“Normal brutality”: The female guards at Ravensbrück concentration camp

An exhibition in the former Nazi camp in Brandenburg focuses on the lives of the female guards who worked there.

Camp guards in a photo taken after 1940.
Camp guards in a photo taken after 1940.Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten

Ravensbrück-Camp guards described the years they spent at the Ravensbrück concentration camp as the nicest times of their lives. Between 1939 and 1945, 3,340 – mostly young – women worked in the largest camp for women in Nazi Germany. Most of them of them were aged 20 to 25. 

Until 1942, most of them applied on their own accord for jobs in the “camp for social misfits and regime opponents”. The conditions appeared favourable to them: a guard earned 185 Reichsmark (today around €680), far more than in previous positions. Usually, the young women came from modest backgrounds and the jobs enabled them to climb the social ladder and get out of the narrow confines of their origins.

Take, for example, Waltraut G. from the nearby town of Fürstenberg/Havel. She worked for the post office and came from a family of five children. “If I can make more money, then I’ll go there,” she said.

“It was more attractive than mindless work on the assembly line,” said Anna G. from Linz, Austria.

Simone Erpel, curator of the exhibition “Following the SS – female guards at Ravensbrück Women’s Concentration Camp” at the camp’s memorial site, says the women’s stories are a narrative of emancipation.

Camp inmate Jeannin-Garreau drew fellow inmates as well as at least one guard (with hat and hood).
Camp inmate Jeannin-Garreau drew fellow inmates as well as at least one guard (with hat and hood).Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten

Friendly, attractively made-up women look out at visitors in nearly every room of the exhibition. The photos are displayed in one of the buildings where the women lived and spent their free time. The camp next door imprisoned about 132,000 women and children, as well as roughly 20,000 men from 40 countries.

Some 20,000 inmates were murdered here. Most of them died of starvation or disease, or were worked to death – labelled as a “natural” reduction of the camp population. The guards witnessed the horror every day. And the executions and the crematorium were surely no secret to them.

The women guarded and tormented other women. Few of them suffered from pangs of conscience. But how was it possible that normal, average women adapted to the conditions of a concentration camp, integrated into the SS system and became violent? The exhibition helps answer these disturbing questions and goes well beyond a previous exhibition in 2004.

The first exhibition served the needs of basic research, says the curator. The current one draws from contemporary discussions and the latest research. It takes a more nuanced approach.

Passport pictures of former concentration camp guards that awaited trial in a US camp in 1947.&nbsp;<br>
Passport pictures of former concentration camp guards that awaited trial in a US camp in 1947.
Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten

Much has, in fact, changed. Historian Thomas Lutz remembers the debates surrounding the first exhibition: there were serious concerns that the perpetrators were given too much attention and that the dignity of the victims was violated. The current exhibition takes the risky approach of investigating the women’s motives. In 2004, there was talk of “de-demonising”, says Lutz. Now it's possible to try to understand why the women did what they did, he explains.

Take the case of Irma Grese, a farmer’s daughter from the Feldberg lake region who first worked at Ravensbrück, only to be later transferred to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp: at 21 it was her job to select women on the infamous ramp. At 22 she was sentenced to death by hanging.

For years, Germans classified such people as monsters so it could deny that they were a product of mainstream society.  Once their banal motives are revealed, it becomes clear that they’re not very different from us today. We get the feeling that it could all happen again. With unspectacular yet refined means, this exhibition manages to produce a deeply disturbing effect.

Infobox image
A private picture shows guard Johanna Langefeld (1900–1974) with her son, Herbert, und Johanna, the daughter of a colleague. Photo: Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten
The Exhibition
What: Following the SS – female guards at Ravensbrück Women’s Concentration Camp. Nine chapters of history and its results from the view of guards and inmates. 

When: Open every day but Monday from 11am to 2pm. More info at: www.ravensbrueck-sbg.de

Where: Memorial Museum Ravensbrück, Straße der Nationen, Fürstenberg/Havel. The exhibition is housed in a former guard barracks. 

Only 77 female concentration camp guards stood trial. When asked about their crimes, they blamed their own ignorance - they were forced to obey orders. In other words, they had no choice. From 1942, most of the women working in the camps were performing mandatory national service. Often, they had already worked in armaments factories.

The exhibition helps do away with some misconceptions. Take, for example, the following two eyewitness accounts that are part of the exhibition.

There is a transcript of 85-year-old Christel Wenzel’s recollections: the first time she saw the camp, she wanted to leave. She talked to the commandant and could go home. Likewise, Frieda Matthes confessed during questioning after the war in 1945 that she was horrified at the sight of women with shaved heads and burst into tears while talking to the head of the camp: “The SS man showed compassion and sent me home.”

Neither woman suffered any consequences. Elsewhere in Nazi Germany, that was often not the case.

No qualifications were required for the job. Applicants just had to show their enthusiasm for National Socialism. After arriving at the camp, the women donned tight uniforms, were given a short briefing, then accompanied the more experienced guards on their rounds. Three or four days later, another cog in the machine had been formed.

Most of them remained in Ravensbrück or were sent to other camps such as Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen or Groß-Rosen. Inmates reported that new guards adopted the average domineering attitude within a few days.

On one of the exhibition's panels, camp guard Germaine Tillion explains how she and other SS helpers playfully measured how long a rookie needed to reach the normal level of brutality. Curator Simone Erpel calls it the pace that “normality shifts”.

“How long would it have taken me to adapt?” one asks oneself.