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The Violence of Female Guards in Nazi Concentration Camps

Updated August 30, 2021
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The Violence of Female Guards in Nazi Concentration Camps essay

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Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies builds a shocking story of the role of German women during World War II. She paints a picture of this “lost generation” of women seeking labor and high income by working as guards for the SS (the Nazi special police force). These young women saw the West under the Nazi regime as hope for a career and a better life. Before Lower’s accounts with post-Soviet documents and interviews with Holocaust witnesses, we simply believed that German women were wives of murderers and cheerleaders for Hitler.

However, they too participated in the unjust abuse and mass murder of innocent Jews in concentration camps. Now that it’s known female guards were brutal killers, how and why did they exercise power over the prisoners? The answer resides in Michael Foucault’s theme of violence concerning his concept of power. Different forms of violence in the camp ascend from specific situations such as who lives and works there, hierarchy, social status, peer pressure, and who is present in the instance of violence. The exercise of power does not dismiss the use of violence, which pertains directly to bodies and things. According to Foucault, violence which ‘forces…bends…breaks on the wheel…destroys’ (Foucault 1983, p. 220). Often violence and power work together coherently and are virtually indivisible.

In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) and The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (1978), Foucault opposes, very broadly, two main modes of power: the power of sovereignty and disciplinary power. For this paper, the focus is on disciplinary power, which is a continuous regime that is sinister and persistent. It’s the rules society follows and ultimately takes control. Disciplinary authority is that of institutions, in this case the Reich and SS, which train the body, correct attitudes, and normalize behavior through monitoring, punishment, and examinations (Falzon).

We can assess Foucault’s disciplinary power by examining the creation of abusive female guards and in particular, Hermine Braunsteiner was infamous for her extreme violence. By studying the conduct of Braunsteiner, who kicked prisoners to death, we can examine power in the camps and take a closer look at their learned behavior of violence and power from a microanalytic assessment. Due to Himmler’s strict orders, female guards were only employed to an all-women’s concentration camp. (Erpel, 2007; Schwartz, 2006: 349–374; Schwartz, forthcoming). Ravensbrück was the first camp to be opened in May, 1939.

To commend to the new camp, Himmler also generated a new suitable female guard. Braunsteiner was among the first to contribute. Female guards, or women auxiliaries, were considered as civil employees within a paramilitary organization. On the contrary, like SS men, they benefited from the status of working for the Reich, but were not officially members of the SS. (Schwarz, 1997). Women were forbidden to have high ranks, therefore they would report to the male senior staff and camp officers. Yet to give women a minor subsidiary status fails to take full account of the historical reality. Women were responsible for roll calls, for organizing prisoners into labor rows, for overseeing women prisoners in the barracks and at work and moreover, female brutality and genocide. Braunsteiner arrived at Ravensbrück in August of 1939.

The SS wanted women of the age between 21 and 45, from a working-class background and no professional training; therefore she fit the standards perfectly. According to the Ravensbrück recruitment form, an unmarried guard aged 25 received 185.68 RM per month. As a guard, Braunsteiner earned nearly twice as she had at her previous job working as a factory worker in munitions. Women who applied for this disreputable job did not necessarily have a political commitment to the Reich, but instead desired a better way of living. Like everyone in Nazi Germany, they would have heard gossip and rumors about the concentration camps, which until 1940 mainly held German and Austrian political prisoners, but the new employees had no idea of what was before them.

How did an ordinary factory worker transform herself into a brutal SS guard? When Braunsteiner arrived in Ravensbrück with other recruits, they were not ‘experts in terror’ (Orth, 2002). They became that way in a specific social context and a specific institutional space. Taking a closer look at their initial ‘concentrational experience’ during the first few months of training explains the socio-cultural environment, way of a life and working reality that the guards faced (Pollack, 1988, 2000). A survivor of Ravensbrück, the ethnologist Germaine Tillion, describes how a trainee becomes an SS guard: The beginners usually appeared frightened upon first contact with the camp, and it took some time to attain the level of cruelty and debauchery of their seniors. Some of us made a rather grim little game of measuring the time it took for a new Aufseherin to win her stripes.

One little Aufseherin, twenty years old, who was at first so ignorant of proper camp ‘manners’ that she said ‘excuse me’ when walking in front of a prisoner, needed exactly four days to adopt the requisite manner, although it was totally new for her. (This little one no doubt had some special gifts in the ‘arts’ we are dealing with here.) As for the others, a week or two, a month at the most, was an average orientation period. (Tillion, 1975: 69) It only took a few weeks to transform the stunned, scared and inept new workers into assertive guards who were unafraid of using verbal and physical violence on the prisoners. This prominent and quick change that took place raises the questions of how and why did their characters alter so drastically? As Foucault has argued, discipline organizes an analytical space, which arranges the circulation and movements of people and distributes bodies in space and time (Foucault, 1991: 135–169).

It is a matter of ‘exercising upon [the body] a subtle coercion, of obtaining holds upon it at the level of the mechanism itself – movements, gestures, attitudes, rapidity: an infinitesimal power over the active body’ (Foucault: 137). An institution like the concentration camps aim is to amplify the productivity of work and to lessen the effects of ‘counter-power.’ This ‘micro-physics of power’ allows the conversion of beginners into submissive and beneficial guards. (Lüdtke: 1993). The adaptation of the SS women into strong guards can be observed in the theory of the power to act and the experience of power through architecture and the uniform. Concentration camps were institutions where people were imprisoned and managed due to politics and racism, but for the SS workers, these camps were also their homes and workplace. The architecture of the camp and living quarters of the SS at Ravensbrück shows the goal of administering and refining the workers.

The guards needed a pass to enter and exit an official entrance. Their use of time, their space, their movements and their activities were all organized and regulated according to military rules. Their uniforms, too, played an important role in the experience of power. Nazi society was always a society based on uniforms. Women had worn them since they joined the work force together during the First World War, but the uniform gained a new meaning under Nazism. It was no longer just work clothing but a sign of belonging to a politically elite community.

Subtle distinctions were apparent in women’s uniforms from their male counterparts, such as only being able to sport the imperial eagle badge, which was an emblem reserved for state functionaries. Nonetheless, their uniform still signified political and social hierarchy for whoever was in contact with it. Their wearers possessed a common feeling of power and belonging. (Diehl, 2005:166f.) A German political prisoner, Margarete Buber-Neumann, once had the experience of observing new, young female workers who were arriving at Ravensbrück: Even before they received their field-grey uniforms, they all came in a body to see the chief overseer. Most of them were plainly and rather poorly dressed, and stood shyly in the office, looking ill at ease and anxious; many did not know what to do with their hands. Langefeld [the chief overseer] told them which houses they would live in, where to get their uniforms and when their duties would commence.

Then I often observed through the window how they would walk across the main square, nudging each other and staring with terrified eyes at groups of prisoners being marched past. In some you could see a transformation as soon as they were ‘kitted out’. High leather boots already changed their manner; add a field cap cocked jauntily over one ear, and they started looking more self-confident. (Buber-Neumann, 1997: 321) Observing the everyday activities of the female guards can give a better understanding of how the concentration camp worked as an institution and also of the cultural and social role of physical violence.

The main duty of SS workers was to ensure the supervision and orderly management of the camp. Himmler explicitly did not give SS workers the right to use violence on prisoners, especially the right to kill them, unless in self-defense. Yet witnesses and evidence from post-war trials show that violence was frequently used. In the Majdanek camp the most common forms were verbal abuse, slaps, blows, and kicks. Lucia Schmidt-Fels witnessed it: ‘They might hit you for little or nothing – and what with depended on their taste: with their fist, the flat of their hand, a cane or a rubber truncheon. They also kicked you – or used their dogs as their “executives” who would maltreat us with well-trained bites’ (Schmidt-Fels, 2004: 13).

The guard Hermine Braunsteiner was notorious for hitting prisoners in Ravensbrück and, later, for kicking prisoners to death in Majdanek. Physical violence allowed Braunsteiner to get the upper hand, to cut a path for herself, literally and brutally, by striking blows with her hands and feet. The main way she showed she was in charge was by demonstrating violence upon her subordinates. In the Majdanek camp, Braunsteiner hit prisoners harder and more frequently, as Janina Rawska-Bot recounted during the Majdanek Trial in Düsseldorf: ‘Twice she hit me so badly that it tore open my eyebrow and cheek’.

SS workers used whips and sticks to beat prisoners as to avoid physically making direct contact so to not risk infection because the prisoners were so sickly and plagued with diseases. These instruments greatly increased the force of the blows and added humiliation to physical injury. Lila Givner, who arrived in Majdanek at the beginning of May 1943, described an encounter with Braunsteiner to the court in Düsseldorf in 1978: ‘Kobyla’ was tall. She kicked the prisoners and literally walked over people. ‘Kobyla’ kicked me, and I still bear the scars. That happened more than once. She walked through the barracks or the field.

If someone was in her way, she lifted her foot and kicked. I met her in the field and did not manage to get out of her way in time. She kicked me so hard that I fell. As I was lying on the ground she kept kicking. While I was standing, she kicked me in my back, causing me to fall. Even then, she continued kicking me, then walked away and left me there’ (Ambach/Köhler, Lublin-Majdanek, p. 111). Kicking took the shame of the victims to a new level because rather than hitting the face, it emphasizes the inequality the persecutor and her victim. Braunsteiner aimed carefully and targeted the most sensitive parts of the body, such as the stomach, lower abdomen and back. Her ‘boot kicks’ became her trademark and earned her the nickname ‘Kobyla.’ Violence and radical behaviors from SS guards reached a climax in Majdanek.

Exploring the camp’s geopolitical context can explain the profound reasoning. Although female guards at Majdanek seemed to welcome the benefits of the segregation and discrimination that Germany established during WWII, they faced major irritations with prisoners, real or imagined. This included epidemics, separation from their families, harsh climate and working conditions, poor accommodation compared to Ravensbrück, or their contempt for Polish culture, and dislike of the weather. All this produced feelings of annoyance, fear of infection and passionate repulsion for the prisoners and thus added to radicalized behaviors. Moreover relationships between the female guards were often tense, and conflicts arose between the minority of female guards and the SS men.

Women were not well accepted into the camp community, although a few experienced ones, like Hermine Braunsteiner, managed to exert her confidence and stand up for her amongst the hatred. The employment of power is critical in understanding the SS society. From a Foucault’s perspective, power ‘exists only when it is put into action’ (Foucault, 1983: 219). It does not only act directly and instantaneously, but also adapts to the actions of individuals either already or potentially performed in the future. Accordingly power is a mode of action, which acts upon the actions of others. It ‘incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult’ (Foucault, 220).

This concept lends itself well to the analysis of the complex relationship between SS officers, ordinary guards, and the women supervisors, but we cannot use it to analyze relationships between the SS and prisoners. Foucault stresses that power does not proceed from a single instance of central power but that the exercise of power sets in play relations between individuals or groups: the SS society of the camps did not establish a single unit but rather in Foucault’s words, ‘the juxtaposition, the link, the coordination and also the hierarchy of different powers that nevertheless remain in their specificity’ (Foucault, 2012). Acts of violence served to convey power relations between the SS workers.

Violence permitted the ‘ethical’ organization of relationships. Showing how much power one could insert on a subordinate was a way of proving oneself, of conveying one’s status within the camp community, and was a method of communication amongst the workers. The amount and frequency of acts of physical violence executed did not depend on if it was a male or female SS guard, but the genders would steadily increase and intensify their violent acts if the opposite sex was present. (Mailänder Koslov, 2009: 435–350). It was to impress or shock their coworkers and leaders and prove that they had the skill and ability to produce such actions.

Since members of the SS are linked by the totality of their actions which ‘induce others and follow from one another’ (Foucault 2012: 217), the practice of power over others can never be conclusive. It must continually be repeated, affirmed, and conveyed. This connection at the level of the concentration camps suggests both a relation of overwhelming dominance of SS workers over their prisoners, but also an intricate network of relationships in the dynamics of power. To act externally or beyond it was impossible; nobody could escape the mesh of these complex power relations. Even when female guards acted passive and ignored each other, they could not avoid seeing or meeting their fellow guards and reacting to them.

The social relations inside the camp can largely explain the extreme use of physical violence at Ravensbrück, Majdanek, and all the other concentration camps. Although relations between female guards and prisoners were clearly dissymmetrical, these same guards had to reassert their authority every day, and demonstrate it – to the deportees but also to their colleagues and superiors in the hierarchy. By using physical violence, the women guards exercised power over the prisoners, and over their colleagues. Physical domination was indeed the proof of what they were ‘capable of’. Simultaneously it expressed a real thirst for power. Torturing the bodies of prisoners day after day enabled the guards to assert their place in the camp. Braunsteiner, for example, had won the confidence of the chief overseer, Ehrich, and had thus become her second-in-command.

The defenseless bodies of the prisoners were always at the center of violence. Aspects of everyday life reveals the ease with which ordinary young women recruits in the camps transformed themselves into cruel and violent guards. The women guards came late to this concentrational universe, but adapted to it quite rapidly – precisely because at first sight the camp worked like other disciplinary spaces that they had known before, but with the additional features of a military framework, physical violence, and death.

Once they got used to this paramilitary space, they generated violence themselves. It is also notable that women guards posed a problem for their male counterparts and for former prisoners who, like the SS men, presented a very stereotypical image of female camp guards. Statements from female and male survivors stress their shock and revulsion at female violence and cling on to examples of ‘good guards’ as if to find proof of the ‘peaceful nature’ of women. Following this logic, violent women are represented as uncharacteristic or unusual. While male violence is respected and socially acceptable or at least understandable, female violence remains unheard of.

‘The violent woman belongs in the realm of the extraordinary, the exceptional; the woman as victim in the realm of the ordinary, the norm’–as Cécile Dauphin commented (1997: 98–99). The fact that male and female survivors remember more clearly violence performed by women may be explained by this prohibition within western societies. (Sjoberg et al., 2007; Browder, 2008). This also helps to understand why the subject of violence by women remains relatively unexplored in the Nazi history. Through Michael Foucault’s theme of violence concerning his concept of power and even deeper, his concept of disciplinary power, we can understand how and why women converted in brutal guards for the SS during the Second World War.

To understand Nazism and its thirst for destruction, it is crucial that we examine the daily lives of the SS women, the way they adapted to their work and living conditions. From this perspective, the institutional framework of concentration camps and the Nazi plan of destruction supposed the circumstances for violent actions. Moreover, these conditions were also varied, transformed and fashioned by ordinary female guards. They unknowingly produced their social environment through their own practices by re-appropriating the rules. (Lüdtke, 1995).

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