In my second year of college I enrolled in a research seminar that at once thrilled and terrified me (everyone else was going to be so learned and so old, seniors at least!). The title of the seminar was “Germany in the Age of Total War.” I expected to walk out of the class with knowledge of books that I otherwise would not have been exposed to and perhaps having been a part of some interesting conversations. Instead, after participating in the course and doing research for the final paper, I ended up seriously considering history as a career-path.
The texts that we read in class propelled me to do good research in that seminar. I found that you simply cannot be steeped in monographs like Eric Weitz’s Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, Claudia Koonz’s The Nazi Conscience, or William Sheridan Allen’s The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single Germany Town, 1922-1945 without picking up a few things about how history ought to be done. Between the readings and our class discussions, which were expertly led to integrate historiography into our analysis of political, social, and cultural developments in Germany between 1914 and 1945, I found a research topic.
After reading Koonz and Allen, both of whom detail the change in German women’s lives brought about by Nazi ideology, I decided to write about women who deviated from the standard expectation of acting as wife and mother. But I wanted to do so without sticking to an examination of women in one profession. Rather, I wanted to look at the ways that women carved out space for themselves in a nation that left little room for women to diversify their professional status. I hoped to find out more about women who had joined the industrial sector, women who worked in close political proximity to Reich leadership, and women who had been deeply enmeshed with concentration camps.
I was not interested in looking at women who resisted, but rather at women who chose not to conform to ideological expectations even as they acted on behalf of or were complicit with the regime. I didn’t know who these women were at this point, but my professor pointed me in the direction of some comprehensive secondary sources that I might be able to glean for ideas of individuals to focus on. Texts such as Koonz’s Mothers in the Fatherland and Alison Owings’ German Women Recall the Third Reich were predictably helpful—but so too were Frank Buscher’s The US War Crimes Trial Program in Germany and David Crew’s Nazism and German Society, 1933-1945.
A close reading of these texts helped me choose the women I wanted to discuss and flesh out the framework for the paper. It became clear, though, that I would need voices from the era to support my arguments. It was at this stage that I actively began tracking down primary sources that would allow me to have an inside look at these women’s lives. I was lucky in that some of the women I chose to focus on, such as Traudl Junge, had left behind first-person narratives. I filled other gaps by examining primary sources such as the laws enacted in Nazi Germany that pertained to gender and records of public presentations about the cult of the domestic, such as those by Gertrud Scholtz-Klink. The most helpful resource, though, was an online archive of sorts, maintained by the German Historical Institute in Washington DC, German History in Documents and Images, which allowed me to access legal documents, letters, and photographs from the era without having to travel to a physical archive.
This particular online collection of primary sources was incredibly well organized and abundant, and provided me with much-needed evidence for my paper. The paper that I wrote took longer to write than any paper I’ve written since (I am now a second-year graduate student at UCLA). It was the first time that I had ever engaged with an archive of any sort, the first time that I was writing a paper with a true thesis, and the first time that I was closely reading multiple monographs for my research. It helped that I had fantastic support. I had a professor who was always available and always gave constructive feedback. I had excellent resources, and I had the time to invest. It paid off—researching for the paper gave me skills that I would carry with me into the future, and the paper itself even won an award.
My paper, which I titled “Beyond Womanhood: Complicity and Action in Nazi Germany,” paved the way for much of my future research. It also did what the best undergraduate research should do: it gave me the confidence I needed to continue in the direction of graduate school, and it provided me with the skills that I would need for the rest of college. I have siblings, now heading into college, and my main piece of advice is: don’t hold off until you are a senior to take a research seminar. Do it as early as you feel ready, because the skills you will develop in those courses will help you be successful for the rest of your academic career.
Rhiannon Koehler graduated from Loyola Marymount University in May 2012, with Honors, with a major in History and a minor in Theatre Arts. Her seminar paper, “Beyond Womanhood: Complicity and Action in Nazi Germany,” won the 2012 History Department Award for Best Research Paper by a History Major. She is currently a Ph.D. student in American history at UCLA.