Women’s History Month: Nanna Conti (1881-1951)

Nanna Conti was a leading German midwife during the Nazi era. She was born on 4 April 1881 in Uelzen near Hanover. Her father, Dr. Carl Eugen Pauli (1839-1901), worked as headmaster of the local boys’ secondary school. Little is known about her mother, Anna Pauli née Isecke (1850-?), but she was a single parent for a time during a separation from her husband. Nanna assisted her father in his research into ancient Roman history, learning to speak Italian fluently. She developed a love for Italy and Switzerland which would last throughout her life. In addition to her native German and Italian, Nanna Conti also spoke English and French which enabled her not only to follow the International Midwives’ Congresses in London 1934 and Paris 1938, but also to translate for German delegates and to read foreign professional magazines, which she summarised for German midwives.

In Lugano in 1898, she married Silvio Conti (1872-1964). During the following four years Nanna Conti gave birth to three children- two boys and a girl. In 1902, the marriage failed and, leaving her husband, she moved to Germany where she enrolled at Madgeburg midwifery school in 1904 and started working as a freelance midwife in Berlin in 1905. As midwifery and nursing are strictly separated professions in Germany, Conti did not need to attend a nursing school before training as a midwife. Most midwives in Germany and Austria worked as independent practitioners as confinements tended to take place in the home. Maternity clinics and hospitals were used, in the main, in cases of risk or emergency. A fierce rivalry existed amongst midwives, the result of an increasing number of practitioners and a decreasing birth rate. Wages were so low that many lived in poverty and the absence of an old age pension meant many had to work until their death, or until they were too sick to work any longer. Under the lead of Olga Gebauer, the midwives’ association fought for better training, adequate wages and especially for a law which would secure their priority over physicians in obstetrics.

Little is known about Conti’s early career as a midwife, but in the 1930s, she became actively involved with the NSDAP (Nazi Party) as did her sons. After they came to power, she was appointed chairman to the central German midwifery organisation by the Home Secretary, helping establish the guidelines that monitored professional practice and publishing the organisation’s magazine. Her writings demonstrate the influence of her Nazi ideology, reflecting her anti-Semitic and racist views. Under her guidance, midwives were to inform the Public Health Authority of any children born with disabilities or genetic diseases, which led to forced sterilisations of women and even the ‘euthanasia’ of people with disabilities. While Conti was not responsible for carrying out these acts, the evidence suggests she was aware of Nazi policy and understood what was done with the information collected by her midwives.

Yet, Conti was also well-respected internationally for her work in improving maternal mortality rates and in keeping midwifery and midwives high on the political agenda in Germany- getting unusual legal backing for their profession. She spoke at a number of international events, including a visit to London where she met numerous dignitaries, and was appointed the first president of the International Confederation of Midwives. In 1945, at the end of WW2, Conti fled from Berlin and went to live in North Germany. She was never prosecuted for her role in the Nazi leadership, but her sons both committed suicide- one before the war ended, and another as a prisoner in Nuremburg. She started to rebuild her life after the war, finding money to send her grandson to university, but died shortly afterwards in December 1951.

For more information on Nanni Conti, see the article by Anja Peters in the Spring issue of Women’s History Magazine (2011).