LAWRENCE — Irma Grese, who is perhaps the most well-known female Nazi concentration camp guard, is portrayed in popular culture as a brutal warden in Nazi exploitation films.
Though she was one of about 3,500 Aufseherinnen, or female guards, the Nazis used during World War II, her apparent attributes have come to stand for the whole and even to exemplify the exceptionality of the Holocaust, a University of Kansas graduate said.
“She and her female colleagues weren’t worse than the men. She was doing the same exact thing most likely, but the perception is she was more brutal because she was a woman,” said Shelly Cline, who in May earned her doctorate in history from KU. “There is a different expectation of women in terms of behavior.”
As part of her dissertation, Cline, who is the public historian at the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education in Overland Park, studied how gender played a role in perception of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. She is working on a book about her research.
Cline and her adviser, Nathan Wood, associate professor of history, said most people are surprised to learn there were women guards at all. Women served at Ravensbrück, Auschwitz and throughout the camp system.
“In general, we think of the guards as men,” Wood said. “In popular culture the idea of the uniformed SS guard callously enforcing his authority and even malevolently beating and executing prisoners is common.”
There also seems to be a myth about female guards as well, Wood said, that they treated prisoners even worse than the male guards, which is the idea Cline explores in her research.
“They were adhering not to a predictable female code of behavior but rather to a male military code of behavior that governed camp,” Cline said. “They acted outside the gender norm. At the same time, they don’t have their own space there, and they don’t fit in because they are a female minority in a predominantly male workplace.”
Some of the women volunteered for service, but many were conscripted. The average age was 26, but some were only 17 or 18.
“The real history of these women has absolutely been lost,” Cline said. “Only when we see them as people do we understand their actions. And therein lies the benefit of this type of research.”
Cline personally traveled to Ravensbrück as part of her research. Part of the camp has been converted to a youth hostel, and she actually slept in the same place that housed the former female guard barracks.
“There’s something very powerful about being there in that space and seeing how the space is recycled and reused today,” she said. “As for the Aufseherinnen, they were young women, away from home, largely among their peers and engaged in a common cause. Their days were long, their work difficult. And here, on the doorstep of the camp, they must have passed their time in very ordinary ways. By the time I arrived in Ravensbrück, I had already spent many years researching these women, and yet it took the experience of lightly floating in their reality to codify my approach to their story.”
The difference in how the female guards were perceived extended to the war crimes trials conducted in Europe.
As she reviewed transcripts of the trials, Cline noted that prosecutors would often introduce the women guards on trial by describing the cruelty of their actions along with their wardrobe.
“That introduction was never given to the men,” Cline said.
The women also navigated the court system very poorly compared with former Nazi men. Cline said of the trials that she examined, 84 percent of the women on trial were convicted compared with 50 percent of the men. That is likely attributed to the fact that the women were less guarded about what happened while the men likely were more savvy in their navigation and admitted to less. The women did not understand how to lie advantageously, she said.
Wood said Holocaust research has grown more sophisticated in recent years, transitioning from survivor testimony to a historical analysis that is often called the victim-bystander-perpetrator axis.
“Shelly’s research into the experience of perpetrators shows how these women guards can be participants in a system of brutality and genocide, while also being victims themselves,” Wood said. “Shelly never excuses the female camps guards for their role in the Holocaust, but she shows the complexity of what their role was, based on their gendered experience of the workplace.”
Cline said it’s often a challenging balance to humanize these perpetrators while recognizing the brutality of their actions and their place in this complicated chapter of history.
“They were ordinary individuals who found themselves in these extraordinary circumstances. At the same time, because they were women, their experience is not the same as the men. Theirs is not the universal experience,” she said. “The purpose is to understand genocide to try to prevent it in the future. Looking at how gender influenced the whys and hows of perpetration is part of that.”