This month will see the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a word that, translated, literally means, “night of glass.” On the evening of November 9th, 1938, into the early hours of November 10th, mobs throughout German towns and cities smashed the windows of Jewish homes, schools, and businesses. Two hundred and sixty seven synagogues were destroyed or burned throughout the Reich, 91 Jews were murdered, and over 30,000 were “transferred” to labour camps. Kristallnacht owes its name to the shards of shattered glass observed in the aftermath, outside Jewish-owned shops.
These events started the clock on what was to become the midnight of the last century in Europe: the Holocaust. While everyone knows the horror and devastation that took place during this mass genocide, the specific suffering of women during the Holocaust is less explored.
As Nazi forces occupied countries east of Germany, Jewish people were rounded up and forced into ghettos. This practice had already been implemented throughout Poland. This ghettoization saw the forcible removal of Jewish men, women, and children from their homes, the “repossession” of their property, and their enclosure into a single area of a city, with all movement of goods and persons in or out of the ghetto closely monitored and policed. German authorities undertook this enforcement, but it was at times welcomed by sections of the population who sought to benefit.
When Nazi soldiers invaded Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania, the barbarous processes of violently expunging Jewish communities were already widely established and conducted openly. In these countries, unlike those West of them (Germany, France, and Poland), most Jews rounded up by Nazi soldiers were not forcibly moved into ghettos before deportation to death or labour camps, but instead escorted to nearby fields or forests to be shot and buried in mass graves. By 1944, over two million Jewish people had been murdered this way. Anti-Semites from the local population aided this violence through pogroms and public lynching. Any Jewish person living at this time was a recognizable target, which created its own set of sexual politics.
Throughout Eastern Europe, Jewish women were targeted by local men for public sexual humiliation. Jewish women were regularly stripped of their clothes by these men, and made to walk naked in the street, facing mockery or physical attack from onlookers. It was chiefly local, ordinary men — not Nazi soldiers — who organized these collective sexual assaults and campaigns of sexual humiliation against Jewish women.
You can find photographs documenting these events through a brief Google search, but I have chosen not to include any here, as I do not wish to extend the humiliations and exploitation of these women. What these images capture is individual women or small groups of women, naked, surrounded by fully clothed men (some holding weapons), laughing and jeering. The group arousal and solidarity among the men is clear. Their joy, their fun, at the expense of these women, is evident. Male social bonding of this kind is the same as that described by Christine Blasey Ford, during her testimony before the US Senate Judiciary Committee. These opportunities for group sexual abuse of women re-establish and solidify men as the dominant class.
The system of National Socialism positioned women under the direct control of men. Within Germany, any woman caught out at night by the military or police could face a penalty for “anti-social” behaviour. The Ravensbrück concentration camp (which functioned as a death camp) housed women during the Second World War, and serves as a key site for understanding women’s predicament under fascism.
Other than falling into one of the categories of women the Nazis considered “untermensch” (meaning sub-human or inferior people, and sometimes was used to refer to “masses from the East”) — which includes Jews, Roma, lesbians, and physically disabled or mentally unwell women — women outside these racialized and dehumanized groups were sent to the camp for engaging in so-called “anti-social behaviour.” This included being prostituted (even though it is documented that many of the SS, Hitler’s paramilitary guard, used prostitutes), being found drunk outside the home, or holding political beliefs antithetical to the Nazi regime (for example, communism). Any man who wished to take revenge on his wife needed only report her to the authorities for adultery, left wing political activism, subordination, or disloyalty to the realm, and she could be removed and imprisoned in a labour camp like Ravensbrück. This created a situation for women wherein their husbands functioned quite literally as policemen in the home, anytime they chose to.
Within contemporary political discourse, gender critical and radical feminists are increasingly being branded “fascists” and “Nazis” for acknowledging basic biological and social realities. Women are a historically subjugated group due to our reproductive capacity, excluded from holding both social and political power, and treated as resources for male use. Very quickly, queer and trans activists have attempted to reverse reality, by equating women who recognize our status under patriarchy, as women, to violent men who held some of the most oppressive ideologies and genocidal political regimes humanity has ever known. Of course, feminists have been accused of being totalitarians since the first wave.
“Feminazi” has mostly been a term of abuse that right wing men have used to mock and attack feminists, but more recently it has been the left that has sought to frame feminist ideas as “biologically essentialist” in a bid to equate feminism with Nazism’s central tenet: racist eugenics. When women are branded “Nazi TERFs” online for espousing feminism, it is very clear that what National Socialist ideology actually entails has gotten lost. For wanting to escape the social role enforced onto women due to our biological reproductive potential, feminists are awarded an equivalence with those who wish to determine our fate due to that reproductive capacity. In equating these opposite concepts, those who call radical feminists “Nazi TERFs” perform a sick reversal, claiming women who resist social roles based on biology are Nazis.
The Nazis famously conducted experiments on women interned in concentration camps. These so-called “medical investigations” aimed to study how women become pregnant with twins, the purpose being to generate a method to quickly populate the “master race” of Nordic Europeans by ensuring German women — or other women considered racially pure — could produce a higher rate of twins.
But in reality, this medical experimentation resulted in the torture of thousands of girls and women. Many were maimed, made infertile, and psychologically traumatized through these experiments. Some died during the procedures, and most of those who survived were disposed of afterwards through gassing. The fixation on women as vessels that exist only for male aims is perhaps the furthest thing possible from feminist opposition to women being trapped in the role of social reproduction. This is clear not only in the fight for women to have control and autonomy over their bodies in terms of when and if they give birth, but in challenges to the idea that women’s social role should be conceived around motherhood, being a carer, a cleaner, a cook, and a sexual or emotional servant inside the home. The lesbian feminist vision of women’s emancipation goes even further, arguing that the vast majority of biological reproduction undertaken by women is limiting, unnecessarily medicalizes their bodies, confines them indoors, and renders them in service to men and male society.
While fascists then and now see the nuclear family as the core of society, with the father as its head, radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin saw this model as the means by which women are entrapped by men. To free ourselves requires resisting such domestication and ending patriarchy, as it has been existing materially for 6000 years: with women socially beneath men, ensnared into reproducing a society that benefits men.
The branding of feminists as “Nazis” and “fascists” obfuscates the enormous horror of those regimes, cheapens the memory of those lost, and reduces industrialized mass murder to merely recognizing material reality. Industrialized murder has, unsurprisingly, little in common with feminism as a project or any work towards women’s emancipation. It is men who design the violent systems of our planet and it is women who are the greatest victims of those male-organized structures.
As those who personally witnessed the Holocaust become ever fewer as each year passes, it is up to the rest of us to remember the truth of what took place. The conflation between the misogynistic slur, “TERF,” and “Nazi,” by trans activists, is one reason I’m organizing a women’s history visit to Berlin.
If feminism is to combat the oppressive and violent regimes of men, we must fight to defend the legacies and collective memory of our sisters who came before us. That includes female victims of the Holocaust, their specific suffering, as well as those women who defied their social roles to become fighters, such as the Bielski Partisans, those of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the countless other women who resisted Nazi totalitarianism. Women’s history is so often forgotten. The 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht is an opportunity to remember.
Jen Izaakson is a PhD student at Kingston University’s Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP), researching Freud and post-structuralism. You can find her on Twitter @isacsohn and read more of her work at jenizaakson.wordpress.com.