Dr. Kara Ritzheimer wants to change how historians think and write about girls, women, gender, and even Nazi Germany. Ritzheimer is an Associate Professor of History at Oregon State University, specializing in German History. She is currently researching and writing a new book about girls and girlhood during the Third Reich.
Ritzheimer’s goal is partly to expand what we know about girls in Nazi Germany. Most prior scholarship on girls in the Third Reich, she explains, has focused on the Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM), or the League of German Girls, the female branch of the Hitler Youth. Both the Hitler Youth and BDM recruited children between the ages of 10 and 18, required boys and girls to attend weekly meetings, and when possible, participate in summer camps. At the height of Hitler’s regime in 1936, Nazi leaders required both boys and girls to join these organizations once they were 10 years old. New members were inducted every year on Hitler’s birthday.
Although millions of boys and girls belonged to these organizations, for a long time historians focused only on the Hitler Youth, maybe writing a chapter here and there about the BDM. Over the last 30 years, more historians have written about the BDM.
“Not many people have written about girls beyond this institution (the BDM), and I understand why; it’s institutional history, it’s easier to write,” says Dr. Ritzheimer. “But I think there is much more work to be done in studying girls and understanding Nazi Germany if we look beyond the BDM.”
Another goal is to use girls as a new lens for examining this moment in history. “Girls create an opportunity to rethink what we know about how the regime operated. For example, we know that regime leaders carefully distinguished between girls and women, in their language and their policy. We need to ask why,” she says.
Researching Nazi history can sometimes be difficult, explains Dr. Ritzheimer, partly because the Nazi regime intentionally destroyed certain types of documents at the end of the war, such as Gestapo case files; partly because archives may have restrictions regarding the use of files containing personal information, and partly because archives haven’t always included “girls” as a category in their indexing. In other words, archivists do not always identify girls as a potential topic of interest for researchers and so files containing information about girls may be indexed under another heading, making them more difficult to find. Other archives can have their own restrictions about use or photocopying. Ritzheimer explains that a file accessible in one archive might require special permission of use in another. In many cases, researchers can apply for and receive permission of use, although permission is harder to receive when files contain information that might still impact people alive today.
Dr. Ritzheimer’s new project is based extensively on visits to German archives, and is very much a work-in-progress. She has already completed four research trips for this new project and has planned more trips to finish it. “I usually go every summer,” she explains.
Aside from teaching at OSU, Dr. Ritzheimer serves as a committee member for OSU’s Holocaust Remembrance Week and will serve as the Assistant Director of the History department next year.