Female Perpetrators Within the Concentration Camp System

Jesse Tannetta

Nazi female perpetrators are no longer completely unknown. Initially believed to be a very small minority in an enormous sea of violent murderers, historians have recently begun to examine the many roles that women played in National Socialism. Many of their roles were as non-violent collaborators, such as neighbors who plundered the wealth of their Jewish neighbors, taking their goods after they had been murdered, or as administrators fulfilling a vital role in the Holocaust. More public and appalling, however, was the role played by approximately 3,500 women in the concentration camp system where they were employed as guards. Some of the most infamous of these women, for example Irma Grese and Hermine Braunsteiner, have been known-by-name since the end of the war.


Previously, these women were viewed as outliers and an aberration of nature as “normal” women. Women working as military guards stand in contrast to a gentler feminine image shown in some Nazi propaganda, which presented women working with the state for the common good and Volk or ‘the people.’ Such images of peasant women focused on popular ideals of motherhood (children), kitchen, and church (Rupp 1978; Stephenson 1975). As such, it was hard to accept that German or any women would have committed such heinous crimes. Portrayed as beasts and monsters, Nazi female guards were dehumanized and written off as rare abominations. Recent research, however, has shown the prevalence and participation of female perpetrators to organize, manage, and promote the Holocaust, encouraged by Nazi recruiting and making choices to engage in workaday violence within the brutal concentration camp system (Mailänder, 2015).


The history of female Nazi camp guards, known as Aufseherinnen, began at the concentration camp in Ravensbrück. This location in Northern Germany was a central hub where all female guards were trained before potentially being transferred to other camps, some spending as few as three months there. Others spent the duration of the war at Ravensbrück, having a significant impact on how the camp functioned throughout its existence. To attempt to understand female perpetrators, we use a dual approach. We study Ravensbrück as a camp in a system that motivated and involved the actions of its guards. In addition, individual perpetrators must also be studied. We can glean from their experiences many of the roles female camp guards played at many concentration camps. With limited documentation of female perpetrator testimony, historians have used a variety of primary sources, some from survivors who were imprisoned at various camps under these guards, to discover what is currently known about female camp guards.


Rochelle Saidel (2006) indirectly reports on actions taken by the female guards at the Ravensbrück camp in the form of “punishments” levied on Jews. She details the palpable antisemitism displayed by the guards, characterized by Christmas day 1944, when all the Jews in the camp were forced to stand outside for the entire day as revenge for killing Christ (p. 86). As the war dragged on, Saidel once again describes the guards as vindictive, singling out Jews for daily beatings. The more the Wehrmacht was defeated, the worse the treatment of the Jews at the hands of the guards became (p. 105). Although not focused on the lives of the female guards, Saidel’s scholarship helps illuminate the environment of the camp from the perspective of the inmates having to endure torture from these guards.


Relegated to lower-status roles (both as women and as low-ranking members of the SS), female camp guards (like other camp employees) frequently used violence to manage Jewish and other prisoners under their supervision. There are countless stories of guards using whips, sticks, dogs, and riding boots to beat prisoners; Jews were often singled out and mocked for their inevitable annihilation under the Nazi system. Judith Becker (1997), a Jewish survivor born in 1928 in Stettin, Germany, was interned at the death camp Majdanek (in Poland) and witnessed the appalling intake procedures of Jews into the camp under the leadership of Alice Orlowski, a female guard. Many of the Jews entering the camp were told before deportation that Majdanek was a family camp, which was not only false but made the intake procedure especially traumatic and chaotic, since families were split up upon arrival. As an elaborate ruse to make the procedure more efficient, Orlowski recruited Polish inmates to pretend to be nannies to take the Jewish children who were too young to walk. This deceptive scam was carefully arranged to also extort and financially gain from work with the prisoners; the child was put on the ground to determine if he or she could walk, and the Jews were told of the price of the nanny services being offered. The children were then taken to the second floor and drowned in the large disinfection drums. Orlowski frequently murdered the children herself and then threw the shoes out the window onto the ground below, right on the path that was taken by the parents.


Gisela Bock (1998) sought to understand the lives of ordinary women in Nazi Germany and how they became perpetrators, victims, followers, and bystanders in her chapter in the important book, Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman (1998). She focuses on the education of girls and young women within the Third Reich, particularly in the female unit of the Hitler Youth, the BDM, League of German Girls. Although women were by policy often assigned or limited to roles inferior to men in Nazi society, girls and young women were taught sports, conditioned to work hard, and even taught how to shoot weapons by and in the BDM (p. 90). While at Majdanek, Dora Abend (1996), a Jewish survivor from Lublin, encountered Nazi women riding horses and hitting the inmates with a homemade weapon consisting of wood with a strap connected to it.


Wendy Lower (2013) has elaborated Bock’s research to provide a perspective on how women participated in the terror enacted by the Nazi regime. Lower has been influential in the field of women perpetrators of National Socialism, authoring Hitler’s Furies, which significantly helped change the perspective of women’s roles in the Third Reich. While she only briefly addresses the role of female camp guards, her synopsis of the Nazi system and how women fit into the Holocaust is a significant contribution to the history of the Holocaust. Lower provides insightful and important research into the Nazi ideology of the Volk, particularly showing how this community ideal related to women and girls. Some of these Nazi teachings energized women by elevating their status above others due to their perceived racial superiority while also encouraging many women to join public life, offering many new opportunities for social and economic upward mobility (p. 32). The important analysis provided by Lower is essential to understanding the mindset, motivations, and social context in the lives of female concentration camp guards.


Elissa Mailänder (2015) devotes a chapter of her book to build on Lower’s description of the paths taken by women to become camp guards. Female concentration camp guards began arriving at Ravensbrück in May 1939; they had actively recruited to become guards through newspaper ads and even through presentations by SS men at factories (p. 45-46). A job description indicates that hired guards should be ages 21-45, with no special skills, who would supervise women who had committed offenses against the Volk community and thus must be isolated. Guards would be given housing, food, uniforms, and salaries, and opportunity to be promoted to head guard. Guard service to the Reich required a police certification of good conduct, self-certification of ‘Aryan’ racial background, resume, photograph, and health certificate and medical exam. Criminalization of individuals and groups also increased fear, which in turn rationalized persecution, creating a cycle of fear and distrust (Mailänder, 2015, 47-48).


These women were employed as members of the Waffen SS, but as auxiliary civil service, and not military employees. Most of the female guards were young, unmarried, with little education, and from lower middle class to poor backgrounds. For example, Hermine Braunsteiner from Vienna began working at age 15 during a period of high unemployment. She moved often for work and had a background of factory work. She was working long, tedious hours at an armaments factory before becoming a guard, which offered a better future provided by the Nazi regime. Compared to other jobs available to lower class women, camp guard was easy work for better pay than they could get anywhere else (Mailänder, 2015: 50-54). Reading her testimony, one can imagine why a woman would not only agree to but volunteer to be a camp guard. Braunsteiner started work on August 15, 1939, as Ravensbrück guard #28.


The first chief guard of Ravensbrück, Johanna Langefeld, is an example of the opportunities that Nazism afforded women. The 1920s were disastrous for Langefeld, who became widowed in 1924 and had a child out of wedlock thereafter. The crash of 1929 left her struggling to provide for her son as she lived in destitution until the rise of Adolf Hitler in 1933 (Helm, 2015). For the first time in her adult life, she was able to secure a steady job, going into prison civil service in 1934. She rose to be a senior guard at the women’s prison at Lichtenburg and was promoted to chief female guard of Ravensbrück when it opened in 1939. She had negotiated with the SS to handle all aspects of daily life that pertained to “feminine matters,” an ambiguous term that was never quite defined. She owed steady employment, economic security, and her newfound power to the Nazi regime.


Mailänder’s research about the training in Ravensbrück is crucial in understanding the development of female camp guards. Before beginning their new duties, female recruits had to sign a myriad of documents that put them firmly under the jurisdiction of the SS. These documents demanded confidentiality, restrictions against yelling or injuring prisoners, and an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler. A constant theme throughout these initial weeks of training was the inferiority of the inmates and the necessity of the guards to be as strict as possible to successfully rehabilitate the prisoners (Mailänder, 2015, p. 78). This technique of indoctrination continued daily to ingrain the ideology of the prisoners as shaved, tired, dirty, disrespected, nameless, and enemies of Germany. Although often informal and regularly not well attended, female guards had weekly sessions scheduled for Nazi indoctrination and training provided to them by the SS (p. 82). Combining these two techniques denigrated the prisoners while affirming the racial and social superiority of the guards. It gave the women a sense of purpose and demonstrated to them that they were serving their country for the greater good by how they treated the inferior enemies of the state.


The women were subject to strict regulations on work and free time, living quarters, clothing, and in stripping individuality in favor of a homogenous group (p. 73). The camp administration was very orderly and demanded discipline. Using survivor testimony as well as the intake documents signed by the new guards, many of these female trainees were shocked, dismayed, and uncomfortable by the concentration camp setting. Mailänder even recounts a story where a guard said, “excuse me” for bumping into a prisoner in her first few days. Nevertheless, they acclimated to the environment and adjusted to being cruel, typically within a month (p. 72).


Margarete Buber-Neumann (1949) can attest to these awkward first encounters between the new guards and the inmates. This became more common as the war dragged on and the trainees were coming from all walks of life, some even conscripted to work as guards to support the war effort against their will. Buber-Neumann found these later guards less brutal than the ardent Nazis who had volunteered for the position previously (p. 203). When the new guards first arrived and met with chief guard Johanna Langefeld, they were still in civilian clothes and often appeared uncertain of how to act around the inmates. These hesitations began to fade once they were issued their uniform and began training with a more experienced guard.


Mailänder continually weaves these important details demonstrating the humanity of the camp guards. She juxtaposes their luxurious living quarters, catered meals, laundry done by the prisoners, and leisure activities to illuminate the benefits of being a camp guard alongside the brutality they inflicted on the inmates (Mailänder, 2015, p. 87). These women were not irrational beasts but human beings who used their own rational agency to further their political, social, and economic standing within German society by sadistically mistreating and torturing innocent victims of Nazi persecution. The entire camp system was built according to rules and orders; camps operated within strict systems of discipline and hierarchy. For most guards, this meant military-style routines within specified camp zones. For prisoners, this meant dehumanization, enumeration, forced labor, and ongoing mistreatment, from starting to ending each day with roll call and punishments for any absences.


Susannah Heschel (2004) writes adamantly about the misrepresentation of female camp guards during various postwar Nazi war criminal trials. She argues against portraying these women as masculine in nature, as animals, or as deviant abnormalities (p. 314). With respect to these female guards, Heschel implores us to recognize these women as women, not as innocents or monsters, but as capable of evil and vicious actions. Female camp guards did not discard their femininity but affirmed their roles in Nazi state operations (and often as breadwinners), showing agency to choose their jobs and their actions within a criminal state system, even though many chose to cruelly inflict terror and violence on people who were unjustly imprisoned (p. 316).


The network of camps that centered around Ravensbrück was a starting point for female concentration camp guards, perpetrators who were indoctrinated, trained, and entrusted with the brutal treatment of prisoners throughout Nazi occupied Europe. Starting in 1939, their numbers grew during the war. All were required to be of privileged national and ethnic backgrounds and to swear loyalty to Hitler as ‘the Fuhrer of the German Reich and people,’ among other civil service requirements. Some were ardent Nazis and enthusiastic to lend their service to Adolf Hitler. Others were reluctant but needed to provide for themselves or their families.


Regardless of individual motivation, these guards quickly became a vital element to the Nazi state systems of punishment and control, which employed terror tactics throughout the many concentration camp systems and in the ghettos. Female guards in camps were governed by rules and regulations and yet not always bound to follow them. They were responsible for perpetrating crimes, and they were also women employed by a criminal state system, whose roles and actions need to be studied and analyzed to add greater depth and comprehension to our understanding of the Holocaust.


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Becker, J. (1997). USC Shoah Foundation. Visual History Archive, Interview 31699 (Segment 70).

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About the author

Jesse Tannetta is a former high school teacher and is the Program Manager for Echoes & Reflections specializing in providing professional development to middle and high school teachers focused on Holocaust education throughout the United States. He holds bachelor’s degrees in History and Catholic Theology from Emmanuel College as well as a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from Gratz College. He is a current Ph.D. student who is just beginning his dissertation analyzing the life of concentration camp guard Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan. Originally from the Boston area, he now resides in New York City.



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The Holocaust:  Remembrance, Respect, and Resilience Copyright © 2023 by Jesse Tannetta is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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