Sometimes you’re just in the mood for nonfiction. I was in that kind of mood the day I began combing the new releases over on NetGalley. When I stumbled across Nazi Wives: The Women at the Top of Hitler’s Germany by James Wyllie (St. Martin’s Press, 2020, I knew I needed to read that. How could they? Why would these women support something so heinous? What was wrong with them that they were all in on such devastation? My request was accepted, and, with some trepidation, I began reading. This is *not* an easy subject to read, and James Wyllie pulls no punches in laying it all out there. He’s never gratuitous and there are only a few sections where he goes into any graphic detail, but brace yourself, because this is a tough read.
The last names of Hitler’s most loyal followers are known to those who are familiar with the history of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, but those last names also belonged to the wives of those monsters. Emmy Goering, Magda Goebbels, Gerda Bormann, Lina Heydrich, Margarete Himmler, these were the women married to the men who perpetrated untold horrors upon their fellow man, and most of the wives were fierce antisemites before marrying their husbands. They were all in on their own, zero convincing necessary, a thought that will chill you throughout the book.
Because this book is chilling. Knowing the outcome of their attitudes makes Nazi Wives an emotionally difficult read, but what makes it even harder is Mr. Wyllie’s pairing of the horror with the wives’ more blasé complaints about the disappointments and difficulties of such mundane things as their husbands’ work schedules and their marital struggles- things for which readers might have had sympathy if not for the untold deaths stemming from their husbands’ blind allegiance to Hitler. At least some of these women knew what their husbands were doing and how Jewish people were being slaughtered; that Mr. Wyllie is able to contrast so effectively the wives’ selfishness with their inability to view the humanity of the people suffering around them, makes the book that more gut-wrenching. The one wife who seems to have some tattered shreds of humanity remaining is shown to be dismissive and cavalier at the book’s end; there are no heroes in this story.
There’s also not a lot of hope to it. None of the surviving wives (the ones who survived past the war and who gave interviews and wrote memoirs) seemed to grow past their attitudes that got them married to such awful people. There’s also not a lot of information on what led them down such disgusting paths to begin with (understandable due to a lack of sources other than their personal diaries and whatever writing and interviews they left when they died), although Mr. Wyllie does state that several of them were products of their time and fully bought into the antisemitism of the day, rather than arriving at it on their own. Because of this, Nazi Wives is very much a cautionary tale. Check your attitudes, check your biases. Are your thoughts, attitudes, biases, and beliefs hateful? Could they lead to violence against other people, groups that are different from you? Could stating them out loud inspire others to commit violence? If so, you need to participate in some heavy self-reflection and decide if that’s really the person you want to be- again, there are no heroes in this story, and it ends in a lot of death and destruction for everyone.
If you’re looking for nonfiction that reads like a novel, Nazi Wives isn’t *quite* there, but Wyllie’s literary treatment of unfathomably horrible people is engaging- though stomach-turning- for the average reader who’s looking to expand their knowledge on the history behind the monsters responsible for World War II and the Holocaust. You’ll want to send your copy of the book flying across the room multiple times per chapter because the stories inside are just so awful, but you’ll walk away with a clearer picture of who these monsters were, and a sense of dread for what we’re once again facing as fascism rises again around the world.
Nazi Wives: The Women at the Top of Hitler’s Germany was originally released in 2019, but it’s up for a re-release on November 3, 2020.
Huge thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a review copy!