Third Reich Feminism: Girls’ education in the Nazi period
German girls’ educational and life choices in Nazi Germany are controversial; while Nazi propaganda depicted girls and women in roles of motherhood, girls and young women lived much freer lives than in earlier decades. Although girls’ education was hit hard by the Great Depression, and education was greatly feminised to suit Nazi purposes in the 1930s, women argued for their education. In the Hitler Youth leadership magazine Wille und Macht, Erna Bohlmann argued that although German women have “historically” been biologically determined to raise children, they still have an important role in the upbringing of children and should be seen as heroic for it. Here, we will discuss the opportunities girls and women had in Nazi Germany and juxtapose them with Nazi propaganda.
While the Nazis did not prohibit women from going into higher education, they attempted to severely restrict women from going into classics and the sciences by forcefully guiding girls into “womanly” areas. The Nazi elites feared that if women were exposed “to career opportunities, it would divert them from motherhood”, which went against Nazi ideology and its goal of repopulating the Reich. Despite this, many women were opportunists, who were able to use the system to their advantage to gain higher positions in the Nazi party.
The role of women was highly debated within Nazi ideological magazines as well, as the gender role that the Nazi men wanted the women to play was not what all Nazi women wanted. Nonetheless, the females of the BDM (Bund Deutscher Mädel, League of German Girls) Generation (those born c. 1920-1933) were essentially the hardest hit by changes in attitudes, as girls’ education focused mainly on literacy and numerical skills, instead of on more intellectual subjects.
While the role of women in the Third Reich was to become mothers and replenish the population with multiple children, the state was also interested in exploiting women for their full production value. The girl Hitler Youth provided two main attractions for female youth: they would be treated as a German “youth” and “would be given a real role in building up a new ‘German Reich’”. First under the leadership of Trude Mohr and then Jutta Rudiger, the BDM flourished as the sole Nazi organisation for girls as it did not advocate traditional female values, unlike other groups. Although forced to stop in later years, the BDM also took part in shooting practices in 1933 and this was defended by Schirach. For many young women, especially those in the middle and upper classes, the BDM paved the way for independent activity and possibilities. On the whole, it provided girls with the skills to endure and, to an extent, survive the Second World War.
The existence of only three Nationalpolitische Erziehungsanstalten (NPEA, or commonly abbreviated to Napola) schools for girls evidences the challenges within the party towards the role of women in society. Three girls’ Napolas existed, but not without objections from within the schools and the party. Few scholarly works address these schools, and further research needs to be done to provide better understanding of the institutions.
The first Napola was established in 1938, with two subsequent ones in 1941 and 1942. Funding for the girls’ schools was difficult to acquire, as the Reich Finance Minister Schwerin-Krosigk and Prussian Finance Minister Johannes Popitz felt that the budget should be used on boys schools, as opening a school for girls would “detract from the character and appearance of the Napolas.” Issues with money persisted throughout the existence of these Napolas, and even the opening of the first Napola on the outskirts of Vienna in Türnitz and subsequently in Luxembourg, were funded partially by the occupied countries.
Although the curriculum at the girls’ Napola schools was similar to the Oberschule, the presentation of the girls’ schools in the popular Nazi press illustrates the difficulties of reconciling girls’ education with Nazi ideology. The students studied English as their first foreign language, with Latin, which would allow girls to apply for science subjects at university. In this regard, the girls’ Napolas were similar to the boys’ schools, however in contrast, girls also had to take up gardening, domestic science, and work in the kindergarten, “which was seen as a possible entry to the social welfare professions.”
The party gave support for this programme because its aim was to teach girls to be nurturers. The girls’ Napolas also placed more importance on physical training than regular Oberrealschulen, along with a focus on music, theatre, singing, and dance. Although the first Napola school had space for 200-250 students, only 123 studied at the school. The Nazi press, in articles mainly written by women, praise the girls’ Napola schools and education opportunities, but the lack of content on the schools in the main BDM girls’ magazine Das Deutsche Mädel shows the problematic nature of the schools for Nazi ideology.
The role of women within the National Socialist movement was ambivalent throughout its existence, as while it provided women with opportunities to work outside the house and to rise within the party, the men in the party still wanted women only to stay at home raising the future citizens of Germany. After the end of the Second World War, the girls who had gained more freedom and received their higher education in Nazi Germany fell silent, a silence that stemmed from crimes committed during the Holocaust and during the Third Reich. Further emancipation of German women stopped prematurely, which is noticeable in the limited number of autobiographies and memoirs written by women in the postwar period.