Response to Mouton on Chalmers, “Birth, Sex and Abuse: Women’s Voices under Nazi Rule” (Grosvenor House Publishing, UK, 2015)

Beverley Chalmers's picture

Michelle Mouton’s review of my book Birth, Sex and Abuse: Women’s Voices under Nazi Rule was published on H-German on August 21, 2017. 

Overall, Mouton’s review of Birth, Sex and Abuse: Women’s Voices under Nazi Rule is riddled with inaccuracies, quotes taken out of context, and the juxtaposition of unrelated, but sensational, quotes to support a viewpoint not represented in the text. She cherry picks her quotes to support distorted assertions. Given the inaccurate nature of the review, I believe it is essential to respond.

The Use of English Language Texts

In response to Mouton‘s assertion that: “The value of the book is greatly reduced by the fact that its author relies solely on English texts and translations. This limits her ability to contextualize, and leads to inaccuracies.” 

I discuss my use of English texts (and translations into English) on page 6, but I will clarify below for those who have not read the book.  It would have been academically appropriate of Mouton – and fair – to include my explanation and justification for this necessity in her review.

Birth, Sex and Abuse: Women’s Voices Under Nazi Rule focuses on what women, in particular, said or experienced during the Nazi era.  While the Nazis were, generally, exceptionally refined in their documentation of their regime’s activities, they did not value, seek, record, or appreciate women’s – and especially Jewish women’s – reports of their experiences.  Women recorded their experiences in Yiddish, Hebrew, French, Dutch, Russian, English, Polish, Italian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Romanian, Hungarian, Danish, and other languages of Europe, in addition to German. While I regret that I am unable to read all these languages, I do not regard my reliance on English language reports, and those translated from their original languages into English, as being quite as detrimental to the value of the book as Mouton claims. This is particularly true given that the hundreds of women’s reports that I include from multiple sources, countries, languages and contexts say much the same thing:  the Nazis targeted – often in the cruelest and most despicable way –  the reproductive lives and sexual activities of women to implement their genocide of Jews and those whom they did not regard as ‘acceptably Aryan’.  This is the argument of the book and there is clearly no denying it, regardless of the language in which the source material was written.    

In addition, Mouton’s assertion that my lack of inclusion of original [German] language sources led to inaccuracies in my text, particularly regarding the disparity between Nazi policy and practice is contradicted in the book. I devote multiple chapters to activities that were common practice among Nazis but were forbidden in Nazi policy (most notably, sexual contact with Jewish women). I frequently note the differences between Nazi policy and practice – although this was not the primary purpose of the book - and am surprised that Mouton missed this – this is, after all, her field of expertise. While some doctors might have attempted to subvert Nazi policies, the overwhelming evidence presented in my book makes it clear that those policies – and particularly policies directed towards suppressing, or eliminating Jewish women’s reproductive capacity, or murdering them to prevent their further reproduction – were implemented on a significant scale.

The Goals of the Book

Despite Mouton’s claims, I do not include providing “a new understanding of Nazi society” as one of the goals of the book.

The four goals of the book, as enumerated on pages 1-2 of the book, are:

1) … to show that targeting reproduction and sexuality was a central theme underlying many aspects of Nazi policy through both ‘positive eugenics’ (that could be termed geno-coercive) as well as ‘negative eugenics’ (including genocidal) policies. 

2) … to further illuminate the role played by the medical profession in particular, in manipulating reproductive and sexual lives to achieve the Nazis goals.

3) …to integrate the widely dispersed evidence for these Nazi policies and practices found in the writings emanating from multiple disciplines ….  It is an integration of the reports of women themselves, written or dictated both during the Nazi period and in ensuing years. 

4) … to emphasise the climate of cruelty that pervaded not only the actions taken to implement the Holocaust by targeting reproduction and sexuality but their sadistic and often misogynistic nature.   The book reveals, by extensive reference to the voices of those who witnessed or experienced the events, a spectre of brutality that is not often recognized“ (pp1-2).

Mouton appears to have seriously misunderstood the objectives of the book. Despite not stating this as a goal, my detailed and extensively researched analysis of the Nazi intervention into women’s reproductive and sexual lives does offer some insight into this aspect of Nazi society; a component of that society that cannot be fully appreciated from a review of official German documentation. 

What Enabled the Holocaust to Occur?

Mouton claims that I have limited my comments on the factors that enabled the Holocaust to occur to: “Nazi indoctrination, sexual indulgence, humiliation, racism, misogyny, dehumanization, and disrespect.”

I can only assume that she did not read the final chapter of the book that deals extensively with other theories that attempt to explain why the Holocaust occurred and what factors could have contributed to how people could exhibit such cruelty.   She does, curiously, acknowledge that “While these may indeed all have contributed, many other studies have advanced our understanding further into what enabled the Holocaust and its crimes to occur” – and she refers to those described by Christopher Browning’s writings on Ordinary Men and Wendy Lower’s text Hitler’s Furies, both fascinating reads and referenced in my text. My work adds another dimension to the extensive body of work in this area – it does not replace previous scholarship.

Excusing Doctors from Blame

Mouton continues:

Chalmers emphasises that her study demonstrates “our need to look squarely in the face of such actions and to recognize that it is not the actions of the doctors that should be condemned but those of the Nazis who imposed such horrendous conditions on them that they were forced into despicable moral dilemmas and consequent murderous behaviours” (p 256). We know, however, that doctors and Nazis are not two district groups and that doctors and Nazis and Nazi doctors acted from many different reasons and with many different motivations.  As a result, as individuals they bear different levels of motivation.”

In Birth, Sex and Abuse, the quote she cites is preceded by the sentence:

The actions of prisoner doctors who murdered newborns, or who terminated apparently healthy pregnancies, have tempted scholars to judge their actions, either with reluctant admiration, or with condemnation, despite Levi’s warning that judgement is not possible.   This review emphasises even further our need to look squarely in the face of such actions and to recognize that it is not the actions of the doctors that should be condemned but those of the Nazis who imposed such horrendous conditions on them that they were forced into despicable moral dilemmas and consequent murderous behaviours.

Mouton’s selective quotation from my book is taken entirely out of context. Her interpretation then incurs slurs on both my reporting and my meaning.  I am also puzzled by her intended meaning regarding either Nazis or doctors:  Does the fact that some might have refused to, or avoided, implementing Nazi policy reduce the blame that should be placed on Nazis or doctors for the atrocities that were clearly extensively implemented by them to murder Jewish women as reproductive beings? 

Equating the Holocaust with Contemporary Issues

Mouton also accuses me of implying “an ahistorical similarity between the Nazi era and the present day” when she quotes the last line of Birth, Sex and Abuse: “The dangers of ideological fanaticism are globally evident today, as they were in the Nazi era, and are clearly to be feared.”

While I do believe that ideological fanaticism and extremism is a current danger in our world and that it was also so in the Nazi era, I never equate the Holocaust with any other historical or contemporary issues, genocides or wars, just as I disclaim any form of equivalency between the atrocious actions directed and implemented against Jews during the Nazi era and any other groups of people during that period of history or during the multiple wars and genocides that have since followed. 

Sexual Behaviour

Mouton’s comments on the second part of the book that deals with Sexuality and Sexualized Abuse seriously misrepresent my writing.   Mouton claims: “She [Chalmers] rejects the idea that Jewish women could enter sexual relations consensually since often ‘sexual exchange’ represented ‘the only way to survive’” (page 181).   

There is no such statement on page 181 of the book or indeed in the entire section of the book referring to ‘sexual exchange.’(p180-184).  In addition, an entire chapter is dedicated to, and titled, “Love and Sexuality Among Jews”?  Over 20 pages of the text report on just how Jewish women did enter into loving and sexually fulfilling relationships in ghettos, in partisan groups, in forced labour camps, and even – occasionally – in concentration camps.   

Blaming Jews for Violence and Inhumane Behaviour Perpetrated Against Women

Mouton states:

While most of the violence and inhumane behaviours perpetrated against women can be attributed to Nazis some of the blame also falls on the Kapo (Nazi appointed Jewish prisoners in concentration camps) and ordinary Jewish men.  Chalmers also notes that it is crucial that these experiences be told since “the fact that human beings were treated so badly as to force the integrity and humanity of some to be expunged and be replaced with vicious, dishonest or disrespectful behaviours towards each other, says more about the perpetrators of such conditions than it does about the most basic human instincts for survival that emerged” (p 209). 

The sentence of mine that Mouton quotes refers to the Nazis and their followers as perpetrators of violence and inhumane behaviours against Jewish women.  It does not refer to the experiences of violent or inhumane behaviours perpetrated against Jewish women by Jewish men as is implied by Mouton. 

 Mouton again distorts my writing by her juxtaposition of unrelated sections of the book.  Firstly, not all Kapos were Jewish prisoners:  in fact, many, if not most, were drawn from other prisoner groups, such as ‘criminal’ or ‘political’ groups of prisoners.  Secondly, only seldom in the book are Jewish men’s interactions with Jewish women reported as occurring in a ‘violent’ or ‘inhumane’ manner.  It is peculiar that Mouton should emphasise this isolated aspect of Jewish behaviour for special mention in a review of this extensive report of hundreds of violent and inhumane acts perpetrated by Nazis or their followers.   

Regardless of her unusual choice to focus on these isolated cases, Mouton, once again, ignores the context I include in relation to my statement quoted from page 209. This context is provided in the opening sentences of this section:

It is mindboggling to conceive of the mentality that imposed such degradation as excremental assault, forced nudity and public, intimate, bodily searches, often accompanied by laughter, titillation and derision.  These combined with the horrendous living conditions in most camps, including starvation that could evolve into cannibalism, and work demands that were superhuman, led to understandably inhume behaviours among some prisoners (p205).

My intention was, clearly, to lay the blame for ‘morally unacceptable’ Jewish/victim behaviour, if and when it occurred, on Nazi perpetrators who forced Jews into such horrific situations that such behaviours were sometimes elicited in their sheer fight for survival. I hope that I have misread Mouton’s intentions in her review because she appears to suggest that it is necessary to include both Jewish men as well as Nazis as perpetrators of violent and inhumane actions against Jewish women. I vehemently and clearly oppose blaming the victims in my book:  misrepresenting my meaning is simply not accurate or academically acceptable. I would like to believe that a scholar such as Mouton would not make such claims and that such implications in her review are simply a case of inaccurate writing.  

Inaccuracies of the Review

Mouton’s review is, at best, imprecise and inattentive.  She misrepresents the objectives of the book stated on pages 1-2; she extracts a quote on page 181 that does not exist; she misquotes me by placing text from page 209 out of context; and she misrepresents what is included in the second section of the book.  She also misrepresents two quotes taken from the final page of the book, page 256.  More concerning, however, is that these inaccuracies severely misrepresent both my writing and meaning, and worse still, appear to impose an interpretation on some aspects of my work that is unacceptable to most Holocaust scholars. 

Beverley Chalmers (DSc(Med); PhD)