The path of most resistance: women fighting fascism

Words: Corinne Painter

Across the world, fears about a new kind of fascism are rising. Restrictions of public spaces and the introduction of track-and-trace apps have sparked concerns about government control and covert monitoring. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted vast inequalities; working from home, remaining indoors and accessing food have all been easier for some than others. Timely access to healthcare and protective equipment is also uneven. In America, Donald Trump’s White House increasingly uses rhetoric reminiscent of the Third Reich, leading many to draw comparisons between our world today and Nazi Germany. Large demonstrations for all kinds of causes have become an international phenomenon as people find a new urge to resist. 

Much of the imagery associated with modern anti-fascist organisations originated in 1930s Germany as people began to mobilise against the Nazis. Women have participated in anti-fascist movements across the globe, and recently, images of women have been used to represent resistance. But historically, it was difficult for women to occupy the stage as leaders within these kinds of movements. 

Women who do come to the fore are often depoliticised. Until recently, Rosa Parks was often perceived in popular accounts as a woman who was too tired to stand on the bus, rather than the experienced activist she was. Women are also cast in the role of sacrificing mothers or loving partners; their roles are understood in relation to the men in the resistance, rather than as active individuals in their own right.

What might we learn about resistance and those who participate in these movements if we specifically look at their female members? For the women who chose to oppose Nazi Germany, what options did they have to fight a totalitarian regime? 

1933 was not a sudden awakening to the need to resist right-wing ideology – women had been involved in political campaigning for decades. The First World War had brought deprivation to the German Home Front, leading to mass protests and riots from 1915 onwards. For many women, especially those involved in welfare work, the war exposed the huge inequalities in German society, and they began to organise for change. The German Revolution of 1918/19 was the culmination of years’ worth of agitation as men and women took to the streets to demand bread, peace and democracy. 

The birth of the Weimar Republic was also not an end for these women’s radicalism. Many of them remained involved in left-wing politics and activism. Some became the first female politicians in Germany’s first democracy; others became journalists and held the new government to account. When fascism began to grow after 1929, these women were well-connected, very experienced, and ready to join the fight against the state once more. 

The Nazi regime introduced sweeping reforms to German society. Much of their initial legislation was focused on restricting public life for those considered undesirable, which included left-wing activists and Jews. For many, the only option was to flee Germany, but this didn’t mean the end of their political resistance to the regime. Toni Sender (1888-1964), who had been raised in a Jewish family, was an experienced trade unionist, and one of the first female politicians in Weimar Germany. She walked across the border into Czechoslovakia and made her way to the United States.

As a public figure during the German Revolution of 1918/19 and an outspoken campaigner, she had received death threats during her career, but had always dismissed them, believing that anyone who wanted to kill her wouldn’t bother writing a letter. It was different after 1933, when the death threats were sanctioned by her state. 

Non-Jewish left-wing activists also decided to emigrate and were able to use exile as an act of resistance. Maria (later known as Mary) Saran (1897-1976), while a university student, had been involved in the administration of the 1918 revolution and had provided revolutionary soldiers with demobilisation papers to prevent their arrest for dereliction of duty. She recognised the threat that the Nazi state posed, having studied Mein Kampf with her comrades and campaigned for the communist party (KPD) candidate for the German Presidency, Ernst Thälmann, in 1932. 

After the Reichstag fire in February 1933, all communists were treated with extreme suspicion, and Thälmann was arrested in March the same year. Maria, a single mother, was quick to decide to leave with her daughter. She believed that she could continue the fight against fascism overseas and came to Britain in October 1933. She encouraged her comrades if they were arrested to give her name to the Gestapo, as she would be safely outside Germany. She joined anti-fascist organisations in the UK, wrote publications, and delivered lectures to raise awareness about the situation back home.

For those who stayed, finding ways to oppose the regime became increasingly difficult. Many were arrested and frequently sent to concentration camps. Staying below the radar while continuing activism was a difficult balancing act.

Cläre Jung (1892-1981), a Berlin gun runner during the German Revolution, was a journalist and author. She had been working with left-wing writers since the First World War and many of her friends became targets for the Nazi regime. Her home was repeatedly searched for suspicious material and any signs of where her friends might be hiding. She gave her identity documents to a Jewish friend who needed to escape the country, aware that they would be passed on to the next woman in need of a new identity. If discovered, Cläre planned to claim her documents had been stolen – but she knew she was putting herself at risk. She had a great deal of experience of lying to the authorities, having hidden deserting soldiers during the First World War. 

For all of these women, the decision to resist fascism and the methods they chose were part of longstanding engagements with activism. They were not spontaneous whims: these were professionals with decades of experience in fighting for equality of all kinds, and extensive international networks of fellow campaigners. The depoliticisation of their work changes both the nature of the movement and the scope of antifascist activism perceived as accessible to women in the future. Antifascism would not have had the successes it did in the twentieth century without women like Sender, Saran and Jung. The struggle requires everyone to play their part. 

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Corinne Painter is a Lecturer in German Studies at the University of Leeds. Recovering the voices of hidden female activists from the early twentieth century is a research focus for her. Read her latest publication, connect with her on LinkedIn, view her blog and follow her on Twitter.