This year marks the seventieth anniversary of a remarkable public protest by ordinary German women against the Nazi regime.
From February 27 to March 6, 1943, a group of unorganized German women went into the streets of downtown Berlin, within a few city blocks of the most feared centers of Nazi power, to protest for the release of their Jewish husbands, who had just been arrested by the Gestapo. Daily giving voice to their collective demand – “give us our husbands back” – first softly, then with increasing urgency, they succeeded in achieving their goal.
For these German women, the brutal Nazi state had lost all legitimacy. Like very few others, they were willing to express this publicly, on the streets, for all to see. For decades, their story was largely absent from histories of Nazi Germany. Their story challenges the comforting, generally accepted narrative that opposition was honorable but always futile. This year’s anniversary is an opportunity to focus deserved attention on these women’s brave action – and its implications for resistance more broadly.
On February 27, 1943, as part of the Nazi plan to remove the last remaining Jews from German soil, the Gestapo arrested some 2,000 Berlin Jews who had not yet been deported because they were married to non-Jews. In response, hundreds of women – wives of those arrested – pushed their way onto the street in front of Rosenstrasse 2-4, an office of the Jewish community where these arrested Jews were being held, and began to protest.
SS men as well as policemen guarded the single entrance. Over the course of the following week the Gestapo repeatedly threatened to shoot the protesters in the street, causing them to scatter briefly before resuming their collective cry of “give us our husbands back.”
Decades later, I interviewed one of these women, Elsa Holzer, who remembered arriving on the street in search of her husband. “I thought,” she said, “I would be alone there the first time I went to the Rosenstrasse…. I didn’t necessarily think it would do any good, but I had to go see what was going on…. If you had to calculate whether you would do any good by protesting, you wouldn’t have gone. But we wanted to show that we weren’t willing to let them [our husbands] go. I went to Rosenstrasse every day, before work. And there was always a flood of people there. It wasn’t organized, or instigated. Everyone was simply there. Exactly like me. That’s what is so wonderful about it.”
During the same week of this protest, some 7,000 of the last Jews in Berlin were sent to Auschwitz. On Rosenstrasse, however, the regime hesitated; almost all of those held there were released on March 6. Even intermarried Jews who had also been sent to Auschwitz and put in work camps were returned to Germany.
Surprising as it might seem, these events on closer examination fit with the treacherous strategies of the Nazi regime for domestic control. The Rosenstrasse protest occurred as many Germans were tempted to doubt Hitler’s leadership following Germany’s debacle in the Battle of Stalingrad. As he elaborated in Mein Kampf, Hitler believed that popular support comprised the primary pillar of his authority among the German “racial” people, and his dictatorship throughout strove to maintain this basis of his power. To end this protest, the regime released the intermarried Jews, furthering, for that moment, Hitler’s goal of quelling any appearance of dissention.
The murderous Nazi regime also appeased other public protests. On October 11, 1943, on Adolf Hitler Square in the city of Witten, some three hundred women protested against the official decision to withhold their food ration cards until they evacuated their homes as part of Nazi policy to protect civilians from bombing raids. The following day Germans in Lünen, Hamm and Bochum also protested on the streets for the same reason.
In response, Hitler ordered all regional authorities not to withhold ration cards as a method of forcing civilians to evacuate their homes. This was followed by further orders by Nazi officials to refrain from “coercive measures” against evacuees who had returned. In his cold calculations, Hitler chose not to draw further attention to public protest, judging it the best way to protect his authority – and the appearance, promoted by his propaganda machine, that all Germans stood united behind him.