The Nazi concentration camps in Germany – officially referred to by Hitler’s regime as ‘protective custody camps’ – were populated almost exclusively by male prisoners, with only a few notable exceptions. The most significant, and largest, being the Ravensbrück women’s camp, constructed in 1939 on the banks of the lake Schwedt, near the town of Fürstenberg an der Havel.
Despite the obvious difference in the gender of prisoners detained here, Ravensbrück would still exhibit the same signifiers of National Socialist persecution as the brother camps, such as Sachsenhausen and Dachau, elsewhere. Rudimentary housing in the form of penal barracks, a slave labour system that would excel both in spite of and because of the expendable nature of the camp population – and from mid-1944, a gas chamber – designed to expidite the murder of prisoners.
As with other Nazi camps, prisoners would come from certain persecuted groups – mainly political prisoners, but also Jehovas Witnesses, Roma and Sinti, Jews, and so-called race traitors (Rassenschande) accused of relations with impure non-Aryans. Although the camp was located only 90km north of the Nazi capital of Berlin, the largest national group of prisoners would eventually not be German – but Polish. Including many members of the Polish Home Army.
As a well-known health resort in the 1920s, the peaceful town of Fürstenberg – now in the northern German state of Mecklenburg Vorpommern – was advertised for its three lakes and manor house transformed into a sanatorium that proved particularly popular with Berliners.
In the 1930s, the Nazi Party would find popular support in the town and by 1939 open the Ravensbrück ‘protective custody camp’ opposite the town centre, on the banks of lake Schwedt. The first prisoners, from Germany and Austria, arrived on May 8th 1939 – followed by a large group of so-called Gypsy women from the Burgenland in Austria, in the summer of 1939.
Over the next six years, around 130,000 women would be incarcerated at Ravensbrück – with an estimated 28,000 perishing.
No secret was made of the camp’s existence to the local population, and not only would businesses profit from the concentration camp’s presence but prisoners would also be marched through the town to provide slave labour in Fürstenburg. Similarly to other Nazi camps, Ravensbrück would serve as the centre for other subcamps – in this instance around 70 of them – housing forced labourers for different purposes – including around 20,000 male prisoners.
As a reprisal for the assassination of SS leader Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, the village of Lidice in Czechoslovakia was destroyed, with 199 men and youths executed. The remaining 196 women and children were deported to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.
Ravensbrück was particularly unique within the Nazi system of concentration camps as not only were the vast majority of camp prisoners female, but so were many of the guards – or overseers (Aufseherinnen), as they were officially classified. At peak, some 150 female overseers would work at the camp policing the prisoners, but in total around 4,000 would receive training at Ravensbrück – to be posted to other camps elsewhere. Among them women such as Elfriede Muller – the ‘Beast of Ravensbrück – and Irme Grese, future Rapportführerin at Auschwitz-Birkenau, who would participate in prisoner selections for the gas chambers.
Unlike their male colleagues, these female guards – although benefitting from being state employees – were not official members of the SS (SchutzStaffel) – the organisation headed by Heinrich Himmler and tasked with maintaining the concentration camp system. But civil employees within a paramilitary organisation. And while male guards would be allowed access to the camp to patrol – the female Aufseherinnen would often be restricted to supervising the prisoners’ work details – escorting prisoners to their labour from the main gate.
Despite the reduced role and position of these overseers, Ravensbrück would remain the only Nazi camp where the female guards were in the majority. The former accommodation for these women is the central set of apartment blocks visible when arriving at the current concentration camp memorial – now used as a youth hostel for visiting school classes.
Life at Ravensbrück for the thousands of women imprisoned here would not differ greatly from the circumstances and casual savagery inflicted upon male prisoners elsewhere – the SS policy of “annihilation through labour” would apply here too. Companies such as Siemens and Halske would utilise camp labour to produce telephones, prisoners would be forced to make components for V2 rockets, but most significantly in the Texled textile factories female prisoners would forced to produce the prisoner uniforms for all the other SS camps.
Like with other camps, prisoners here would be subject to medical experiments – at Ravensbrück some 89 prisoners, including 74 Poles, would serve as human test subjects for various sulphonamide drugs. Infected with gangrene, with wounds later opened and reinfected, these women would come to be known as the ‘Ravensbrück Rabbits’.
No such reassuring moniker is given to those women, around 200 of them, who sought an escape from the camp by being transferred elsewhere to work in any of the ten brothels established by the SS – for use by male prisoners – to improve prisoner morale. Another horrifying detail in the catalogue of tragedies and traumas justified by National Socialist policy and inflicted on the women imprisoned in what was the largest Nazi concentration camp for female prisoners.
To visit the Ravensbürck Concentration Camp Memorial today is to be confronted with the opportunity to learn, and to undertand – but importantly to ensure that such wickedness and human catastrophe as a result of the twisted fantasies of fascist ideological fervor is never forgotten.