Question of Gender

By mziegle1


In most existing literature about National Socialism women are portrayed as victims. The extent to which women were oppressed under the system is clear, especially Jewish and Gypsy women and those who took place in the resistance. Whether or not the women whom were the victims of structural discrimination in politics, society and the economy can be considered on the same level of victimization as the Jewish, Gypsy, and resistance women is a controversial issue (von Saldern, 210).

One element of the current controversy is whether or not the women who were perpetrators can also be seen as victims or whether they hold the same responsibility as their male counterparts.  Male and female concentration camp guards were typically allowed to change their jobs if desired. Yet, even though there was a degree of freedom, many women were raised in such a way (their social milieu, gender-specific upbringing and education, along with the current political system) that it “did not allow (them) to act as responsible subjects” (von Saldern, 212). Female perpetrators can be seen as victims because of the different situations women were in. Women were often forced into the ranks, made to act as cruel as they did, and trained to believe what they were doing was good. This would make them too victims of the Nazi regime. On the other hand, the women who volunteered for the movement and chose to be a part of the Nazi party as many of their male counterparts did, would not be considered victims, for they chose the path of the Nazi party.

Another question that needs to be addressed when discussing the question of gender is whether women as individuals shared the guilt of the Nazi regime or if there could be a specifically female guilt. Because of the different situations the two genders had many argue that their experience should be considered in a different light. Women were more vulnerable because of their bodies and status, and because of this vulnerability the resulting guilt of their actions should be considered differently. Women concentration camp guards were extremely small in numbers compared to the guards who were men. The main contribution by women was in the traditionally female sphere, in the home or in the community (von Saldern, 222). Because their work was so “behind the scenes” and only influenced what occurred on the front lines, the guilt that the majority of women involved feel would differ greatly from the guilt experienced by a man involved in the killing camps and gas chambers. Women maintained “normalcy” in the home while the men were more involved on the front lines. This encouraged the continuation of violence because the men could go and do their jobs without feeling a change in the home environment. No change meant no questioning, which lead to the unethical and unmoral behavior of so many of the men involved.

The jobs of female and male camp guards had a number of similarities and differences.  The training of women was similar to that of their male counterparts, so the women were being taught the same doctrine of obedience and loyalty.  They were also treated just as harshly as men during training, receiving punishments for infractions that ranged from outdoor work assignments to lashings (Partee, 4).  Despite the similarities in training, responsibilities of men and women differed.  Women weren’t allowed to carry pistols or automatic weapons, and instead were given whips or were trained as hundsfuhrerinnen, or dog handlers (Partee 4).  Unlike at the male-run camps, executions were carried out in secret at Ravensbruck (Partee, 4).  Equal advancement was rare. Female camp guards could move up in the ranks but it was much harder than for males. Women could advance in the ranks by sleeping with high ranking officers or displaying especially brutal acts in the camps. This was fairly rare, but did occur in some camps. The stories of these women are well known, and discussed in another section of the blog.

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