Children, once a normal part of any working woman's life, have suddenly become the barrier between them and a career. From the video "My Second Life,", 1996

Women in East Germany:
Overcoming Nazi Policies towards Women in Theory and Practice

by Courtney Smith
June 2004

student research paper for
UCSB History 133P proseminar, Spring 2004
Prof. Marcuse (homepage, Courses page)
to proseminar homepage; papers index page

The amount of change with respect to the rights of women that occurred between the fall of Nazism in 1945 and the fall of socialism in East Germany in 1989 cannot be overstated. During this transitional time women received equality in every aspect of life -- at least in theory. It was only after the end of WWII in 1945 that women were able to participate equally in sectors of society such as the workplace and politics, thanks largely to the Soviet system of socialism. The harm caused by the repressive policies of the Nazi regime towards many groups including women was only fully evident after its demise and fall. The ideology that Hitler and his government embedded in the minds of women was so deeply rooted that many of the women who later lived in East Germany could not believe the freedom and rights that they were granted. Socialism seemed to give women a freedom that they had never known under any other German government. However, an analysis of primary documents shows that socialism offered equality in theory but not always in practice. [thesis statement]

            It is often hard for people, especially women, to understand a time when women did not have the same basic rights as their male counterparts. However, the attitude that females were inferior ran rampant in Germany under Nazism. Women were hardly ever allowed to partake in political offices unless it was for a strictly female organization such as the League of German Women. Such restrictions extended to the field of education as well, where women were restricted to learning how to keep an orderly house, instead of the professions of school teaching and engineering. Although it is extremely hard for citizens of the western world, especially those of this generation, to imagine a time where women were virtually confined to their homes, it is vital to understand the improvements made under the Soviets and the impact their policies had on the status of German women.

            One of the few outlets that women under Nazism had outside of the house were women's organizations such as the League of German Women and the League for German Girls. Under such organizations women were able to take some sort of leadership role in society, as small as it may have been. Nazi leaders such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels realized what an extremely important factor such women's organizations played in securing the implementation of their propaganda in actual society. One of the very first speeches that Joseph Goebbels made as Minister of Propaganda under Hitler was given to the League of German women, aptly titled German Women, on 18 March 1933, just six days into his term. Adolf Hitler himself made another crucial policy speech at a rally of the German Women's League on 14 September 1936.

            Such speeches were given to women's organizations in order to convince women that although they were not allowed to have the same social rights as men, they were still crucial to the success of the government. Many women's organizations were started in order to provide service to male army officers, thus making their contribution to Hitler and the government indispensable. A service and connection to the army was their main objective in these organizations, in fact, as historian Jill Stephenson writes:[1]

These groups provided soup kitchens for needy party members and SA men, collected money and goods, made and mended uniforms, circulated propaganda material, and provided first-aid for injured SA men. These activities were suitably 'womanly;' the 'political struggle' was left strictly to the men.

The Nazis also published propaganda aimed towards women in such women's journals as Frauenwarte, a biweekly magazine for women that had 1.9 million subscribers, and Das Deutsche Madel, a monthly girls magazine that promoted doing quiet individual things like hiking and caring for wounded soldiers.

            High-ranking Nazis argued that women were not allowed to participate in political affairs because they were too valuable and pure to be exposed to such a harsh reality. In his March 1933 German Women speech, Goebbels clearly explained the government's reasoning for banning women from politics outside of their women's organizations. He said, "We have kept women out of the parliamentary-democratic intrigues of the past fourteen years in Germany not because we do not respect them, but because we respect them too much."[2]

            Because women in East Germany did not face the same level of repression, there was not a need to make many distinctly women-oriented organizations, although they did exist. Perhaps the largest women's organization was the Women's Democratic Federation of Germany (DFD), which was founded on 8 March 1947. Unlike the Nazi women's organizations, the DFD had different objectives for its female members; "The main purpose of the DFD since it was founded had been to get women to actively participate in the fight for peace and socialism, for the happiness of women and their families."[3] The DFD was so popular that its membership reached 1.3 million members, and was linked to a larger international group, Women's International Democratic Federation (IDFF), that had significantly larger numbers of members. As part of the Women's International Democratic Federation, "the organization considers it important to take part in the international women's struggle for peace, peaceful coexistence, national independence and rights of women and the happiness of children."[4] And indeed the DFD did its part to spread socialism around the globe by making connections with 111 women's organizations in eighty countries.

            Women's involvement in politics reached much further than just being a member of the DFD or other organizations in East Germany. Due to the equality that socialism offered them, women were able to hold very prestigious offices in government. Statistics show that every third deputy elected, every fifth mayor, and every third judge in East Germany was a woman.[5]

            Outside of their women's organizations, women under Nazism had no other escape from their home life. Marriage was considered extremely important by the Nazi regime because of the tradition of reproduction that marriage holds. First and foremost the fascists were concerned with massive reproduction to expand their Aryan race. During the start of Hitler's regime there was a stark increase in the number of marriages between the years 1934- 1940. The pressure for women to reproduce was pushed to the extreme, and motherhood soon came to be their identity. Gisela Bock offers an insight into just how extreme the sexism towards women of the time was in the bookWhen Biology Became Destiny:[6]

… most historians seem to agree that … women counted merely as mothers who should bear and rear as many children as possible, and that Nazi antifeminism tended to promote, protect and even finance women as childbearers, housewives, and mothers. It seems necessary to challenge various aspects of this…. [T]he Nazis were by no means simply interested in raising the number of childbearing women. They were just as bent on excluding many women from bearing and rearing children- and men from begetting them- with sterilization as their principle deterrent.

In return for some marriages, couples received marriage incentives like tax breaks and deference of loans owed to the government.

            There were obvious reasons why some marriages were rewarded more than others, and those decisions were based on race. The government clearly preferred Aryans to marry among themselves, so that they would produce purely Aryan offspring. Those Aryans who married within their race were considered "hereditarily valuable."[7] Despite the Nazis' view of marrying within exclusive races, the Nuremberg Laws of 15 September 1935 made interracial marriage legal as long as there was no reproduction, although the government still clearly gave financial rewards to those Aryans who decided to remain married within their own race. Regardless of the race a woman married, the system of marriage under Nazism was no different than any other governmental policy when it came to the traditional gender roles and expectations, and women assumed their normal role as the subservient wife.

            Under socialism the rights of women were radically different because of the Family Code of 1965, which set equality as the goal in each relationship. As cited in Eva Kolinsky's Women in Contemporary Germany, the family code clearly states that in a marriage, "the husband and wife were equal and bound together by love and affection."[8] The Family Code of 1965 encouraged marriage and wanted each family to produce children to ensure the healthy survival of the socialist state, and it was the parents' explicit duty to raise the children in a healthy atmosphere where growth could easily take place. This responsibility of both parents is clearly expressed in the section three of the Family Code, as cited by Kolinsky:[9]

The citizens determine their family relations in such a way as to assist the development of each member of the family. It is the noblest task of the parents to bring up their children in assured cooperation with the institutions of the state and society to become healthy and sunny, hard working and broadly educated human beings and active builders of socialism.

            Similar to the marriage laws under Nazism, the socialist government also offered material rewards for those who decided to get married. An agricultural technician described the financial benefits of marriage especially when pregnant to historian Ingrid Sandole-Staroste as follows:[10]

I was pregnant with [my daughter] and we decided to get married because we wanted the credit [of 7,000 Marks which the state provided]. We could not just let it go… We had to pay it back, but the conditions were very favorable. I paid 53 Marks per month. It's incredible, really [how low it was].

Marriage also was one of the few ways that people were able to leave their families, move out on their own and find housing on their own. This proved to be a large incentive considering that the average age for men was 25.3 years and women 23.2 years (Federal Ministry for Women and Youth, 1992, p.72), as cited in Sandole-Staroste.[11]

            Like many other aspects of life under socialism, marriage was not as perfect in East Germany as the statistics would lead one to believe. With the young age that most people married in East Germany divorce rates were extremely high. The rates were so incredibly high that East Germany ranked one of the highest in the world in regards to divorce rates.[12] Divorce rates climbed steadily throughout socialist rule in East Germany. Kolinsky writes, "In 1989, 40% of East German marriages ended in divorce; more than half broke down within three years."[13] Unlike the situation under Nazism, women exerted much power within a marriage, and even represented an overwhelming percent of those who filed for divorce.

            Divorce was also allowed in Nazism, although it was as easily attainable and socially acceptable as in East Germany. In 1938, the Nazi government took a small step in making divorce a little bit easier to receive by introducing new grounds for divorce, "irretrievable breakdown." It was because of this adaptation to the divorce law that a divorce was possible without placing blame on one spouse or the other. In accordance with the Nazis' preoccupation with population growth, it is no surprise that "divorce was obtainable on grounds of premature infertility, unless the couple already had 'hereditarily healthy' children."[14] Reproduction for the sake of extending the power of a government was present under both governments, but Nazism placed more importance on having a large family. As badly as the Nazis wanted more National Socialists, they were not willing to allow the hereditarily "unfit" to reproduce. As a means of "social hygiene," only the "socially fit" can reproduce under Nazi law.[15] While marriage was encouraged, children who were created out of wedlock were also socially acceptable, as long as the parents were both of the Aryan race. The state offered "repressive protection,"[16] which included supervision of "valuable pregnancies through providing midwives and social workers. To ensure that non-Aryans were not reproducing illegally, the Nazis enforced sterilization and mass murders. The Nazi government saw non-Aryans as "worthless families,"[17] and would take any means necessary to keep them from polluting the German race.

Being at home and taking care of a large family was exactly where the National Socialists imagined women at their finest. They believed that mothers raised their sons to be the men who would come to rule the nation in the future and that there was no more important task than that of mother who would ensure that her son was raised correctly and followed the National Socialists' plan. Joseph Goebbels demonstrated exactly how important the Nazis saw women in society as homemakers in his 1933 speech:

The first, best, and most suitable place for the women is in the family, and her most glorious duty is to give children to her people and nation, children who continue the line of generations and who guarantee the immortality of the nation. The woman is the teacher of the youth, and therefore the builder of the foundation of the future. If the family is the nation's source of strength, the woman is its core and center. The best place for the woman to serve her people is in her marriage, in the family, in motherhood. This is her highest mission.

Families having children was also a major concern for Socialists, so they offered many programs and incentives to make motherhood appealing and as easy on the mother as possible. The state provided excellent inexpensive and reliable childcare for working mothers. Working mothers with multiple children received an extra bonus in 1972 with the introduction of a law that reduced their work hours a week from 43.75 hours a week to 40 hours a week without a pay cut. They also received an additional three to nine day increase in vacation days.[18] The state truly bent backwards to promote multiple child families by also offering maternity leave that lasted fourteen to eighteen weeks and a raise in allowance per child to 1,000 Marks.[19] And while a woman was actually pregnant the law ensured her of her job security since it was illegal to dismiss a pregnant woman from her job. In terms of actual birthing, almost ninety-nine percent of all births were free at the hospitals. And as a measure of equality, single mothers received the same rights as those who were married.

            While evaluating the statistics it is hard to find a fault with the socialists' plan towards women's rights during and after pregnancy, but in order to receive most of these benefits a woman had to be active in the workforce. Due to the type of system that East Germany had during socialist rule, it was not socially acceptable not to work and not be part of the public that served the nation, which was much the opposite during Nazism. Many women in East Germany complained that after they had worked a full day, they had to come home to even more household work because of the still present deep embedded idea that women were to take care of matter at home. Women had to juggle both responsibilities and often times missed out on the enjoyment of having a child. a white-collar worker described to Sandole-Staroste the agony of this juggling act:[20]

When I think about it all, in some ways I spent too little time with my children, too little time. I hardly remember the time when they were little and when they went to kindergarten. I would have liked to start later; I really would have liked that much better. I would have seen them in the morning, and I would have come home a little earlier at night. I would have preferred that. I was totally exhausted. In those days, I slept so well and I only had six hours of sleep on average.

Although many women like this white-collar worker were devastated by the fact that they were not able to spend an adequate amount of time with their children, many others knew that as part of a socialist nation working was the first priority. There are numerous examples of people in socialist East Germany who were scorned and ridiculed for not taking an active part in furthering the economy and producing goods for the sake of the nation. This socialist ideal was a major part of everyday decision making, even when it came to raising one's children. As a nurse put it:[21]

My children were very, very important in my life. I don't want to say they were the most important, but one of the most important things in my life… It was not accepted that a mother stayed at home. [But when she did], it caused surprise. Few women stayed home because it meant a decrease in their standard of living. Many thought it was a good thing, but [they] also said they would not do it. We had child care. We could bring our children there. And to stay home the entire day and wash diapers, many women did not want that. But [those of us who stayed home for a while] did not have to concern ourselves with losing our jobs, that was secure.

Due to Nazi beliefs many women were not able be an active part of the workforce, that is until the end of World War II when more manpower was needed to keep up production for the Nazi regime. The need for women in the workforce came as an influx of German men were called into war service. Stephenson describes the number of women that entered the workforce during this time period, and the reasoning she sees behind it:[22]

The wartime withdrawal of men from civilian life and work continues for five and a half years, leaving women to many jobs traditionally performed by men, in increasingly difficult circumstances. Yet women's recorded numbers in employment remained around the 14 million mark--the 1939 level in Greater Germany--and even in 1944 reached only 14.9 million.

The need for increased participation from women came from years of war losses suffered by the Nazis--losses that continued to grow with time. Stephenson says that, "Germany's problem was that its resources--both human and material--were being stretched even in the war's early, victorious stages."[23] The need for an increased workforce force, even if it meant taking more women out of the home, was so strong that there was a consideration for women to be drafted or to enroll in compulsory registration for employment as the war progressed. However there was a fault in the system the Nazis had with having women join a compulsory was the money needed to start and organize such a project. In fact Stephenson argues that "compulsory registration by women at employment offices probably yielded more paperwork than additional workers."[24] And with the war going on, was the effectiveness that such a draft would have was limited because of the number of women who tried to avoid being called into work, a sign that not all women wanted to join men in the workplace. Stephenson says that:[25]

There undoubtedly were women who avoided being drafted, cajoled, or shamed into work in wartime. Some had young children, others were evacuated to areas remote from war industry, and, in the increasingly chaotic circumstances of 1944-45, still others were able to abscond.

        Researchers like Stephenson have found that most women who did take advantage of the opening of workplace opportunities were not those who did not have a desire to work before the beginning of Nazism. Stephenson found that "the largest group of women able to avoid going into war work were women--with or without young children--who had not previously needed or wanted to work."[26] This would add argument to those who argue that women did not want to join the workforce; therefore the Nazis were helping and protecting them from the harsh workplace. However, facts such as this do not speak of the whole female population in Nazi Germany and should therefore be taken with a grain of salt. There were in fact women who previously wanted work and were denied it. Evidence such as this only furthers the argument that in an extremely prejudiced and sexist society, such as Germany under the Nazis, many women were discriminated against if not for their race then for their gender.

            In East Germany, the situation was so different that the community scorned those women who decided not to work. Through looking at the statistics for the number of women who were actively participating in the workforce, East Germany seems to live up to its claim that it upheld the principles of equality. However, we will see that although there was an almost equal number of women and men in the workforce, access to some jobs appears to have been more difficult for women. But in employment as a whole, women in the workplace represented their equal share of the population. In East Germany during the mid-1970s, almost eighty-six percent of capable women decided to work, just about every second person employed sas a woman, and women represented forty-nine percent of the nation's workforce.[27] Women continued to represented roughly forty-nine percent of the workforce until 1989, totaling 4.2 million out of the 8.5 million workers in East Germany.[28] Kolinsky notes just how high the female percentage in the workplace was in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall: "On the eve of reunification, East Germany recorded the highest participation of women in the labour market in Europe."[29]

            The Socialist ideal present in East Germany expected everyone in society to actively participate in elevating in standards of their community, the nation as a whole and international socialism. Work in fact became an obligation for most East German women, like the nurse quoted above who stated that she had to give up many things including time with her children. Kolinsky, like other historians, notes what an obligation working was for East German women: "[For] women in the GDR, working in paid employment was not a matter of personal preference, inclination or opportunity, as it has remained for their sisters in the West; working was obligatory."[30] Unlike in West Germany and in many other Western countries such as the United States, the obligation of women to work did not diminish with age. As Kolinsky put it, "working had become the norm, even after retirement."[31] East Germany took the right to work to another level by placing such high pressure on being employed that "the right to work and the duty to work merged into one while non-working was stigmatized as 'anti-social (asozial) and refusal to work treated as a criminal offense."[32]

            The transition from Nazism to socialism was a particularly difficult one, when the differences between the two are re-examined. The two governments appear to be polar opposites in their views towards women and equality in society. While Nazism promoted the superiority of one coming from the inferiority of another, it is easy to see how a transition to the alleged equality under Socialism would be hard to comprehend.

            The level of oppression under the Nazis is easy to condemn in today's society. But through the analysis of East German women's testimonies it becomes evident that some women preferred the lifestyle they lived under the Nazis to the amount of work expected of them under Socialism. This is not to say that the oppression under Nazism was justified, although it shows that there is difference in perspective between women. Like all sects of society, each person has their own idea of what is right or wrong, and this is seen through the transition from Nazism to socialism.

            The Nazi government proved to be a terribly oppressive to women, which is evident in numerous areas of society including lack organizations offered for women, and the harsh marriage and divorce laws which were obviously discriminatory towards non-Aryans. The idea of motherhood under Nazism is particularly disturbing because of the hidden implications and expectations of women as a whole that it represents: women as trophy and housewives, not as equals in society or the workplace.

            Socialism appeared to offer women the equality they did not have under Hitler. For some women, this so-called equality was experienced, while others had their hearts broken when they realized that not everything that works in theory works in practice. Other women lived through this equality and discovered that it was not all it was cracked up to be. They found themselves wanting to be back at home with their children on a full time basis. These women felt as though they were missing out of their children's childhoods, even despite the extra benefits the government enacted in 1972. It is these women who discovered that the grass is not always greener on the other side and perhaps the Nazis' ideas towards women were perhaps not so bad, at least from their own personal perspective.

Notes (back to top)

[1] Jill Stephenson, Women in Nazi Germany (London, Pearson Education Limited, 2001) p. 87

[2] Joseph Goebbels, "Deutsches Frauentum," Signale der neuen Zeit. 25 ausgewählte Reden von Dr. Joseph Goebbels (Munich: Zentralverlag der NSDAP., 1934), pp. 118-126. Translated by Randall Bytewerk at <>.

[3] Susanne Statistik, Women Under Socialism: Information, Facts, Figures on Equal Rights in the GDR. 1974, p. 26

[4] Statistik, 1974, p. 26-27

[5] Statistik, 1974, p.13

[6] Bridenthal, Renate, Atina Grossmann, Marion Kaplan. When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany. ( New York, Monthly Review Press, 1984) p. 273

[7] Stephenson, 2001, p.13

[8] Eva Kolinsky, Women in Contemporary Germany: Life, Work and Politics (Providence: Berg, 1989) p. 261

[9] Kolinsky, 1989, p. 261

[10] Ingrid Sandole-Staroste, Women in Transition: Between Socialism and Capitalism (Westport, Praeger, 2002), p. 67

[11] Sandole-Staroste, 2002, p. 67

[12] Kolinsky, 1989, p. 261

[13] Kolinsky, 1989, p. 261

[14] Stephenson, 2001, p. 29

[15] Stephenson, 2001, p. 26

[16] Stephenson, 2001, p. 30

[17] Stephenson, 2001, p. 33

[18] Statistik, 1975, p.63

[19] Statistik, 1975, p.63

[20] Sandole-Staroske, 2002, p.85

[21] Sandole-Staroske, 2002, p.85

[22] Stephenson, 2001, p. 55

[23] Stephenson, 2001, p. 57

[24] Stephenson, 2001, p. 57

[25] Stephenson, 2001, p. 58

[26] Stephenson, 2001, p. 56

[27] Statistik, 1975, p. 45

[28] Kolinsky, 1989, p. 259

[29] Kolinsky, 1989, p. 259

[30] Kolinsky, 1989, p. 260

[31] Kolinsky, 1989, p. 260

[32] Kolinsky, 1989, p. 259

page prepared for web publication on 6/15/04 by H. Marcuse
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