- Female SS Guards and Workaday Violence: The Majdanek Concentration Camp, 1942–1944 by Elissa Mailänder
In Female SS Guards and Workaday Violence Elissa Mailänder examines the manner in which a small group of ostensibly “ordinary” women—most of them [End Page 484] unmarried, in their early twenties, and from lower socio-economic backgrounds—were transformed into an organized force of brutal guards at the concentration and extermination camp on the eastern outskirts of Lublin in occupied Poland. In her study she scrutinizes the records of twenty-eight of the roughly thirty-member female force that served on the staff of KL-Majdanek between fall 1942 and spring 1944.
Mailänder devotes the first two chapters of her book to how such women were channeled into supporting genocide. The German authorities employed deception (promising “physically effortless work”), incentives (better pay, housing, and food), and sometimes coercion (telling the women that if they did not take this “opportunity” they themselves would be put in the camp). Eventually, most of the women acquiesced. Upon completion of an accelerated training program at Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp near Fürstenberg/Havel, these unsuspecting women were designated SS-Aufseherinnen (SS-overseers). Mailänder’s study focuses on those dispatched to the harsh and primitive conditions of the newly created KL-Majdanek.
In subsequent chapters, the author focuses on the women’s daily work routines (roll-calls, maintaining order and discipline, supervision of work details, and so on) and delves into their various motivations and attitudes. In addition, the author examines their interactions and occasional conflicts with each other, with their male counterparts, and with their superiors. Drawing material from postwar trial transcripts, documentary film footage from the Third Majdanek War Crimes Trial (a six-year proceeding—the longest in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany), biographies, and a multitude of sociological studies, the author argues that these women were deeply affected by several factors: their exposure to incessant Nazi propaganda, the patriarchal system that denigrated female “helpers,” and the dehumanizing training that they had to endure. The last component encouraged the female guards to employ excessive violence against their prisoners (p. 356).
The author appears to have overlooked some key analyses: Jack G. Morrison’s Ravensbrück: Everyday Life in a Women’s Concentration Camp, 1939–45 (2000), which does not appear in Mailänder’s bibliography, recounts many of the same aspects of the female SS guards’ daily life at Ravensbrück. In addition, Mailänder has not made use of the extensive repository of captured files that Soviet forces carted back to Moscow in the summer of 1944 and that today are held in the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF). As Danish historian Claus B. Christensen has observed, this archive is in all likelihood the most comprehensive repository of documents on the female SS guards at German-run concentration camps.
Although Mailänder draws extensively on sociological studies, she surprisingly does not consult seminal social-psychological studies such as the 1961 Milgram “Obedience to Authority” experiment or the 1971 Zimbardo “Stanford Prison” [End Page 485] experiment, both of which would explain, at least in part, some of the means by which considerate, compassionate individuals can be transformed into insensitive and cruel oppressors. Mailänder cites innumerable sociological works, but only one psychological study. This is unfortunate, because we have excellent studies available to us, including Adrian Raine’s The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime (2013), Roy Baumeister’s Evil: Inside Violence and Cruelty (1992), and, although seemingly dated, Henry V. Dick’s Licensed Mass Murder: A Socio-Psychological Study of Some SS Killers (1972). These works are all germane—perhaps crucial—to our understanding of the more pernicious “alpha” female guards in the Nazi concentration camp system.
The book’s prose suffers from its reliance on sociological terminology. Antiseptic verbiage (such as “the gendered dimension of violence and cruelty”) actually undercuts understanding. The author claims that...