Each of my novels requires anywhere from 20 to 30 books of research about the era I'm writing in. For the Reschen Valley series, I read German and English materials, and use translation engines for Italian documents. But the gold nugget for The Option (the 4th book in the series and currently in progress) was a book containing 12 interviews with women who were members of this BDM organization.
The fun already began with the translation of the phrase, BDM-Werk. English websites and resources translate the Bund Deutscher Mädel as the German Women's League, but when referring to a specific branch of the BDM, this word Werk was giving me serious food for thought. English language resources call it simply "Society" but I feel there is a better word. In German, Werk is often used for “factory”, and that's exactly where, in Book 4, I am sending our spirited character, Annamarie Steinhauser: into the BDM Faith and Beauty "Factory".
Sabine Hering's and Kurt Schilde's Das BDM-Werk Glaube und Schönheit: Die Organisation junger Frauen im Nationalsozialismus (2004) has been one of the most enlightening books I have ever read on the subject of German nationalism as related to the Hitler youth programs. The profound interviews provide sometimes fresh new angles on the subject, straight from the proverbial mouths of babes.
Here are just a few of the highlights of that research (please note: my observations and summary are based on the anecdotes of real people and their memories of a time that has confounded the world. It is quite possible that you will, as happened to me, perhaps grasp a better understanding of how “this could have ever happened”):
Understanding the Nazi Youth Programs for Women
Girls ages 10 to 14 could join the Jüngmädelbund (JM) followed by the BDM from ages 14-18. The BDM in its original form focussed on unifying the girls in one common thought, dripped in by Nazi ideology in forms of propaganda, songs, and literature; formed the girls physically and psychologically through sport and gymnastics, marching exercises, and strict discipline, as well as feeding them a love and loyalty for their country. They hiked, they camped, they did arts and crafts, put on shows, helped within their communities and raised money. Anyone who was a cub scout or eagle scout, such as I was, knows the drill; the idea is not all that different.
Here is one thing that was likely very different: according to one interview, the girls were “classified” within their group with the blonde, blue-eyed women receiving special attention and sometimes privileges for their “Aryan” purity. Those who did not share the characteristic and celebrated features but could prove their “pure German ancestry” were accepted but some felt they were never “quite right”. Naturally, this caused feelings of envy and shame which, if you remember ever being a teenager, is something that one wrestles with enough already without having an entire system pointing out that you’re not quite adequate.*
Later, as the war crept closer to home, the BDM women were trained to deal with everything ranging from preparation of food and supplies (including agricultural duties to help farmers bring in the harvest) to nursing and, eventually, technological warfare and combat.
From 18 onwards, the girls were allowed to join the National Social Women’s League. However, back in 1938, another idea had come to fruition.
The Purpose of the BDM-Werk Glaube und Schönheit
Founded in 1938, the Faith and Beauty “Factory” served as a bridge between the BDM girl’s youth group and the National Social Women’s League (the latter of which, interestingly enough, almost every single woman interviewed in the book described as elitist, boring, and uninviting).
The “factory” provided a Nazi-infused education in all aspects of housekeeping (cooking, cleaning, preserving, sewing), the arts (acting & theatre, literature, painting, sculpting, fashion designing), sport, fitness and health (javelin throwing, gymnastics, discs, track & field, dancing, etc), and First Aid and nursing. Eventually training in weaponry and warfare also became part of the regimen. Propaganda dripped through everything like a poisonous IV inserted directly into the women’s veins. Few of the women interviewed were immune to it, and even if they were immune to it, they felt helpless to escape the expectations of taking part especially because one lived in a small town.
As opposed to the BDM, women ages 17 to 21 were encouraged and free to pursue their natural interests and talents by joining their chapters, attending courses and participating in events and trainings. Overall, the “factory” produced an institutionalised unification of the German woman. It manufactured a common bond to serve the Fatherland. The result of which, the women reported, instilled in them a feeling of belonging and a great sense of purpose. The founders and architects of the program envisioned the ideal German woman, prepared to put her talents to use as wife, mother and servant to the Reich’s ambitions.
A good majority of the women interviewed claimed that their parents were either liberals or non-party members and, yet, they did not prevent – or could not prevent -- their children from taking part. (One said it was impossible, or their parents would have experienced a backlash.) Some had studied but had to break off their studies because of bombings or lack of money to pay for the university fees. Some then joined the BDM-Werk “because there was nothing else a woman could do. It kept us busy.”
There was also the advantage that the youth programs were well funded and women were rewarded for their performance and service within the group. Leadership positions were always available to the talented. One woman explained that she was working in the back office of a dairy and earned 20 Deutschmark a month. When she was offered a leadership position with the BDM-“Factory”, she earned 200 DM a month, providing her with a comparably better lifestyle.
Leadership training was exceptionally impressive according to all the former BDM leaders interviewed. The educational headquarters were located in Braunschweig (Brunswick) and was a huge state-of-the-art facility. Here, young women and men came to train in their new roles. Everyone had a private room in the dormitories, including their own telephone. The architecture was light, airy and spacious. The women enjoyed a sense of camaraderie like no other, as well as interactions with the young men. However, if a woman wanted to keep her job or her position in the BDM, she had to remain unmarried. As soon as a woman married, she was forced to resign her position. After all, a woman was a wife and mother, first. And if she was pregnant out of wedlock? No problem. She received support from the government. Next to wives and mothers, pure-German children were an important commodity to the Third Reich.**
Hering and Schilde interviewed both leaders and members of the Faith and Beauty Society. Uniquely, the leaders were all very pro-F&B and talked positively about their experiences, sang the songs of praises, and even how much they missed those times. They cited special bonds between the women they worked and studied with. Some were still meeting at the time of the interview and said things like how much they missed the singing. “They were great songs. To this day, I still want to belt them out.”
Non-leader members, on the other hand, mentioned fond memories of the bonds formed through their activities but many of them also related horror stories. There is a distinct difference in the tone of these interviews. Some said that they laughed behind their leaders’ backs about the ridiculous propaganda themes but took part because some were bored, others felt pressured by peers to do so, and still others enjoyed the sense of belonging to something important. One related how she was forced to learn how to swim although she was terrified of the water. Her leader threw her into the lake among other things but in the entire book this one interview shares probably the worst case of abuse in all of them. That does not mean that abuse did not exist, that tactics of shame and humiliation were not regularly exacted. In fact, in other documentaries I’ve watched or read, I have heard of similar stories of women forced to “face their fears” to overcome them.
Some of the interviewees seemed reluctant to talk; their short answers, their dismissals to certain questions, gave me the impression that either they were hiding something or unwilling to speak out the truth for whatever reason. One mentioned that the BDM in her area was horribly organised. She and her friends found it tasking to go to the meetings and they were terribly bored.
What was almost always the case was the fact that each woman felt she had learned something useful from her time with the Faith and Beauty Society. They felt they had been able to apply their talents and strengths to their jobs and daily lives later on. Only one spoke of taking part in combat (artillery); others had left the society due to fleeing from the front or because they got married, or because they got a different job to support their families.
Only a couple of the women really regretted their time with the BDM. Others said it was a “nice time, a good time” and only now, looking back, could they see how distorted and skewed the whole program had been. One claimed that it was not until she was in Poland, at a hospital, and she and her group rushed in to seek out a doctor. There where many Polish soldiers and families waiting for treatment. She and her group marched up to the front of the line and only at the very moment, as she gazed at the suffering people around her, did she realize there was something wrong in their attitude. You see, she said, they had been made to believe that they were superior to the Slavs, that they were greater than them, and therefore they were entitled to see the doctor first. It was the first time, she said, that she felt there might be something wrong with the picture.
One significant comment was made by a woman who grew up in what would later become the DDR (eastern bloc of Germany). She reported that one impact of the Nazi party was the absolute hypocrisy that permeated everything right through the post-war years. Lying, backstabbing, and sheer contempt for “others” was a daily occurrence and it made her “sick”.
All of the women interviewed—no matter how much distaste for or grief over the subject—felt misunderstood.
An outdoor area the size of two football fields. Thousands of young women, dressed in short white dresses are lined up in perfect columns—as straight as cornfields—up and down the field. Imagine being one of these girls.
You live in a small town in eastern Germany, or come from a large city, such as Munich in Bavaria. You have travelled to the “Landtag” in Nuremberg with your closest companions, a group of women with whom you enjoy a freedom you hardly dreamed possible. As opposed to how your mother grew up, you are conscious of a clear role you play in the future of your powerful country. You are filled with hope and you are filled with purpose. You have more than likely matriculated, perhaps you have even studied at university for a time. There is a war coming, with great enemies threatening to overthrow you and your country. You know how your family has struggled through one of the greatest depressions. Perhaps you have a brother who is serving in the military. Either way, today, you know that—far off on that great pyramid-like stage ahead of you, your leader—your Führer—the man who has raised this country from its knees onto its feet, is coming today.
You and thousands of young women like you have been training for this moment. To you, it feels like your entire life. You have learned the choreography and dance with balls, with pins and batons. The music begins. You know this tune. You dreamt it when you were sleeping just as you have been dreaming of these very moves. You turn to your sisters and the dance begins. You toss a ball. You catch it. You dance with it. You swing your arms up with it and throw it back to her—another one who looks just like you, who is just like you, who could be you. And from the corner of your eye, as far as you can see into this field of white-clad bodies, everyone is making the same moves, in the same rhythm. Everyone is dancing exactly this choreographed piece. Women from as far as Norway and Vienna, from Berlin to the smallest sea village in the north: they are all here, and you are all working as one, giant machine. And you? You are the cog in this machine. Without you, it would not work. You know that. You know that Hitler up there would notice if there was one piece missing. If you were not here, he would know it and everything would be off. You are needed. You are important. As is every single woman here on this field today, moving as one.
The idea is so thrilling, so inspiring, you could weep. Instead, you smile because now Hitler is watching and, now, you must dance.
*My husband was recently listening to The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes, in which the author describes how the German race had been deeply admired by the first Romans who had come into contact with them. Why? Because, the Romans reported back to the Empire, the Germans forbade interracial mixing because they wanted to keep their race “pure”. Draw your own conclusions…
**There were scandals throughout the country when—in the early 30s—co-ed camps encouraged young men and women to pair up. Hundreds of teenage pregnancies were reported. In one case, the families took the Nazi youth programs to court and eventually won, at which point the youth groups were prevented from holding any co-ed activities requiring overnight stays. This problem was solved in Brunswick by keeping the dormitory facilities separated. Never mind that tunnels and galleries connected the dormitories to the central training facilities.
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