In the SS Service: Female Guards at Germany's Ravensbrück Concentration Camp
First, let me tell you all as to where is Ravensbruck. It's a small town in Germany 90 miles north of Berlin. This was a camp that housed the woman prisoners who were guarded by women SS guards. I visited this camp nearly 10 years back when I was returning from London and spent time in Berlin. There is a small exhibition there and it shows the deadly resolve of the woman members of the German SS.
Just for the record between 1933 and 45 the Nazi party set up some 40,000 camps big and small to detain opponents of the regime, prisoners of war, spies, Jews, and whatnot. There were nearly 55,000 guards used by the Germans to police these camps out of which roughly 3700 were women. One would feel that with women inducted as guards they would bring the healing touch. But it was exactly the opposite. Ravensbruck which was an all-women concentration camp brought forth the bestiality of the German woman SS guards.
The woman guards treated the women prisoners in an abominable manner. They were so much inured to sadistic practices that they never had a bad conscience or regret even after the war ended. One of the guards Maria Mandl did not remotely experience either of these sentiments and reportedly said, "There was nothing bad about the camp,"
The senior 36-year-old overseer of the all-women's concentration camp in Ravensbrück was hanged in 1948 after a Krakow court sentenced her to death as a war criminal.
Over 140,000 people, mainly women, and children, from over 30 countries were imprisoned in Ravensbrück, between 1939 and 1945. The camp was also the main training and recruiting place for female guards. Some 3,300 of them worked in Ravensbrück.
Towards the later stages of the war, the German army could not spare soldiers for the defence of these camps. Ravensbruck was guarded by female SS troopers who were aided by German shepherds. These dogs were specially trained to guard the camp.
Adolf Hitler in his book 'Mein Kampf' had spelled out his vision for the German woman. The Austrian supervisor Maria Mandl was exactly what the regime wanted. She was a self-proclaimed exponent of the "Master race." She along with the other female guards were what the Germans wanted of their woman; to be loyal, merciless, and produce children. The propaganda of Dr. Gobble's had an effect and women in Germany particularly the younger lot was an indoctrinated lot who believed in the superiority of race and the subservient position of women to men.
Maria Mandl was not from Germany but from Austria. She rose in the Nazi hierarchy because of her beliefs. In 1942, after three years in Ravensbrück, she was transferred to work at Auschwitz. This is the death camp of untold misery and needs no introduction. There, she created the Women's Orchestra that was forced to play music during prisoner transports and executions.
The female guards as per the prevalent Nazi philosophy became subsumed under Hitler's elite death squad the SS. This translated into English means "protection squadron." When I visited the camp, I saw that the barracks of the women guards were separated from the prisoners only by barbed wire. I really wondered how these women who must've been beautiful, young had become so hard-hearted to Indulge in these sadistic activities. Some of the female guards like Johanna Langefeld lived with her son at the camp. I wonder what would have been the effect on the young boy.
Despite the sadistic streak of the majority of the guards there were exceptions.One of the Polish prisoners has recounted that one of the guards would allow the woman prisoners to have a dip in the local pond after a hard labour and also give a towel.The Germans had a one point agenda for the woman who was selected to work at the camp and that was loyalty to the party.
In the initial stages of the war, there was happiness and pride in the population. Once the war dragged on, casualties began to mount and the manpower situation changed. The Germans now wanted to recruit more women guards. The longer the war went on, the more difficult it became for the Nazis to find volunteer guards. New staff was recruited through advertisements in newspapers. The advertisements were carefully structured. The advertisements laid down that any healthy female between the age of 20 and 40 could join military service.It was promised that compensation would be paid per month as given to government servants and in addition they would be entitled to free accommodation, catering, and clothing(uniform).
With life having become grim such advertisements were enough for women to volunteer. One of the woman who is identified as Waltraut G. and survived the war stated in 2003, that she took the job because she needed it as she had five siblings to support. She had no scruples in obeying orders and felt that working in the camp was 'good life.'
Only some went to trial
The woman guards in some cases were more brutal than the men. There were very few dissenters and generally the woman relished the job they were doing.This is a subject that needs to be studied by psychologists. In any case very few women were bought for trial at the end of the war and their main line of defence was that they had obeyed orders and in case he they had refused they would have been put in the concentration camps.
The majority of female camp guards had little to fear after the war. Only 77 of them had to stand trial. Death sentences, like in the case of Maria Mandl, or long prison sentences were rare. Later investigations were mostly without consequence for a few female camp guards who were still alive. In February 2020 the German state of Brandenburg, officially closed proceedings in eight cases where Ravensbrück is located.
Some female guards were put in US prisoner of war camps in 1945 but released soon after.
A genuine Nazi?
Not guilty" — that's how the few female guards whose cases did make it to trial pleaded. It is difficult to gauge what went on in the minds of these women who carried out these atrocities. One of the woman guards is a case study. She is Irma Grese.. She was born in 1923 and joined the SS in 1942. She was brought to trial for atrocities and sentenced to death. She was unrepentant and a day prior to her death sang Nazi songs until the early hours of the morning with another woman convict Johanna Bormann. She was only 22 when she was hanged.