The “Ordinary” Guard
There is very little information on the daily life of the huge numbers of women that became concentration camp guards. Only a small fraction of these women have received attention, mostly because they were well-known for their infamous crimes. We know much about the extreme cases of brutality on the part of women, but not much about those who passed under the radar. We found accounts from two guards who are examples of the “ordinary female guard,” those that tried to do their job and stay live, who tried to avoid being violent while at the same time stood by as atrocities were committed right on the other side of the fence.
Female concentration camp guards were recruited in a variety of manners. At first, women volunteered for the positions. Those that volunteered may have done so because women in Nazi Germany were stripped of opportunities to gain authority or influence. They were restricted to the private sphere, and the German ideology promoted the ideal women as nothing more than a mother and wife. Working in the camps “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, 3). Other women were persuaded through recruitment ads and propaganda to join the SS women’s group and show their dedication to their country. The women were either directly integrated into the workforce or came from the League of German Girls, which prepared them for their role as a concentration camp guard (Aroneanu,1996). Later there was a shortage of guards, and women were forcibly recruited by the Nazi party and taken to the concentration camps to work. Germany had declared a total war, and by 1944, “all women between the ages of 17 and 45 were required to work for the benefit of the German nation,” (Partee, 3). factories and businesses were asked to release some of their workers for the mobilization. Many of the women were not even aware at first what their new duties would be. Most were single, came from lower-middle class families in rural areas, and had received only rudimentary schooling (Partee, 3). Frau Anna Fest, who was taken from her job in a factory laboratory, says “her impression was that she would oversee work in a factory and be helpful in whatever way she could,” (Owings, 317).
Training for women was similar to that of men. They attended classes or lectures where they were briefed on their
duties. They were told how to watch and punish the prisoners. The length and manner of training was highly varied,
and while it was well organized in the beginning, it soon became rather haphazard (Partee, 3). One female guard, Margarete Barthel, who was conscripted from her factory job in 1944 for an “apprenticeship,” says that the only training she received was a brief lecture (Christie). Frau Fest says she underwent a 2-week training period during which she learned “how to observe the people you had to guard, to make sure no one got away, and so on,” (Owings, 319). Barthel and Fest, like many women, was trained at Ravensbrück, the only camp that was primarily run by and incarcerating women. For the most part, the training ranged from three to six weeks and consisted of three parts: ideological training, systematic instructions, and an internship. The training was highly militarized, with daily drills, uniforms, and punishments administered for even minor infractions (Partee, 4). The women were often trained by their female superiors. Dorothea Binz, one of the most notorious guards, is said to have trained the women in her charge on the finer points of malicious punishment.
For the most part, female concentration guards worked as overseers. They guarded prisoners on their way to and from work and while they worked, and were instructed to deliver disciplinary infractions to prisoners who were slowing production. The women also policed the camps during roll calls and other spans of time (Partee, 4). The women who observed prisoners were called Aufseherinnen. Barthel was sent to oversee prisoners in an electric factory, armed with a whistle in case a prisoner should escape (Christie). Frau Fest accompanied prisoners to and from the factory sight at a small work camp near Allendorf (Owings, 319). Most of the Aufseherinnen remained at an entry-level rank because they “did not exhibit excess cruelty or obvious career ambitions during their time of duty,” (Partee, 5). These “ordinary” women just lived their day-to-day lives indifferently and thus were not remembered by the other guards or prisoners they encountered.
There has been much evidence showing that relationships between female and male guards were common. Barthel talks of flirting with SS men, saying “we all had boyfriends. The men were allowed to come over in the evenings,” (Christie).
The guards mostly lived in barracks outside the camps. Barthel was lucky enough to be promoted to live in a chalet overlooking the lake at Ravensbrück, the same lake where the ashes from the crematorium were dumped. The chalet was outfitted with looted goods from prisoners, including rugs and a silk comforter (Christie).
During her first few weeks at Ravensbrück, Frau Fest saw a guard beating a female prisoner and stood up to say something. Another guard stopped her and said “Obviously, you are tired of living. Stay seated if you can and look away. You have no idea how many of your kind who have rebelled are already prisoners themselves,” (Owings, 318). Fest said she knew of the horrific events going on inside of the camps, despite being kept on the outskirts for her time as a guard (Owings, 318). Barthel says it was to possible to “turn your brain off,” to ignore the wounds she saw on prisoners’ legs and the violence she saw other guards commit. She says she truly became aware of what was going on 1945, when a gas chamber was built at Ravensbrück (Christie). Both women continued on with their jobs, despite their growing awareness of the horrendous violence they were becoming associated with.