More than Accomplices: The Crimes of Hitler’s Female SS

I did not want to stand behind the SS men. I wanted to show them that I, as a woman could conduct myself like a man … So I shot four Jews and six Jewish children. I wanted to prove myself to the men.
Excerpt from the interrogation of Erna Petri

The names most commonly associated with the Holocaust are undoubtedly Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Adolph Eichmann, and, of course, Adolph Hitler himself. Modern society tends to attribute the worst crimes of Nazi Germany to the murderous SS and their collaborators. The notoriety of these famous faces makes it seem that men were solely responsible for the Holocaust. Although an elite group of men may have orchestrated the Holocaust, regular women were also essential in implementing and carrying out its murderous policies. Yet, the names Pauline Kneissler, Liselotte Meier, and Erna Petri do not instill the same level of anger, disdain, or even recognition despite these women’s roles in perpetrating genocide. The existence of thousands of female auxiliaries like Kneissler, Meier, and Petri suggests that German women were much more than disinterested witnesses or willing accomplices to genocide: they were active participants.

Family by Wolfgang Willrich. (© Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz)

Ideally, women in Nazi Germany were supposed to fulfill the role of advancing the “Aryan” race by producing and caring for a large family. As Dagmar Herzog notes, German women were pressured to become mothers, and even “unmarried women were encouraged into extramarital motherhood or at least into libertinage.”1 While motherhood became most German women’s primary contribution, other women took on more demanding roles within the Third Reich. While women were forbidden from seeking official positions within the SS, a special auxiliary group existed for German woman eager to serve their Führer, known as the SS-Helferinnenkorps. As journalist Jessica Trisko Darden notes, around 10,000 women were members of the SS-Helferinnenkorps, roughly 5,000 women served as concentration camp guards, and another 7,900 women worked as Frauenkorp officers, the women tasked with creating “the day’s kill list” for political prisoners. German newspapers published numerous ads to recruit women for the SS-Helferinnenkorps. Historian Isabel Kershner has shown that women ultimately comprised about 10 percent of concentration camp guards. The responsibilities of the SS-Helferinnenkorps extended beyond serving as guards. Women were also detectives identifying hidden Jews, nurses in medical experiments, and executioners in the occupied East.2

The SS was a deeply patriarchal organization run exclusively by men, as was Nazi Germany as a whole. As such, male leaders required the SS-Helferinnenkorps to meet strict rules: they had to be between the ages of 17 and 30 and at least 5’4″ tall.3 The strict age and physical requirements demonstrate the all-consuming control SS men held over their female counterparts. Women’s reasons for joining were varied. Some women sought out the SS-Helferinnenkorps to impress their families. Others were married to SS officers, and some were eager to experience the excitement of the war. Only 14 percent of the SS-Helferinnenkorps possessed a high school degree, suggesting most women who joined were not only lacking education but also broader socio-economic opportunities.4 The SS-Helferinnenkorps offered German women the opportunity to feel important to the Third Reich without taking on the role of motherhood. The SS leadership celebrated auxiliary members for their work, and the women participated in social events and enjoyed retreats with their SS male counterparts. SS officer Karl Höcker’s photograph album reveals the “joyous” social occasions the SS and female auxiliaries enjoyed while working at Auschwitz.5

Auschwitz SS officers and female auxiliaries enjoying a lighthearted moment in 1944. (USHMM)

Höcker’s album contains several pages devoted to the female auxiliaries. One photograph titled “Hier gibt es Blaubeeren” (“Here there are blueberries”) was taken on July 22, 1944. While the auxiliaries enjoyed their blueberries, only miles away, on the very same day, 150 individuals were transported to Auschwitz.6 Of those 150 prisoners, the SS selected 21 men and 12 women for work at the camp; they killed the remaining individuals in the gas chambers.7 While several of Höcker’s photos of the auxiliaries were staged, the lighthearted tone of the photographs offers a striking juxtaposition to the horrific acts perpetrated by the male and female camp officers. These brighter moments may have offered some levity to an emotionally exhausting job, or perhaps they suggest that many of these women simply did not consider the implications of their actions only a few miles away.

Unlike male perpetrators, very few female auxiliary members faced punishment for their actions after the war. Many resumed their prewar lives. Some even rose to prominent roles within their communities. Annette Schucking, who was responsible for documenting death counts in Ukraine, later became a civil court judge.8 When Allied liberators questioned these women, many chose to portray themselves as martyrs or bystanders. When confronted with her actions during the war, Schucking commented on the deaths of Ukrainian children she oversaw by asking, “What could I have done?”9 Some defendants willingly used their gender to sway court opinions, harkening back to the Third Reich’s own maternal rhetoric. Allied interrogators chose to judge the accused women by their “emotional responses.”10 The more emotional the women acted throughout the interrogation, the more lenient the interrogators became. Court officials made note of when women cried during interrogations or court proceedings. Auxiliary member and nurse Pauline Kneissler defended her actions to euthanize Jews and other individuals deemed undesirable by the Third Reich by stating, “I never understood mercy killings as murder…My life was one of dedication and self-sacrifice…Never was I cruel to persons … and for this today I must suffer and suffer.”11

Conversely, SS-Helferinnenkorps members Josefine Block and Erika Raedar blamed the mass murders on Jews themselves for “not saving their own kin.”12 These accounts demonstrate not only the reluctance of perpetrators to admit to their wrongdoings and participation in genocide, but also that the rampant anti-Semitism present in Nazi Germany continued well after the war. However, women are largely excluded when most modern audiences recall the dangers of such fervent anti-Semitism. Edna Petri, an Auxiliary member who admitted to shooting Jewish children, explained, “I had been so conditioned to fascism and the racial laws, which established a view toward the Jewish people. As was told to me, I had to destroy the Jews. It was from this mindset that I came to commit such a brutal act.”13 Petri is among the most forthcoming auxiliary members concerning her actions during her stint in the SS-Helferinnenkorps. She appears aware of the influence of anti-Semitism over her actions. Anti-Semitism affected these women’s everyday lives, shaped their relationships, and contributed to many of their worldviews. It was impossible to escape, and it transcended gender, as many German women openly embraced all the dangerous beliefs the prejudice had to offer.

Photograph of auxiliary member Johanna Altvater, known as Fräulein Hanna. (©Hitler’s Furies by Wendy Lower)

The superiority of male SS officers also played a key role in the murderous actions of the female auxiliaries. Women were not allowed to serve as official members of the SS, but the auxiliary was firmly rooted in the brutal practices outlined by their male contemporaries. Many of these women felt they had to prove themselves worthy of their new positions in the eyes of the male-dominated SS. Erna Petri justified her decision to shoot Jewish children with anti-Semitism. Yet, she also wanted to impress the men with whom she worked closely. During her 1961 interrogation, Petri explained, “I did not want to stand behind the SS men. I wanted to show them that I, as a woman could conduct myself like a man … So I shot four Jews and six Jewish children. I wanted to prove myself to the men.”14 These women proved themselves to their male SS superiors by acting ruthlessly, showing no mercy towards other women or children. Holocaust survivors witnessed auxiliary member Johanna Altvater smashing a toddler’s head against a wall and throwing Jewish children out of windows in Ukraine. This behavior stood out in the minds of witnesses not only for the shocking brutality against children but also because the perpetrator was a woman. For many auxiliary women, trying to prove themselves to their SS commanders meant acting as brutally as their male counterparts; yet, following the war these women often chose to exploit traditional gender dynamics by feigning frailty and emotion.

The 10,000 women of the SS-Helferinnenkorps subverted the expectation of women as nurturers to the pleasant surprise of their male counterparts and to the shocking horror of their victims. When confronted with their role in perpetuating genocide after the war, many women chose to rely on using their gender to generate sympathy. However, the decision of thousands of women to voluntarily serve as concentration camp guards, secretaries responsible for assembling daily death lists, and direct executioners suggest that these women were far from innocent bystanders. The photographs of the young women in uniform cheerfully enjoying the company of male SS members stands in sharp contrast to their murderous actions at nearby Auschwitz. The testimonies of women and their victims show that the women of the SS-Helferinnenkorps were aware of the genocide occurring throughout occupied lands; in fact, many of them actively participated in the killing. Every patriarchal system turns women into accomplices of society’s sins, even when women suffer under that very system. The gendered expectations of Nazi Germany led German women towards blinding nationalism and direct engagement in genocidal behavior. While many members of the SS-Helferinnenkorps escaped initial justice in postwar Germany and returned to normal lives after the fiery end of Third Reich’s rule, modern audiences must remember the thousands of women who actively participated in genocide–and got away with it.

Notes

  1. Dagmar Herzog, “‘Pleasure, Sex, and Politics Belong Together’: Post-Holocaust Memory and the Sexual Revolution in West Germany,” Critical Inquiry 24, no. 2 (1998): 393–444. Return to text.
  2. Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies (New York: Mariner Books, 2013), 14. Return to text.
  3. Rachel Century, “Review of Das SS-Helferinnenkorps: Ausbildung, Einsatz und Entnazifizierung der weiblichen Angehörigen der Waffen-SS 1942-1949,” Reviews in History (December 2011), https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/1183. Certain women received exemptions, as some members were in their early forties, and the height requirement was later reduced. Applicants had to be recommended by either an SS-man or a Bund Deutsche Mädel leader. Return to text.
  4. Century, “Review of Das SS-Helferinnenkorps.” Return to text.
  5. “The Album,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/collections/the-museums-collections/collections-highlights/auschwitz-ssalbum/album. Return to text.
  6. “The Album”. Return to text.
  7. “The Album”. Return to text.
  8. Lower, Hitler’s Furies. 168. Return to text.
  9. Lower, 168. Return to text.
  10. Lower, 168. Return to text.
  11. Lower, 154. Return to text.
  12. Lower, 157. Return to text.
  13. “Interrogation of Erna Petri (Sept 19 1961)”, University of Oregon, https://center.uoregon.edu/NCTE/uploads/2014NCTEANNUAL/HANDOUTS/KEY_1994471/ReservePB101andPetri.pdf. Return to text.
  14. Interrogation of Erna Petri. Return to text.

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