Starting in , the appointment of guards was usually done through the labour exchanges that had been opened in every town of the Reich Oppel, They were highly effective control mechanisms because every employee had to be recorded in their lists. Having been opposed to the employment of women, forcing them back into the home, the Nazis now had to adapt their policies to the needs of the economy.
An even more rigorous mobilisation took place at the end of and intensified with the proclamation of total war in From , every woman between the ages of 17 and 50 was subject to compulsory registration Meldepflicht with a labour exchange. Thus the state could draw on the labour force it needed. Only women who were pregnant or had more than two children under 14 were exempt. With the launch of war against the Soviet Union in June and the Nazi policy of expansion into Soviet territories, the concentration camp system expanded significantly.
By the end of the war, 13 female camps had been opened, as well as countless subcamps reserved for women, the precise number of which has not yet been established. The female guards performed the same supervisory duties as their male colleagues, but did not take part in the process of mass killings.
Killing was reserved for SS men. Women did not participate in gassings or mass shootings though they selected victims and guarded prisoners outside the gas chambers. The total number of female guards who served in Nazi concentration camps from May to May can only be estimated. Nazi statistics for January show 3, female camp guards as opposed to 37, male SS 4. The figures change with the progress of the war and the expansion of the concentration camp system. But the proportions of men and women remain constant throughout the entire period: a few dozen women, but thousands of men.
Like most of the female guards recruited by the SS, Hermine Braunsteiner and Herta Ehlert came from the working class. Both of them left school after the compulsory eight years and were unmarried when they joined the SS. As a teenager in Vienna, Braunsteiner found employment as a maid, then as an unskilled worker. She lived with her parents in difficult financial circumstances 5. She tried to leave crisis-torn Austria for the Netherlands, intending to train as a nurse there, but without success.
In , Braunsteinerobtained a place as an au pair in London but left Britain after the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany on 13 March , fearing that war would break out but also hoping that the new situation might offer her a chance to realise her dream of becoming a nurse.
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Her hopes came to nothing, and all she eventually managed to get was a job in a munitions factory near Berlin. She did not enjoy this work, which was exhausting and badly paid 64 Reichsmarks, RM, net per month from which 9. Her colleague Herta Ehlerthad trained as a saleswoman, and, by her own account, was running the branch of a shop when she was forcibly recruited through a labour exchange 7. Since we have no documentation relating to her appointment on 15 November , this cannot be verified. Braunsteiner and Ehlert fitted the profile of women targeted by the SS: aged between 21 and 45, from working-class backgrounds, and with no professional training.
The SS counted on the gratitude and loyalty of these willing and tractable recruits. For women who had to make their own living and sometimes help their families as well, service in the SS was an important step up the social ladder and offered welcome financial security. As guards, the women gained the status of employees of the Reich, with salaries fixed according to the civil service pay scale.
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Once social security contributions, tax, and the cost of board and lodging in the SS sector of the camp were deducted, this left As a guard, Braunsteiner earned nearly twice as she had as a factory worker. Service in the SS offered them job security and, for their social level, very good wages, along with privileges cheap accommodation and meals, uniform, etc. Applying for such a job did not necessarily imply any political commitment or ideological motivation, but rather the desire for higher social status and a degree of comfort.
Historians often seem surprised that these women signed up voluntarily, but our research shows the logic of their choice. Nonetheless it is true that the young women who were recruited in , at the height of Nazi triumphalism, showed few signs of any scruples. Like everyone in Nazi Germany, they would have heard reports and rumours about the concentration camps, which until mainly held German and Austrian political prisoners 8.
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But the fresh recruits probably had no clear idea of what awaited them, and they did not ask themselves too many questions. They became that in a specific social context and a specific institutional space. The concentration camp was a socio-cultural environment and a living and working reality that the guards experienced, interpreted and adapted in different and contradictory ways. The beginners usually appeared frightened upon first contact with the camp, and it took some time to attain the level of cruelty and debauchery of their seniors.
Some of us made a rather grim little game of measuring the time it took for a new Aufseherin to win her stripes.
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As for the others, a week or two, a month at the most, was an average orientation period. Tillion, It only took a few weeks to transform the shocked, frightened and clumsy newcomers into confident guards, capable of using verbal and physical violence on the prisoners. What happened during the first weeks? How was training carried out?
What did it mean for a young woman recruit to live in a concentration camp and wear a uniform? In order to explore the process of initiation and adaptation of the SS women to the reality of the camps, we propose two lines of enquiry: the power to act, and the experience of power through architecture and the uniform.
Of course concentration camps were institutions where people were imprisoned and supervised, on the basis of criteria that were initially political and subsequently racial. But for the SS personnel, these same camps were also places where they lived and worked, run according to military rules. Life at the camp was a barracks life, if by barracks we understand an enclosed living and working environment, access to which is regulated and supervised. The guards could only go out through an official exit and needed a pass to do so.
Their use of time, their space, their movements and their activities were all organised and regulated according to military rules. As Foucault has argued, discipline organises an analytical space which arranges the circulation and movements of people and distributes bodies in space and time Foucault, — Institutions like the convent, the boarding school, the factory, the barracks, the hospital, just like the concentration camps, all make use of the same meticulous techniques, innocent in appearance, which until now have lost none of their power.
The houses and flats built for the female guards remain unique in the Nazic oncentrational system. Eight houses were arranged symmetrically in two rows around a wide square, lending a certain majesty to the group of buildings. According to the anthropologist Insa Eschebach, the arrangement and architectural style of the houses express the self-concept of the SS. They reflect the ideological frame and life world inhabited by the SS personnel Eschebach, Each house contained ten single-occupant studio flats on two floors, and four single attic rooms, thus accommodating up to 14 guards.
On each floor five residents shared toilets, a bathroom, and a small kitchen. If we take into account the conditions in which most of the guards had lived with their families until then, like Braunsteiner who shared a small three-room flat with seven people, the accommodation was impressively modern and comfortable. Their uniforms, too, played an important role in the experience of power. Upon arrival the new recruits each received two uniforms summer and winter , two pairs of boots, a pair of gloves, stockings, blouses, a field cap, and sports kit From its inception, Nazi society was a society of uniforms.
Women had worn them since they joined the work force en masse during the First World War — as postwomen, ticket inspectors, etc. But the uniform acquired a very different meaning under Nazism. It was no longer just work clothing but a sign of belonging to a community, to a political elite established according to racial criteria. Although the status and duties of female guards were comparable to that of their male counterparts, subtle distinctions were still apparent in the dress code. They had to be content with the imperial eagle, an emblem reserved for state functionaries.
Nonetheless, their uniform was still charged with significant political and social meaning, for the wearer and the observer. It marked out these civilian employees as legitimate representatives of the Nazi state. The uniform concealed individual features and character traits behind those of the group. Their wearers enjoyed a common feeling of power and belonging. The uniform contributes to forging an esprit de corps , even though it does not exclude hierarchies of rank and frictions within the group.
In her study of SS men, the political scientist Paula Diehl has clearly shown the dividing line traced between those who belong to the group and those who are excluded. This division of power also applies to the female guards Diehl, f. The question of the aura of the uniform was never discussed by former guards.
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