the headquarters of the Jewish community in the Rosenstrasse, preparatory to deportation to Auschwitz.

            But if Goebbels had thought the operation was going to go smoothly, he was mistaken. As the wives found out where their husbands had gone, they gathered outside the building and mounted a public protest that grew steadily in size and volume over the following days. Defying threats of arrest, and reassembling after every attempt to clear them away, several hundred women chanted "We want our husbands back!" and then, as things became more serious, "Murderers! murderers!" at the police and SS men who ringed the building.

            The weather was so cold that, one of the women reported later, the tears froze on her cheek.  But the women stayed.  After a week of trying to sit out their very public defiance, Goebbels and Hitler capitulated and gave orders for more than 1,700 imprisoned Jews and part-Jews to be released.  They even ordered the return of 35 who were already in Auschwitz.  The women had won.  Their husbands survived to the end of the war.

            Why did the Nazi leaders cave in?  Stoltzfus suggests plausibly that Hitler and Goebbels wanted to avoid disturbing Berlin's female population at a time when the Propaganda Minister had just called on them to mobilise for "total war."  They grudgingly admired the women for their "German faithfulness" to their husbands, sustained through years of humiliation and discrimination.  Had the women been Jewish, they would undoubtedly have been shot.

            If a small act of resistance such as this could stop the Holocaust in its tracks, why was there no wider movement of protest among Germans against it?  Stoltzfus argues that most people in Nazi Germany were not fanatics but just wanted to get on with their own lives.  When the regime threatened to interfere too much, they rebelled--as in the Rosenstrasse protest, or in the successful protests of the Catholic community against the mass-murder of the handicapped in 1941. But these acts of rebellion were mounted against the killing of close relatives.  The vast majority of Jews, who had been steadily cut off from the rest of German society by the regime's discriminatory laws, had no German friends or relatives to help them.  indifference rather than hatred sealed their fate.  The Rosenstrasse protest, as this thoughtful and moving book shows, remained an isolated event.

Richard J. Evans is Professor of History at Cambridge University


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