From 1984 to its publication in 1993, I researched and wrote a book based on my interviews with non-Jewish German women who had lived through the Third Reich as adults. The book became Frauen/German Women Recall the Third Reich. Initially, I had believed my own hopeful stereotypes: "German Woman" would be morally superior to "German Man," and I would hear only of valor and courage or, at least, of all encompassing post-war remorse.
I learned that German women were individual human beings, thus uncomfortably and closely related to other human beings. The women I interviewed for Frauen/German Women Recall the Third Reich were often different in many ways and similar in others. Indeed, one of my basic findings was that the range of influences in the women's lives, from parents to teachers to lovers to propagandists, led them to their range of responses to the Third Reich. In short, the Frauen were not born with a genetic predisposition to be punctual, tidy, brave, cowardly, humane, or hateful. This seems to me a valuable lesson to teach students-that by "blood" and birth, they are not necessarily immune to forces similar to those that shaped Germans during the Third Reich.
A clangorous chord in several interviews is denial. It was by no means common even to most of the women, but was striking in some. The most striking example came from a virulent anti-Semite. She asked for a pseudonym (so "the Jews won't come and get me"), and I nastily dubbed her Frau Mundt, a version of "mouth."
When I asked if she knew about the gassings, Frau Mundt responded evenly. "It is said today human beings were burned. Human beings are burned today. They're put into an urn and become a very small grave. It's the same in America.
"And regarding that time, you have to think of it this way. In our village, diphtheria broke out. There was no serum. There was no doctor who could help. The same was the case in the concentration camps. The human beings there also had diseases. Diphtheria, typhus ... And were weakened, no? And there were bombing raids. Many camps were bombed and people there were killed. Then the bodies were burned."
I asked Frau Mundt if she meant to say there was no gassing. "I do not want to strike that out," she said. "I do not want to strike that out. But how one suddenly can say, 'You gassed six million Jews.' Where does the six million number come from? They guessed. But there weren't six million in Europe. Barely two million. And of them, there's still a long line alive today whom we did not kill, no? I killed none."
A silence followed.
Frau Mundt broke it by adding that Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter, was scheduled to speak at her local high school and that she'd signed up to ask a question: Where did he get the figure of six million? She also said there was "one thing I want to learn before I die: that is, what happened at the concentration camp in Dachau?" She went on to say that "it is said" there were no gas chambers built there, but she planned to go to Dachau herself to "find out from the local people" if there were gas chambers in the camp.
What the above shows me is not only basic denial, but an unexpected jolt of curiosity. Questioning Simon Wiesenthal? Questioning residents of Dachau? Frau Mundt's denial has a crack in it-and before she dies, she wants someone to mend it.
A woman whose demeanor and denial were more refined is one Frau Margrit Fischer, the first woman I interviewed and the first to tell me of her enthusiasm for National Socialism. Frau Fischer did not deny the facts of the Holocaust and, in fact, spoke very emotionally about what it was like to learn about the horrors behind the government she had supported. But her version of what happened earlier to German Jews, when National Socialism took over, may derive from denial too.
"Many emigrated, and could take their money and everything possible with them." Virtually any account of the period shows that is hardly true, even if Frau Fischer still likes or wants to think it is.
Frau Ellen Frey, the widow of both an SA and an SS man, did not exactly deny the Holocaust, but clearly felt embarrassed and self-conscious about what her friends had said. I pressed her to tell me. We were speaking of the Dachau camp as it looks today. "Well, I don't know whether one can say it. They say that much was tidied up at Dachau that does not reflect the truth and that not so many had been gassed, I mean. And they say the numbers aren't right. That's what they claim. That they aren't right at all and that much was reconstructed. But my feeling is, even if it's only three who were gassed or so, it's completely out of the realm of discussion. Impossible. Because one does not begrudge any human being ... that somehow one has no right at all. I mean, for me that is completely different from this other time that I experienced with Hitler, or, what do I know. I don't know." Her last words were almost inaudible.
More psychologically pertinent is what might be called her denial about the evil of Adolf Hitler. At one point, she said that he gave her the only idealism she's ever known. She also said, "We did love our Führer, really!" And she said this about him and the Holocaust: "I say, ja I also find it awful and it was an error and the man went crazy. I say that, too. Everything. But what he gave us young girls back then somehow must still be there, that one cannot condemn it all. Or, I don't know."
Frau Frey's confusion, if that is what it was, was apparent to me in much of what she said. She seemed a woman who had not thought through what she had gone through, and who did not like being on the defensive, yet knew she was. Nonetheless, her frame of mind, including her inability to see Hitler for what he was, reminded me that "deniaquot; arrives in different forms. What else would count as "deniaquot;? An assertion that there was nothing one could have done to stop the Nazis from pulling a Jewish neighbor from his home? A feeling that keeping your mouth shut was the only way to stay out of trouble? Or that staying out of trouble, including keeping your parents or your spouse or your children out of trouble, was a valid response? Agreeing with someone that the Jews really did have too much control in German banks?
To me, the more intriguing question is why anyone, especially any of these Frauen today, denies various aspects of the Holocaust? I maintain the reason is simple and sobering and universally human: the reality is too hard to face. Did not many German Jews also use similar forms of denial to get through one insult after the other during the Third Reich? ("Surely things can't get worse. Surely Hitler doesn't mean me. Surely my good name or reputation or war record will protect my family.") Denial, I think, is a way to live with yourself. And in the case of Germany after the Third Reich, denial was made easier by one fact: survival. German women who lived through the war later looked around, over the rubble of their cities, and saw a lot of company: other German women. The victims were gone.
Alison Owings, a journalist who has written extensively for CBS News in New York, is the author of Frauen/German Women Recall the Third Reich (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993). Frauen was listed by the New York Times Book Review as one of the most notable books of 1994.