For Hitler and many leading Nazi officials, men and women differed not only with respect to biology, but also in terms of character. It thus followed that the sexes should play very different roles in the new state and new society. Strongly opposing the emancipationist trends of the Weimar Republic, Hitler laid out some of his basic views on women’s roles in a September 1934 speech to the National Socialist Women’s League.
The Nazi emphasis on women’s maternal role reflected both biological determinism and a perceived demographic imperative: namely, the need to increase the German population. Those who married and bore children in sufficient numbers benefited from a series of positive financial incentives (such as a 1933 marriage loan program) and status enhancements (such as the “Mother Cross” award) (33). Such efforts may well have contributed to an increase in birthrates during the mid-1930s, but economic recovery probably also played a role.
The flip side of Nazi population policy included strenuous efforts to ban abortion and restrict access to birth control, as well as a systematic campaign against homosexuality led by a special police office, the Reich Central Office for Combating Homosexuality and Abortion [Reichszentrale zur Bekämpfung der Homosexualität und Abtreibung]. Speaking at a conference of medical experts in April 1937, the head of this office, Josef Meisinger (1889-1947), laid out the more-or-less official view that male homosexuality was a predominantly learned behavior that could – and must – be changed.
Since many women could not marry or become mothers, and since some married women chose to work, the number of women in the labor force was substantial (and rose over time as labor shortages developed). But even the outbreak of war did not change the basic Nazi view that the female worker was the exception and not the rule; therefore, the government ratified existing policy against the conscription of women into the labor force. Shortly thereafter, Himmler encouraged all members of the SS and the police to ensure that they left children behind before heading off to battle. Moreover, he explicitly repudiated the limits of bourgeois conventions (i.e., the need to marry before having children), explaining that they did not apply to German women during wartime. This assertion prompted an immediate backlash, forcing Himmler to issue a clarification. Still, he did not retreat from his basic position.
The continuation of the war and the attendant rise in German casualties sparked high-level discussions about the need to increase the birthrate to compensate for wartime losses. The relative surplus of women meant that many would be unable to marry. This, in turn, meant that most distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate children would have to be eliminated in the postwar period. In a note dated January 29, 1944, Martin Bormann, who, as head of the Party Chancellery, enjoyed more day-to-day contact with Hitler than other officials, put forth a set of ambitious and expensive initiatives to support single mothers of multiple children.
(33) Claudia Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland (New York: St. Martin’s, 1988).