Feminism Throughout German History



Rhodondo Jeraman


Feminism Throughout German History: A Historical Evaluation of the 

Women’s Feminist Movement from Prussia to the Third Reich



World War II remains the epitome of the human capacity of committing evil and waging war. The tremendous loss of life coupled with the disregard for human dignity attests to the severe and threatening reality at the time. Under both the Nazi regime in Europe and the imperialistic state of Japan in the Pacific, the war would go on to affect all walks of life. The war would tumble the status quo and act as the catalyst for the creation of modern superpowers. An essential part of this status quo included the gender roles women played during the ongoing war and is an idea often forgotten amid the chaos of WWII. Under Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, the women’s feminist movement in Germany, which was so prevalent under the Weimar Republic ceased to exist and came with extreme subjugation of women. The ideology that Hitler’s fascist society had towards women came swift and included the pressure of strong, traditional childbearing roles along with the removal of any social or political autonomy. This way of life during the 1930’s and 40’s would continue well after the Paris Peace treaties ending the war, but the movement would never regain the same momentum it had before Nazi control. In this paper I will dive into the causes of the setbacks of the German feminist movement in a historical approach and will argue that under the Third Reich, the feminist movement was dramatically halted to the point that the implications of the progression of women’s rights would remain silenced years after Nazi control was over.

The Federal Republic of Germany emerged from the ashes of the Prussian empire that includes the modern nations of Germany, Poland,  Austria, and the eastern most parts of Russia.[1] Under Fredrick the I, Prussia flourished for over a century until the rise of Napoleon in 1805, who posed a serious threat to Prussian life and autonomy with his unrelenting pursuit of conquest. During this time, Prussia produced some of the most talented artists in western civilization with promising young men such as Beethoven, Mozart, Kant, and Bach all coming from this empire. These men gave Prussia a prominent status in the threshold of European powers and showed that Prussia was just as powerful a power as Britain, France, and Spain. Achievements in victory of war also heightened the sense of nationalism in Prussia, coming after the fall of Napoleon at the British-Prussian victory at Waterloo in 1815.[3] This victory also led to their growth as a nation, when the Congress of Vienna ruled that Prussia was to regain lands from France, specifically in the Rhineland’s. Shifting to domestic life, the majority of people in Prussia at this time were heavily focused on agriculture and before the Industrial Revolution, the majority of people were peasants and were enlightened and inspired by the ideas that their French neighborhoods had. Through the works of philosophers like Immanuel Kant, ideas traveled fast and wide. Kant, a fellow Prussian had views on logical reasoning and believed, “in the free, democratic use of reason to examine everything, however traditional, authoritative, or sacred”.[4] He was fixed on the relationship of morality, religion and science and people clung to these ideas, resulting in the increased return to the Protestant church. This was major in getting people back to a structured way of life and gives context of the time period in early Prussia.

During the same time in the early 1800’s, Prussian women were still set to simple lifestyles that were focused on the four K’s as society labeled it. These were Kinder, Kirche, Küche, and Kleider, referring to children, church, kitchen and clothes.[5] These ideas capture the roles that women were committed to and shows the desperate need for a feminist movement, however, it would not be seen in Prussia for another fifty years. While there were talk of women gaining more rights and freedoms specifically in education reform, it never produced any real results. While other European nations like England and France were starting to give women rights to education with feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, who pushed for the rights to equal education, Prussia remained with slow progression until the formation of the German Federal Republic in the 20th century. The idea to extend suffrage to women were still at the beginning stages and an important factor to this was the fear of granting women suffrage would lead to the result in more socialist votes. Women like Sophie Mereau wrote novels that had early feminist ideas but was seen as nothing more than fiction by the male patriarchy. By the near ending of the Prussian empire, more women began reading books such as these, which sparked curiosity for many women.

The fall of the Prussian empire came in 1871, due to the craving of a united nation, and with this, the Prussian sovereign evolved into the German sovereign which totaled a population nearing 25 million and in twenty years, grew to 40 million.[6] In many ways this new German nation was a big step into the feminist movement in Germany. Leaders such as Anna Simson, and Auguste Förster were inspired at America’s own World Congress of Representative Women and it took many of the same ideologies back to Germany with them. These women wrote books and distributed pamphlets that encouraged being social and partaking in associations. Women were becoming more organized and middle-class women took part in groups like the Bund Deutscher Frauenverine (BDF), which translates to the Union of German Feminist Organizations – the German take of the World Congress of Representative Women. It was established in 1894 and included 137 separate women’s right activists up until the Nazi Regime in 1930.[7] These associations also included the Allgemeiner Deutscher Frauenverein which was the General Union of German Women. With the emergence of these groups, women were gaining some independence from the household and were on track to achieving more rights. It was a new method of challenging the typical tradition roles women were used to, in a non-violent and demonstrative way. There started being more calls for suffrage for women, the right to legal abortion, and reform to divorce laws. The voice of these ideas landed on Marie Stritt, who worked to change the divorce laws through the Women’s Legal Aid Society. Seen as a pioneer in feminist thought, she was an advocate of contraception and abortion. Frauenlogik, a piece that she wrote in 1892, translates to Women Logic, where she critiques the way men have seen women as the inferior gender. Her writings seem to have had a huge impact on the shift of ideologies in the way German women were seeing themselves and soon, change would be on the way.

By the 20th century, Germany found themselves in Wilhelmine Period and Germany was at the epicenter of feminist reform, as the right of suffrage was extended to all women in 1918, two years ahead of the United States. The period was coined after Emperor Wilhelm II who signed the doctrine into effect. Studies done by German educators like Edward H. Clarke shows the rapid progression of women in Germany. One of his studies showed that by 1880, the formal education for middle- and upper-class girls was normal in Germany’s education system. Clarke concluded that “Evidently the notion that a boy’s education and a girl’s education should be the same, has penetrated the German mind.”[8] The next step for women in Germany, was the opportunity to attend and gain higher education which was rare, however, with more young women in the upper and middle-class pressuring universities, within five years, from 1900-1905, women soon graduated German Universities. Anita Augspurg became a very important feminist in the 1900’s, as she was the first college graduate in Germany, finishing school in 1904, graduating from the University of Zurich.[9] More women were getting degrees in practices such as law but the next obstacle for these women were finding jobs. Getting equal work was essential for Germany to continue this new-found sense of gender equality but sadly, it was too soon for German society and these women found themselves instead working as legal aids. Marie Stritt who was previously fighting for women rights to divorce and suffrage as mentioned earlier even created her own legal agency which hired these women. This shows a sisterhood between women as a way of keeping the feminist movement strong in light of the male dominant workforce discrimination.

Amid all this progression for women rights, WWI broke out with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and shockingly, did not revert the perception of women in Germany. As part of the central powers, Germany found themselves in an intense and bloody conflict with the Allied powers and the “war fever” as labeled by the German press was proud and most people supported the war.[10] The war ensued from 1914 – 1916 with fierce dogfights and horrific trench warfare conditions. Germany built up its armaments and the nation had some considerable victories at battles such as the Battle of Lorraine, Antwerp, Mulhouse, and Charlerol, but as time went on, Germany could not do anything about the royal navy or had the economic support to continue funding this war.[11] By 1918, Germany’s position in the war looked grim and America’s involvement into the late stage of the war was too much for the central powers to handle. By July of 1918, the German citizenry were opposed to the war and there was a political shift to more left-socialist polices which called for the end of war. Opposition to the war were frequent and uprising like in Kiel in northern Germany saw a civilian led revolt that marked the start of the German Revolution.[12] When the war ended, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, and the revolution was ended, resulting in the creation of the Weimar Republic. The Weimar Republic was smaller than the original borders Germany once had, and their territories were carved from the victors of the Allied powers. That is not to say that the war reparations Germany had to pay were dissolved, they still stood, and Germany found itself in severe economic depression.

 By 1919, Germany’s new constitution of Weimar further pushed the progression of women’s right’s despite the continued extreme financial crisis. The constitution legally enacted the equality of education for both sexes, gave equal pay in professions and granted equal civil service under the law. Along with this, women were now able to gain representation not only the local level, but the national level. The famous Reichstag building in Berlin attests to this. Records indicate that in the Reichstag’s building there were 32 women deputies. While only 6.7% of the total Reichstag, this percent was way above any other European nation like Britain who had only 2.1% of women in Parliament, and the United States with only 1.1% of total women in congress in 1922.[13] A leading factor of this was the BDF who was still a prominent force in the feminist movement who had a whopping 300,000 members at the beginning of WWI. Even after the war, the growth of the feminist organization exponentially grew to over 900,000 members.[14] This shows the strong commitment to the equal rights of women and how more Germans were realizing that the rights ensured to men should also be guaranteed to women. Therefore, the Weimar Republic was an era of political autonomy and despite being in a depression after the devastating loss of 1.1 million German citizens in WWI [15], looking at Germany in a feminist lens, it was still a progressive nation, indebted to achieving women’s rights. This led Germany in being an example to other nations trying to gain women’s rights and freedoms, however, by 1930, these progressions took a turn for the worst.

With Germany in complete economic devastation, a strong nationalistic politician came into the political sphere, Adolf Hitler.  An Austrian born citizen, Hitler saw the effects of the Treaty of Versailles as a personal attack on his beloved country and the rebuilding of Germany and Austria became his new mission. In 1929, citizens of Germany had lost faith in their government whose job was to provide for the people. Out of this discontent, the vacuum that Hitter needed to push his political agendas were wide open, and Hitler took full advantage of this. Hitler’s promises that that he made to the German people, was the reunification and return of Germany as the greatest country in the world. Hitler was an expert at getting people to forget reason by empathizing to their emotions. In speeches to crowds to get their support for his political Nazi party on January 30th, 1937 he stated “…But we did not see the task of the National Socialist revolution as destroying human lives or property, but rather to build a new and better life.” As ironic as a quote that would be, it gave the German citizens the hope of a brighter, stronger Germany, an idea they clung onto. In 1933, the Reichstag building was partially burnt down and with that Hitler soon became chancellor of Germany. Quickly, Hitler disbanded the Social Democratic party, removed any challenging political parties, and became dictator of Germany.  His first objective after taking over was to unsurprisingly dissolve the Reichstag of all further duties. A building that once served as a democratic voice for the people, including women, under the Weimar Republic was now home to arguably the most vile regime to ever wreak havoc on humanity.

With Germany under Hitler’s domain, he implemented his fascist government that changed Germany in all spheres of life, culturally, religiously, socially and economically. The changes he would go on to implement would continue with Germany years after the defeat of the Nazis under the Allies. By the use of propaganda, the spread of Hitler’s ideologies spread to the men and women of Germany. As highlighted in Mein Kampf, “By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise.” This approach in getting Germany prepared for an ideological war, as well as the actual war would be highly crucial to his success in the strong nationalism he endorsed. Under Hitler, the fascist ideology quickly spread and radicalized many people into committing hate crimes towards gypsies, Jews, communists, people who were mentally ill and all those deemed non-aryan. Included in these groups were women and children who were granted no quarter and were seen as enemies of the state. These were people Hitler blamed and considered responsible for the German deficit and as a result, the formation of a secret police or Gestapo were in charge of ensuring they were placed in ghettos and concentration camps a few years later.[16] As Hitler began changing his policies towards these groups, he also started heavily funding the military wing of Germany since he saw war as the only engine towards human progress. This eventually left Hitler with an insatiable hunger for expansion and drove him to break the Treaty of Versailles. He began his military campaign in Poland, a country that he saw as an illegal colony, stemming from when Prussia once controlled it. Once Poland was acquired he continued in seizing Albania, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, France, Greece, Yugoslavia, Austria and Italy.[17] With these lands captured, the fascist ideology spread throughout Europe like a wildfire, and the torches of WWII were lit.

As part of the Nazi ideology, German women were also heavily marginalized and stripped of rights they once had. This 360-degree pivot from the direction they were on for so many years marked the beginning of the return to traditional roles for women. Fascism went against everything feminism stood for, including socialism, rights to education, and being equal under the law. Due to this revert to traditional roles, heterosexual marriages spiked, birth rates were higher, and the divorce rate was much lower, so much so that it was the lowest in fifty years prior to the Nazi takeover.[18] Under policies like Lebensborn set up in 1935, which translates to the fountain of life, Hitler heavily encouraged German mothers and single women to birth children with SS members. The goal of programs such as this was to raise the birth rate of the Aryan nation, blonde hair and blue eyes. Under this policy women had to care for the children and in return would receive a stipend monthly to take care of the children while their husbands were at war. “It is the honorable duty of all leaders of the central bureau to become members of the organization” comes from the application to be admitted to the program.[19] Other programs that stressed the importance of the traditional lifestyle of family like the Motherhood Cross were sent in place to be an incentive to having more kids. This sadistic method of forcing childbearing roles upon women essentially worked as a reward system. The more kids a woman would have, the more awards they would receive. A bronze reward went to any Aryan women who had 4 children, silver to whoever had 6, and gold went to whoever had 8 or more. This was a system that came with perks such as receiving financial aid from the government and receiving tax benefits. [20] To ensure that women were having as many kids as possible, the use of contraception was prohibited and with abortion outlawed in 1933, there wasn’t much a women could to do stop an unwanted pregnancy. This was only the beginning of the terrible conditions women in Germany had to go through and many more laws would be set in place that would tear down any prior progression of a feminist movement.

Socially, the feminist movement was slowing down, the memberships to programs like BDF and the General Union of German Women stopped, and the programs that pushed for feminist rights were stopped, heavily due to the public shunning of going against the new status quo and the fear of being arrested or even assassinated in rare instances. In the school system, girls were learning how to be proper housewives, and the education women received became extremely limited. Feminist writings and books were burnt and replaced with motherhood books. Higher education for women was halted and women attending medical school dropped from 20% to 4%. [21] In the workforce, Hitler’s Third Reich reduced the rights of women of serving in juries by claiming that women cannot “think logically or reason objectively”.  Women could no longer become judges and were stripped of the freedom they once enjoyed under the Weimar Republic.  Culturally, German women were coped into wearing traditional German clothes to emphasis the importance having Aryan virtues of modesty. It eventually became socially wrong for women to put on makeup, wear short skirts, dye their hair, and smoke in public.[22] These restrictions set by the Nazi’s forced ideologies to change and within ten years, this became a way of life for women in Germany and its occupied territories. 

There were some women in Germany who conformed to Hitler’s new policies and adapted to the sudden change of limited autonomy. These were women who benefited from the increase of leisure time and saw Hitler’s new laws as a way of getting German women back on a moral track. The Hitler youth movement was prominent in doing so, with young girls essentially becoming brainwashed by Nazi cartoons that told them what was expected of them. Once these girls reached 17, they were the epitome of strong Nazi sentiment, having only known Nazi ideology since being born. These women wanted to be involved in the war effort and with the war ensuing all over Europe, over 2.4 million German women between 1933 and 1939 gained jobs in the factories.[23] While German women were not able to attain any public office, they could become members of the National Socialist party and many joined despite the conditions they lived in. From 1944, with the war coming to an end with the Allied storm of Normandy, over 500,000 women volunteers formed brigades in the Wehrmacht, or the armed forces. In addition, 400,000 volunteered as nurses and medics, attending injured SS. In the infamous Luftwaffe, or the German Air Force, women served in combat roles mostly shooting down British and American bombers with anti-vehicle artillery. It reflects the anti-western views German women had which was an effect of the Nazi propaganda in full effect. Despite living as second class citizens, these women were willing to put their lives on the line to protect an ideology that had so rapidly taken over every aspect of their life.

By December of 1944, Germany launched its final assaults against the Allies as the war was drawing to an end. Hitler, realizing his efforts were doomed after the encompassing of Berlin committed suicide in fear of the Soviets capturing him and the powerful Nazi regime was over. Now only Japan remained, and after the atom bombings on Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki by President Truman,  Japan finally surrendered. Coined World War II, the war resulted in the deadliest military conflict in history.  2% of the entire world population was gone, and the German causalities numbered 4.3 million dead and 500,000 injured. [24] At the Yalta conference, the Allied Powers came together to go about how to ensure Germany would never again start another war like this one. Germany’s transgressions and the Holocaust, an operation unbeknownst to the Allies, resulted in the decision to divide Germany into four zones. Southwest went to France, Northwest went to Britain, the South went the US, and the Soviets got the Eastern section. There was a fear of political factions emerging from the fascist government and the Allies suppressed them by dividing the land and keeping a close eye on Germany’s military wing.

Germany was left in shatters from bombings, most infrastructure was destroyed and the task to rebuild the country was a slow process. Anti-western sentiment continued within German society and many women decided to retain their traditional roles in German society as set in place by the Third Reich. They were used to the conformities of traditional roles and did not question these roles until several decades later. Ironically, the demographic changes resulting from WWII resulted in a lager proportion of women but, yet it did not result in the same proportion of representation. Political life was conservative under the CDU, or Christian Democratic Union who took control of the government in West Germany. The first founders of the CDU were ex-Nazis like Hans Globke but after investigations, German authorities were able to imprison them for their involvement in the war. Out of this time came a confused direction for Germany, were they to go back to be a socialist nation like the former Weimar Republic, or a more theological government unlike the Nazi regime? The decision to form an interfaith party led to a combined ideology of both, leading to a liberal conservatist government. The new constitution was formed and was known as the Grundgesetz which is still the law of modern Germany.[25] Under this liberal conservatist government,  it explicitly states that men and women have equal rights. Women got back rights of running for public office and rights to education were again extended. However, no longer was Germany an inspiration for other nations to follow in terms of feminism. The underlying factor to this was the unsung notion of how the Nazi’s extreme policies of propaganda and brainwashing led to the reluctancy to question social norms. Women were now choosing to not go to Universities, they were choosing to continue dressing in the same fashion, and they continued to lead traditional lifestyles. Being allowed to do things was completely different than actually doing them, and it was something women in Germany could not adjust to quickly. Therefore, the Nazis, while being eradicated, still impacted the feminist movement that played well into the future.

Sadly, a once rich wave of feminism in German which had achieved so much from the Prussian empire to 1920’s Germany ceased to exist. While there were a few women groups proposing for more women rights in the workplace after the fall of the Third Reich, never again did the momentum Germany once had regain its prominence. It took almost twenty years later for the second wave of feminism in Germany to emerge. It came as a response to the constrictions set in place by the Nazi’s in gender roles, and social attitudes to how women were treated. There is not much information of any feminist movement between 1940-1960 due to the lack of any interest in one. But, by the 1960’s women started to re-question their roles and were advocates in regaining their reproductive rights to abortion. Women such as Helke Sander, and Cristina Perincioli were the voices that used their outlets to achieve these new rights. [26] Through books and films these women managed to incite the second wave of feminism that Germany badly needed. It wouldn’t be until the reunification of both Germanys’, that the nation would finally come together under a single federal government. The rise of feminism in Germany was finally rising again, and on December 7th, 2018, Angela Merkel became elected as Chancellor of Germany.

This election marks the progression of feminism in Germany which is now at par with most first world nations, but the question as to how developed the feminist movement would have been in Germany been without the rise of fascism still lingers. The Nazi regime’s impacts on the feminist movement led to serious indirect implications on the mindset of women. While Hitler was unable to achieve his ultimate goal of world domination, his policies towards women in Europe were systematically set in place to ensure that even if he lost the war, he would have won the ideological war. Thanks to later feminists, Germany was eventually able to achieve equal treatment under the law and become equal to men. While there are still inequalities in Germany such as equal pay for equal work, most of the ideas that women hoped to achieve have turned out successful in modern Germany. The hopes and dreams of women stemming from the Prussian empire were always seen as distant, and the ability for the German nation to keep progressing rights for women highlights the attitude of German citizens to improve the quality of life for women. Unfortunately, the Third Reich came with many setbacks to this progression and the effects of the Nazi’s continued well after its downfall. The history of the German feminist movement outlines the constant struggle women had to face, and the setbacks they endured to finally get the rights they fought so hard for.



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