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The Holocaust and the Modernization of Gender: A Historiographical Essay

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 December 2008

Ann Taylor Allen
University of Louisville
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Zygmunt Bauman's book, Modernity and the Holocaust, argues that the Holocaust was not an aberration from modernity, but rather the most extreme symptom of a distinctively modern pathology. Women are conspicuously absent from this indictment of modernity; Bauman, a socilogist, mentions neither gender as an issue nor women as individuals. This gap in Bauman's text is in fact full of meaning, for the absence of women as persons does not preclude the hidden presence of gender as a category of analysis. I shall use the absence and presence of gender in Bauman's text as a starting point for an examination of the historiography of women and gender and its relevance for our understanding of the Holocaust. First, I will tease out the hidden, gendered implications of Bauman's theory; second, I will look at the ways in which recent feminist scholarship has approached the question of women's responsibility for the Holocaust. Finally, I shall suggest that a consideration of the cultural construction of gender, as explored by recent scholarship in many fields, is necessary to our understanding of the historical and ethical concerns that Bauman and others have raised.

Copyright © Conference Group for Central European History of the American Historical Association 1997


1. Bauman, Zygmunt, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca, New York: 1989).Google Scholar

2. “German” is placed in quotation marks because it denotes the category defined by the National Socialists, who placed Jewish and other women of minority groups outside the national community. Of course, many of the women so excluded were, in fact, German citizens.

3. Cf. Scott, Joan, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” American Historical Review 91 (12, 1986)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, reprinted in Scott, Joan Wallach, ed., Feminism and History (New York 1996), 152–82.Google Scholar

4. Bauman, Modernity, 153.

5. Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, Theodor W., Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Cumming, John (New York, 1995; original edition New York, 1944), 3–6 and passim.Google Scholar

6. Bauman, Modernity, 107–16.

7. Horkheimer, Max, “Authority and the Family,” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, trans. O'Connell, Matthew J. et al. (New York, 1972), 116–28.Google Scholar

8. Hegel, G. W. F., Phenomenology of Mind, 2 vols., translated and with an introduction by Baillie, J. B. (London, 1910), 2:445.Google Scholar

9. Horkherimer, “Authority,” 114. I am greatly indebted to Rumpf, Mechthild, “Mystical Aura: Imagination and Reality of the ‘Maternal’ in Horkheimer's Writings,” in On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives, ed. Benhabib, Seyla, Bonss, Wolfgang, and McCole, John (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), 309–34.Google Scholar

10. Ibid., 114.

11. Ibid., 118.

12. For example: Hausen, Karin, “Die Polarisierung der Geschlechtscharaktere—Eine Spiegelung der Dissoziation von Erwerbs- und Familienleben,” in Sozialgeschichte der Familie in der Neuzeit Europas, ed. Conze, Werner (Stuttgart, 1976), 363–93;Google ScholarBenhabib, Seyla and Cornell, Drucilla, eds., Feminism as Critique (Minneapolis, 1987).Google Scholar The latter collection contains responses to critical theory by a group of feminist sociologists, philosophers, and political theorists, some of whom are widely published elsewhere.

13. Lévinas, Emmanuel, “Transcendence and Height,” in Emmanuel Lévinas: Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. Peperzak, Adriaan T., Critchley, Simon, and Bernasconi, Robert (Bloomington, Indiana, 1996), 17.Google Scholar

14. Bauman, Modernity, 183.

15. Cf. Landes, Joan B., “The Public and the Private Sphere: A Feminist Reconsideration,” in Feminists Read Habermas: Gendering the Subject of Discourse, ed. Meehan, Johanna (New York, 1993), 91116.Google Scholar

16. Cf. Honneth, Axel, “The Other of Justice: Habermas and the Ethical Challenge of Postmodernism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Habermas, ed. White, Stephen K. (Cambridge, 1995), 289324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar “Genetically speaking, however, the experience of this moral principle precedes the encounter with all other moral points of view because … it stands at the beginning of the child's developmental process. Indeed, it may be the case that a sensorium for what can be called, in an unrestricted sense, equal treatment can only be developed in the first place if one's own person has had the experience of unlimited care at some time” (p. 318).

17. Bauman, Modernity, vii.

18. Browning, Christopher, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York, 1993), 93.Google Scholar

19. Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York, 1996), 242.Google Scholar

20. Theweleit, Klaus, Male Fantasies, vol. 1, Women, Floods, Bodies, History, trans. Conway, Stephen (Minneapolis, 1987).Google Scholar

21. Stephenson, Jill, Women in Nazi Society (New York, 1975);Google ScholarRupp, Leila, Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda, 1939–1945 (Princeton, 1978).Google Scholar

22. Stephenson, Women in Nazi Society, 185–99.

23. Rupp, Mobilizing Women, 167–81.

24. Wiggershaus, Renate, Frauen unterm Nationalsozialismus, (Wuppertal, 1984), 152.Google Scholar Other examples of early historiography are: Kuhn, Annette and Rothe, Valentine, Frauen im deutschen Faschismus, 2 vols. (Düsseldorf, 1984);Google ScholarThalmann, Rita, Etre femme dans le troisième Reich (Paris, 1981).Google Scholar A full summary and discussion of this literature is: Reese, Dagmar and Sachsse, Carola, “Frauenforschung und Nationalsozialismus: Eine Bilanz,” in Töchter Fragen: NS Frauengeschichte, ed. Gravenhorst, Lerke and Tatschmurat, Carmen (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1990), 73106.Google Scholar

25. Bruns, Brigitte, “Nationalsozialismus,” in Frauen-Handlexicon: Stichworte zur Selbstbestimmung, ed. Beyer, Johanna, Lamott, Franziska, and Meyer, Birgit (Munich, 1982), 203–8.Google Scholar

26. Wiggershaus, Frauen unterm Nationalsozialismus, 103.

27. Koonz, Claudia, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics (New York, 1987), 5.Google Scholar

28. Ibid., 420.

29. Ibid., 14.

30. Bock, Gisela, Zwangssterilisation im Nazionalsozialismus: Studien zur Rassenpolitik und Frauenpolitik (Opladen, 1986), 461–64.Google Scholar

31. But for an opposing opinion see Frevert, Ute, Women in German History: From Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation, trans. MacKinnon-Evans, Stuart (Oxford, Hamburg, New York, 1988), 236–38;Google Scholar Frevert emphasizes the importance of pronatalist measures.

32. Bock, Gisela, “Gleichheit und Differenz in der nationalsozialistischen Rassenpolitik,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 19 (1993): 279–81.Google Scholar

33. Ibid., 309–10. For a view of women's roles in administering euthanasia, see Friedlander, Henry, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill, 1995), 231–32.Google Scholar

34. Bock, Gisela, “Die Frauen und der Nationalsozialismus: Bemerkungen zu einem Buch von Claudia Koonz,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 15 (1989): 569.Google Scholar For Koonz's response to this review see Koonz, Claudia, “Erwiderung auf Gisela Bocks Rezension von ‘Mothers in the Fatherland’” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 8 (1992): 394–99.Google Scholar

35. For a very useful summary of recent literature on women and National Socialism see von Saldern, Adelheid, “Victims or Perpetrators? Controversies about the Role of Women in the Nazi State,” reprinted in Nazism and German Society: 1933–1945, ed. Crew, David (London and New York, 1994), 141–65;Google Scholar see also Reese and Sachsse, “Frauenforschung.”

36. Czarnowski, Gabriele, Das kontrollierte Paar: Ehe und Sexualpolitik im Nationalsozialismus (Weinheim, 1989).Google Scholar

37. See for example Füllberg-Stolberg, Claus, Jung, Martina, Riebe, Renate, Scheitenberger, Martina, eds., Frauen in Konzentrationslagern: Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbrück (Bremen, 1994).Google Scholar See also Schwarz, Gudrun, “Verdrängte Täterinnen: Frauen im Apparat der SS (1939–1945),” in Nach Osten, ed. Wobbe, Theresa (Frankfurt, 1992), 197227.Google Scholar An early and still very useful article is Milton, Sybil, “Women and the Holocaust: The Case of German and German-Jewish Women,” in When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany, ed. Bridenthal, Renate, Grossmann, Atina and Kaplan, Marion (New York, 1984);Google Scholar reprinted in Rittner, Carol and Roth, John K., eds., Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust (New York, 1993), 213–49.Google Scholar

38. Reese, Dagmar, Straff aber hicht stramm, herb, aber nicht derb: Zur Vergesellschaftung von Mädchen durch den Bund deutscher Mädel im sozialkulturellen Vergleich zweier Milieus (Weinheim, 1989).Google Scholar

39. Tobin, Elizabeth H. and Gibson, Jennifer, “The Meanings of Labor: East German Women's Work in the Transition from Nazism to Communism,” Central European History 28, No. 3 (1995): 301–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

40. Burleigh, Michael and Wippermann, Wolfgang, The Racial State: Germany 1933–1945 (Cambridge, 1991), 242.Google Scholar

41. Bock, Zwangssterilisation, 207.

42. Aly, Götz and Heim, Susanne, Vordenker der Vernichtung: Auschwitz und die deutschen Pläne für eine neue europäische Ordnung (Frankfurt, 1995), 198.Google Scholar

43. Bergen, Doris, Twisted Cross: The German Christians in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill, 1996).Google Scholar

44. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, xv.

45. Cf. Rumpf, “Mystical Aura,” 311.

46. Bauman, Zygmunt, Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodern Morality (Oxford, 1995), 258.Google Scholar

47. Gilligan, Carol, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge, Mass., 1982);Google ScholarBenhabib, Seyla, “The Debate over Women and Moral Theory Revisited,” in Meehan, ed., Habermas, Feminists Read, 231–46.Google Scholar

48. Benhabib, Seyla, “The Generalized and the Concrete Other: The Kohlberg-Gilligan Controversy and Feminist Theory,” in Feminism as Critique, ed. Benhabib, and Cornell, , 7796;Google Scholar Iris Marion Young, “Impartiality and the Civic Public: Some Implications of Moral and Political Theory,” in Feminism as Critique, 56–76; and Benhabib, Seyla, Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics (New York, 1992).Google Scholar

49. Gilligan, Carol, “Moral Orientation and Moral Development,” in Kittay, E. F. and Myers, Diane T., Women and Moral Theory (Totowa, 1987), 20.Google Scholar Quoted in Seyla Benhabib, “The Debate over Moral Theory Revisited,” 191–92.

50. Von Saldern, “Victims or Perpetrators?”

51. Bergen, Twisted Cross.

52. I thank Kenneth Barkin for suggesting this question.

53. Rupp, Mobilizing Women for War.

54. Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Poston, Carol H. (New York, 1988), 51.Google Scholar

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