As all students of the humanities, historians have to face questions concerning what English-speakers call the human condition. In case of historians in the field of Holocaust studies the main question that all – including myself – have to ultimately face is the question »Why?«. Why did humans commit such terrible acts? What were their motivations? What were the structural, political, and ideological circumstances that convinced people to participate in robbing, murdering, and annihilating millions of people in all of Europe?
Ultimately there might not be an answer to this essential question but for the last 70 years much work has been done to achieve an approximation i.e. pinning down factors that might have contributed to why people that were not sociopaths, psychopaths or otherwise deranged – as perpetrators of the Holocaust are often portrayed – decided to participate in the complex of crimes summarized by the term Holocaust.
However, even in this task historiography, academic and »mainstream« – i.e. what becomes popular outside of the confines of the academic community researching with the subject – has failed on a most essential level. Not because for the lack of trying but for the fact that most of the research produced on the subject in the last 70 years has ignored women. Not only have historians ignored the specific perspective of female victims, female bystanders and female perpetrators but for a very long time even their existence has been ignored all together.
While since the 70s and especially the 80s historians made an effort to write separate histories and/or include the perspective of female victims and to a lesser degree female bystanders in their research and work, female perpetrators and their perspective are still considered a »odd« subject to research as pointed out in an article of »Arts and Humanities Research Counsel« of the UK in an article on Sonia Smith doctoral research on female concentration camps guards:
» Female concentration camp guards have long been ignored in Holocaust scholarship. Women have largely been portrayed as victims, while atrocity has been regarded as a function of extreme masculine behaviour. The presence of female overseers in the women’s sections of concentration camps presents an uncomfortable reality to those who would rather paint women as a homogenous group of victims of the Third Reich.«
While ignored in scholarship – probably due to the male dominance of the field that remains a problem to this day – , the popular image of female perpetrators is even worse. Solidified by popular imagination, literature, movies, and folklore the image of the female Nazi perpetrator is either that of Ilse Koch, the »Witch of Buchenwald« making lampshades out of human skin, or in a nasty form of pop-cultural progression that of the whip-wielding, scantly clad, sexual or otherwise deviant »Ilse, She-Wolf of the SS«.
Fortunately in the years since 1991 and the publication of Christopher Browning’s »Ordinary Men«, historians have shown renewed interest in the study of perpetrators and especially in the last couple of years this renewed interest has lead to a couple of outstanding studies of female perpetrators, the afore-mentioned study by Susan Smith being only one of them.
These studies concentrating to a large degree on the Ravensbrück concentration camp, the only concentration camp almost exclusively for women and with an almost exclusive female staff, have pointed out several factors that might seem not very surprising, yet are very important in order to combat the popular image of female perpetrators and extend the standards established with male perpetrators to their perspective.
Over 3.000 female SS-auxiliaries called »Aufseherinnen« (overseers) worked in the Nazi concentration camp structure. They were not an official part of the SS (Schutz Staffel, loosely translated as protective formation was the institutional body that ran the camps and supplied the camp personnel) but remained auxiliaries.
As Karen Partee pointed out in a short paper on the subject, most of them »could be described as average. They tended to be single; hail from middle-class families; and most of them only received rudimentary schooling«. Also, up until 1943 all of them served as concentration camp guards voluntarily which attests to the fact that while their background might have been average, they themselves possessed a certain degree of ambition and sense of adventure. »After all, becoming a guard in a concentration camp offered unparalleled opportunities for females that were not available in normal civilian life during the Third Reich, including career advancement, privileged living conditions, and opportunities to meet men« (Partee). Only after 1943 due to the lack of workers caused by the war, the Nazi government started recruiting women between 17 and 44 for mandatory work service including serving as a »overseers« in a concentration camp.
Their role as »overseers« in the camps only slightly differed from the role of male guards. Regulations prohibited female guards from carrying firearms and ruled that punishments of the camp inmates such as whippings or beatings had to be carried out by the prisoners instead of the female guards. These regulations were not always adhered to however.
Concerning their behavior, female perpetrators did not differ from male ones. As Christopher Browning first described, Nazi perpetrators committing cruelties as opposed to ordering or planning them can be seen as a small group consisting of a small number of outstandingly cruel people with the majority of the group participating in cruel and atrocious acts due to social pressure and group dynamics. Exactly this dynamic also applies to female perpetrators in the camps. »They hit and beat without provocation and passion. They were simply part of the Ravensbrück order of terror and death.« (Partee). Being put in a new and foreign environment that encourages violence and indifference towards human life creates a certain group dynamic of these promoted behaviors and cements them within the group so that not conforming or participating can lead to social exclusion. This is not only a major factor contributing to the behavior of perpetrators but also contributing to their seamless integration in post-war society.
While the above described was a major factor and not confined to one specific gender, there is still a specific and different perspective when it comes to female perpetrators for example their reasons for volunteering to work in a camp. To research and explore this and many other factors that not only give insight into the history of female perpetrators but contribute to the understanding of the issue at large, historians in the future should not write of “Ordinary Men« but also of »Ordinary Women« or at least »Ordinary People«.
Kimberly Partee, Evil or Ordinary Women: the Female Auxiliaries of the Holocaust. http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/parteeepaper.pdf, February 12, 2012.
Wendy Adele-Mari Sarti, Women and Nazis : perpetrators of genocide and other crimes during Hitler’s regime, 1933-1945. (Palo Alto, CA : Academica Press 2011).
Brown, Daniel Patrick. The Camp Women: the Female Auxiliaries who assisted the SS in running the Nazi Concentration Camp System. (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 2002).