‘Nazi TERF’ misunderstands fascism and ignores the brutal truth about women in the Holocaust

On the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, we must remember women victims of the Holocaust, and defend the legacies and collective memory of our sisters who came before us.

Jewish women being deported in Russia in July 1941. (Image: Wikimedia Commons/German Federal Archive

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

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  • Joanna

    You write: “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.” It’s not true that Jews were forced into ghettos in Poland before the Nazi invasion of the country in 1939.

  • Joanna

    Regarding Nazi attitudes towards prostitution, “it remains one of the lesser known aspects of Nazi terror that Sachsenhausen, Dachau and even Auschwitz included brothels, and that female concentration camp prisoners were forced into prostitution… Austrian resistance fighter Antonia Bruha, who survived the Ravensbrück camp, reported years ago that, ‘the most beautiful women went to the SS brothel, the less beautiful ones to the soldiers’ brothel.’ And the rest ended up in the concentration camp brothel.” http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/concentration-camp-bordellos-the-main-thing-was-to-survive-at-all-a-632558.html .

  • Марія Дмитрієва

    untermenschen did not just occasionally mean ‘masses from the East’, we the Eastern Europeans, Ukrainians and Belarussians specifically, were indeed considered untermenschen by the Nazis and were scheduled for complete extermination. one in every four Belarussians and one in every five Ukrainians perished in that war.

  • Jen Miller

    What a powerful piece of writing. Thank you for keeping these memories in our consciousness now, during these difficult times.

  • Misanthropia

    There’s no hope for women. I feel so sad and depressed to know the depth of the the atrocities that women have endured. At the same time I’m angry. I’m so angry that I can look at a bepenised creature(not worthy of being called man or even male) and not feel any love for him, even if he’s family. I hate this stupid fucking patriarchal world and I want to burn it to the ground.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Not all animals are patriarchal…

    • Alienigena

      To name a few – Richardson’s ground squirrels, macaques (Rhesus and Japanese) – both are matrilines (groups of related females, where males of reproductive age are peripheral), the macaques have female-centred hierarchies.

      • Meghan Murphy

        Also elephants and lions!

        • Jess Stephens

          Bonobo apes (considered our closest living relatives, alongside chimpanzees) are also matriarchal. Oh and orca whales.

    • Misanthropia

      It’s funny how males think that patriarchy is a superior system when if you compare the three famous species of hyena, the spotted, striped and the brown, you see its the spotted hyena that is the matriarchal one out of the three and has the largest groups out of all of three and actually manages to kill far more prey than the other two species instead of just relying on scavenging. Who’s the fucking boss now huh fellas?

  • Alienigena

    Yes, women were complicit and I am aware of the female concentration camp guards who were charged and convicted. I said philosophical and military leaders though Riefenstahl was a propagandist she wasn’t Goebbels, she didn’t set the agenda. She used her gifts for evil, for lack of a better word. I am often very hard on women I see as complicit but I have no experience of war and what it is like to live under a regime where dissidents are in danger of imprisonment and death. That same teacher I mentioned in my original post talked about his 14 year old cousin refusing to join the Hitler Youth who made jokes about Hitler publicly and ended up in prison writing the truth of his experience in his own urine (invisible ink for the desperate) to his family. I have read many books about the Holocaust (fact and fiction) but women are mostly an afterthought in the factual books. I don’t buy the line about Germans being unaware about what was happening to their Jewish neighbours. I mean their homes and possessions were confiscated and given to people friendly to the Nazi regime and the owners went where … People must have seen what was happening to their Jewish neighbours, they heard Hitler’s speeches. What did they think was happening.

    Re: true believing women. There was a recent CBC radio programme about an ex-white supremacist, a woman who talked about the only other women at meetings being the girlfriends of male true believers. These women rolled their eyes at the ideas being shared at these meetings but I wonder, did they leave these men when they heard what they believed. Most probably did not.

    https://www.cbc.ca/radio/outintheopen/cut-through-hate-1.4450415/former-member-of-canadian-white-supremacist-group-says-hatred-must-be-met-with-an-open-heart-1.4450432

    Do we treat so-called collaborators the same as true believers, the women whose heads were shaved after WW2 and who were often stripped of their clothing? I was raised to have disgust for collaborators but most of the images I have seen only sexually humiliated the female collaborators (those who had sex with German military men). A lot of male collaborators seemed to prosper after the war, after people conveniently forgot their role in helping the Nazis.

    “A large number of the victims were prostitutes who had simply plied their trade with Germans as well as Frenchmen, although in some areas it was accepted that their conduct was professional rather than political. Others were silly teenagers who had associated with German soldiers out of bravado or boredom.”
    https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/jun/05/women-victims-d-day-landings-second-world-war

    These images come from Denmark, post-liberation.
    https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2606992/Graphic-monochrome-images-liberated-Denmark-kidnap-squads-hunted-abused-women-slept-Germans-end-WWII.html

  • Alienigena

    Thanks I will look for a copy.

  • Misanthropia

    I hate it when males use nature to justify their oppression of us, when really they have to go out of their way to oppress us. Women are central to this planet’s ongoing survival and the upkeep of the communities, its MALES who are peripheral. Without us there would literally be no humanity.

  • antrenteau

    “I have never seen the Holocaust or WW2 described from the collective perspective of women”

    Someone already gave you a reference about imprisoned women, I can’t recommend enough Svetlana Alexievich’s book about russian women fighting during the war, named “War Unwomanly’s Face”. Extremely powerful book made of testimonies of women on the front. All of her other books are about important events of the USSR (Chernobyl, Afghan War, children in the War, end of the USSR) and are all well worth the read.
    I must warn you that all of those are pretty rough books, but then the subjects…

  • antrenteau

    At some point, the wikipedia article about german camp brothels was using the term “sex workers/sex work” and barred direct references to homosexuality (under the guise of “sexual orientation”) or terms like “slavery” or anything being “forced”. Learning that I and some other people went on to change that… and it has stayed as such, until now hopefully.

  • Helena Brors

    No, Joy Division was the name of the brothels in Ka-tzetnik’s novel ”House of dolls”. The brothel Antonia Bruha was in was called Puff. The madam, or Puff Mutter, rang a bell every 20
    minutes, which coincided with the burning shifts in the gas chambers.

  • Nadja Penaluna

    The authors educational background in Freudian pychology and post-structuralism accounts for her reinterpretation of the material and historical conditions that gave rise to the Holocaust.

    It was the political opposition of the working-class comprised of Jews, political dissenters and sympathizers, many of whom were women and some who were homosexual, that posed a major threat to borgeoise rule and German imperialism through the organizational power of the socialist and communist parties.

    • unfashionable

      What? “bourgeois rule”? “working class comprised of Jews”? You can’t just make up history and expect a response.

      • Nadja Penaluna

        Maybe a quote from Hitler himself will be more convincing. In Mein Kampf he states, “the scales dropped from my eyes when I recognized the Jew as a leader of Social Democracy…the Jewish doctrine of Marxism rejects the aristocratic principle of nature and replaces the eternal privilege of power and strength by the mass numbers and their dead weight. Thus denies the value of personality in man, contests the significance of nationality and race, and thereby withdraws from humanity the premise of its existence and its culture.”

        Hitler hated Jews because of their political membership in the social democratic party, their orientation towards, and membership in a working class heavily influenced by socialism. He couldn’t expand the fascist empire throughout Europe without liquidating all opposition to German imperial expansion. The most threatening barrier was represented by the socialist workers movement, of which many Jews belonged. Hitler was repelled by the Jews because they led the powerful labour movement.

  • paniedejmirade

    The first ghetto in Poland was established by the Nazis in October 1939. Prior to that there was something called “ghetto benches” which was a system of segregating Jewish students from gentile students in university lecture halls. While an abhorent pratice it did not amount to a “forcible removal of Jewish men, women, and children from their homes”.

    So yes, it’s absolutely true that Poland has a history of antisemitism dating waaaay before 1939. But your (And the authors? Her wording is a bit ambiguous) assertion about Polish ghettos is not supported by any historical sources and I’m kind of baffled where did you even get this idea from.

  • Misanthropia

    I’m not saying that a matriarchy would be pacifist but it sure wouldn’t be dysfunctional and ineffective to the point of rapists walking free. I think we would more or less direct the brutality on those who deserve it instead of indiscriminately.

  • Joanna

    cindy827, you base your claims on an “idea” you got from your grandparents. What about historical sources? There are plenty of historical sources on Jews’ history in Poland before 1939.

    There were Jewish neighbourhoods in many Polish cities and towns, but NO ONE forced Polish Jews to live in them.

    Do you realize that some of the most famous Polish writers, activists etc. in the 1930s were Jews? It’s obvious that you know nothing about Poland and its history – the only source of your claims is what your grandparents have SUPPOSEDLY told you.

    You want to censor others here only because they state a historical fact – that there were no ghettos in Poland before 1939! You don’t provide ANY evidence for your own claims! Please stop assuming that everyone should believe you only because you claim that your grandparents were Polish Jews. And by the way, what makes you assume that I and paniedejmirade are not Jewish?

    Your ignorance and your attempts at censorship are quite funny, but I will ignore any further replies from you – I have better things to do. And please read about the history of Jews in Poland instead of attacking people online 😉

  • paniedejmirade

    If it’s such a well known fact can you point me to any sources that support your claim?

    Because no, I’m not obliged to believe anything just because a person on the inernet said so.

  • cindy0827

    you still haven’t explained how the fact that some women supported Nazism (which is of course true) changes the fact that it was a male oriented movement. oh, by the way, how does it feel to know everything? to be an expert on everything? wow, that’s really something…. just think, a Leftist who thinks he or she knows everything!

  • marv

    Racism certainly was the driver of the Holocaust. It would be historical revisionism to treat this oppression as rooted in economic and imperial class struggle. Marxism is a valuable lens to see the world but it is often used in reductionist ways.

  • Марія Дмитрієва

    the leaders of Ukrainian nationalists were executed or sent to concentration camps, Ukrainian nationalists were executed along with Jewish people, Ukraine (where any attempts to save Jewish people led to immediate execution of the helper and his / her family) has the third largest number of the Righteous among the nations in the world but yes, please do repeat the Soviet libel about evil Western Ukrainians.

  • Марія Дмитрієва

    there is a difference between Jewish settlements (shtetls) or ghettoes, or segregated parts of towns — and concentration camps, to which they were forced by the Nazis. in some places the Nazis indeed used the existing town ghettos to gather the Jewish people and starve and exterminate them.
    the wording in the original article is indeed ambiguous.

  • Марія Дмитрієва

    are you Russian, by any chance? there were no fascists in Western Ukraine. there were the Nazis, who invaded it after the Soviets invaded it, and before that it was Poland that invaded it. and then there were Ukrainian nationalists, who were fighting off all of the above.