Women in Nazi ideology and the Nazi economy

The position of women in the German economy

The economic situation was dire when Hitler came to power. Germany was on the brink of bankruptcy. The decrease in income contributed to the radicalisation of the electorate after 1929 and the rise of the National Socialist movement. The Nazi leaders did not have a magic formula to solve the economic problems. In the early years, the attention went towards economic recovery. Once he had consolidated his power, Hitler chose to concentrate the economy on potential war, which implied greater interference by the government. Increased rearmament went hand in hand with greater autarky. The Four Year Plan, which began in 1936, was intended to make the German industry self-sufficient, particularly in oil, steel and rubber.

The most important goal was improving employment opportunities. The unemployment crisis was a key point in the Nazi attacks on the Weimar government. Between 1929 and 1933, the number of Germans working full-time fell from 20 million to 11.4 million. Interestingly enough, German women held a larger proportion of jobs than in other industrial countries. This, while they were officially registered as unemployed. The most important reason for this was the poor German economy. To battle against the recession, business leaders put women to work because they were cheaper. Initially the Nazi’s pushed women out of the economy.

Thanks to special projects, such as the construction of roads, bridges and houses and the promotion of the automobile and motor industry (for example, Volkswagen), unemployment fell slowly from 1933 onwards. The economic recovery is explained time and time again as a result of rearmament but that only became economically significant around 1934-1935 when the recovery had already begun. Why did it take so long for rearmament to pick up speed? Hitler saw the creation of employment opportunities and public investment as an important part of the social and material rebuilding of the country. Roads were the symbol of the new Nazi period. The first armament programmes were camouflaged to avoid conflict with the powers of the Treaty of Versailles. It was also unclear how military investments could be made without causing inflation. Finally, the military became a supporter of gradual rearmament because they did not want the economy to be overwhelmed after the heavy crisis. This made it difficult to quickly and effectively transform the economy into a war economy.

From 1936 onwards, the economy was being prepared for war. The production of luxury items was made secondary to military production. Indirect rearmament between 1936 and 1939 was more important than the direct production of military equipment because this way, the economy could slowly be transformed into a war economy and the number of educated labourers was expanded. The growing economic activity brought many women into heavy industry and the weapons sector. Between 1938 and 1941, the number of women in the chemical industry rose by 67% and by 59% in the metal industry. Nevertheless, the economy was not ready when war was declared in September 1939. The larger projects (such as oil production and the railways) were far from finished. The plans for the armament of the air force and the navy were not yet realised. Many of the problems that Germany faced during the war were as a result of the war's premature beginning.

In 1936, it became clear that Germany had too few workers. There was a shortage of workers outside of the traditional labour market. This meant that women had to be put to work and a switch in National Socialist labour politics was necessary. Until 1936, excluding women was an effective way to manipulate employment statistics. The Nazi’s created work for men by removing women from these positions. This was closely linked to the National Socialist belief in the biological function of women as mothers and housewives and was promoted by awarding loans with low interest to young married couples, on the condition that the wife would give up her job.

Due to the shortage of workers, the Nazi attitude changed but the measures for increasing female employment did not always have the desired effect. However, there was an increase in the proportion of women in the machine, mining and steel industries but at the same time the number women in the service industry increased by 166,000. The percentage of women in agriculture rose insufficiently which increased the burden of other workers. Many DAF reports stated that women in agricultural areas were overworked and were under great stress which sharply contrasted published propaganda. This contradiction also applied to the only pre-war measure regarding women’s labour that was put in place, women’s compulsory work service. In 1935 girls aged 16 and over were obliged to complete one year of compulsory labour as a housekeeper or in agriculture. On 1st January 1939 the measure was extended to all women under the age of 25. These measures were controversial. Hermann Göring stated that women should remain at home and should not work but he thought that, under the circumstances, the measures were justified.

It was often said that Germany did not sufficiently succeed in extracting the full benefit from female labour reserves in comparison to the UK and the USA. If Germany had succeeded in this, the country could have achieved much higher production numbers. Nazi ideology and the fear of demanding too much from the German public stood in the way. This theory was based on the fact that the absolute number of women labourers barely rose during the war, but it has since been refuted by several authors (Herbert, Stephenson and Overy). Germany already had a high rate of female labour at the end of the 1930s and during the war there was a reorganisation of female labourers into military sectors. The first point is of particular importance. The employment of women increased from 1935/6 as a result of the regime's labour policy. The increase was noticeable: From 13% to 19% in the iron, steel and machine industries, from 12% to 29% in electrical engineering and from 18% to 25% in the precision and optical instruments sector. In 1939, the number of employed women stood at 14.8 million or 37.4% In the UK it was ‘only’ 26.4%. During the war the number of women in German industry rose to 51%, however the number of British women in industry rose to just 37.9% This did not fit into the traditional view of the Nazis as fervent opposers of female employment. They indeed thought that it was not ideal that women (certainly married women) were working outside of the home, however they put their ideology aside due to labour shortages and for the ultimate goal of winning the war.

Proportion of women in employment
Germany United Kingdom United States
May 1939 37,3% June 1939 26,4% - -
May 1940 41,4% June 1940 29,8% 1940 25,8%
May 1941 42,6% June 1941 33,2% 1941 26,6%
May 1942 46,0% June 1942 36,1% 1942 28,8%
May 1943 48,8% June 1943 37,7% 1943 34,2%
May 1944 51,0% June 1944 37,9% 1944 35,7%

As explained before, there was a significant reorganisation of women labourers during the Second World War to benefit war production. The reorganisation had two parts. The first was a reorganisation within industry, an abandonment of goods for consumption and a turn towards war related sectors. The table below demonstrates this:

The division of female labour in German industry (x 1000)
May 1939 May 1940 May 1941 May 1942 May 1943
Capital goods
- Chemicals 184,5 197,4 204,7 215,8 255,9
- Iron and steel 14,7 18,4 29,6 36,3 64,9
- Construction 216,0 291,3 363,5 442,0 603,0
- Electricals 173,5 185,4 208,1 226,3 264,7
- Precision and optical instruments 32,2 37,2 47,6 55,6 67,2
- Metal 139,1 171,3 172,0 192,2 259,5
Total 760,2 901,3 1025,7 1168,4 1515,4
Consumer goods
- Printing 97,2 88,8 92,6 73,9 60,1
- Paper 89,5 84,3 79,2 71,9 73,1
- Leather 103,6 78,7 85,0 81,8 95,6
- Textile 710,1 595,4 581,3 520,9 546,3
- Clothing 254,7 226,5 225,3 212,8 228,9
- Ceramics 45,3 41,4 39,5 37,1 42,8
- Food 324,6 273,5 260,9 236,8 238,0
Total 1625,3 1388,7 1364,0 1235,4 1284,5

The second part of the reorganisation was less noticeable yet still of importance. A large number of women worked in agriculture. Female employment rose by 230,000 between 1933 and 1939, while male employment fell by 640,000. During the war, women made up 54.5% of the German agricultural employment in 1939, 61.6% in May 1942 and 65.5% in 1944. Due to the conscription of agricultural workers for military service (in June 1941, more than one million men), more and more women were obliged to manage the farms, sometimes with assistance from foreign workers or prisoners of war. These women filled an important task since the agriculture sector was essential during the war. Furthermore, the extra help needed in busy periods (such as during harvests) was mostly provided by women. In the summer of 1942, one million Germans were recruited as temporary or permanent agricultural workers. This included 948,000 women. Many of this part-time work did not appear in statistics because only full-time labour was recorded. The same phenomenon occurred in other sectors. In June 1941, 600,000 men were recruited from the retail sector, and women were obliged to keep the cogs turning. Women took over jobs from men as post deliverers, bus drivers and railway workers. For women in office work, this meant a move to other work, more related to the war effort.

Due to the prevalence of women on the job market in pre-war Germany, it was difficult to achieve a further increase of employed females. However, one should not conclude that Germany failed to mobilise German women. The problem of such conclusions is that the work done by agricultural women, housekeepers, retail workers and so forth were not appreciated as being real work. Through the increasing number of men who were conscripted to the army, women had the ‘opportunity’ to carry out new tasks and take on greater responsibilities while at the same time maintaining a family. Women received a lower wage and worked longer days than men. The effect was that in 1939, there were already clear indications of failing standards of health among working women: exhaustion, increasing absences and hostility towards the wage gap. A doctor wrote in his report for the local mayor on the health of working women that the amount of depression and nervous conditions was increasing and recommended slowing down production. Such considerations prevented a larger recruitment of women for the labour market, more so than ideological views.


Four Year Plan
A German economic plan focussing at all sectors of the economy whereby established production goals had to be achieved in four years time.
A collection of principles and ideas of a certain system.
An economic process of sustained increase in general price levels and devaluation of money.(loss of purchasing power)
Abbreviation of a national socialist.
Often misleading information used to gain support among supporters or to gain support. Often used to accomplish ideas and political goals.

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Passersby read Göring’s 9 policies to increase employment. Women were removed from the economy at first.
(Source: USHMM)

Building motorways was one of the large projects that the Nazi’s set in motion to solve unemployment. In the photo, Hitler ceremonially takes the first shovel.
(Source: Hitler Historical Museum)

After 1936 women are brought back into the economy due to labour shortages. Here we see a group of young women on their way to work on the fields.
(Source: USHMM)


Article by:
Rachael Darwin
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