Inside Ravensbrück – Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women
Little, Brown 748pp £16.99
The publishing boom in Holocaust Studies continues. After the publication of several titles last year, there is also the late David Cesarani’s Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews, 1933-1949, just published. So it is not surprising that two Holocaust books were selected for the shortlist of the 2016 Longman-History Today book prize. Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: The History of the Nazi Concentration Camps is a great feat of scholarship. Although encyclopedic in its scope, it is still very human in its storytelling, making the horror it relates both personal and accessible.
However, the winner of this year’s prize was Sarah Helm for her extraordinary account of the only Nazi concentration camp exclusively for women, Ravensbrück. The title is a variation of the title of Primo Levi’s book on his time in Auschwitz. Ravensbrück has often been marginalised or even ignored by mainstream (male) historians. Helm was a journalist who, in 2005, published A Life in Secrets, a biography of Vera Atkins of the SOE. At the end of the war Atkins visited Ravensbrück to seek out the fate of the female SOE agents who had ended up there, including Violette Szabo and Odette Sansom. Atkins had a brown cardboard box of notes relating to Ravensbrück and this started Helm on a 10-year quest to discover the full story of this forgotten camp. During this time she travelled across Europe and Russia and interviewed several survivors. She also tracked down dozens of unpublished memoirs and talked with the sons and daughters of inmates.
The result is what Helm describes as a ‘biography’ of the camp. Initially built for 2,000 prisoners on a site personally selected by Heinrich Himmler, Ravensbrück was opened in May 1939. By the time of its capture by the Soviets in April 1945 about 130,000 women had passed through its gates. Many of the women were distinguished scientists, doctors and writers, including General de Gaulle’s niece, who had worked with the French resistance. It was not intended as an extermination camp for Jews but as a punishment centre for those who opposed the Nazis, ranging from political prisoners to ‘internal enemies’, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose intense form of non-conformism makes a remarkable story of resistance. Along with them, thousands of ‘asocials’ were sent to the camp, including gypsies, vagrants, lesbians and prostitutes. As the war progressed, tens of thousands of Slavs and Russians were brought in and about 60,000 women died at Ravensbrück through starvation, disease, cold and from beatings. Organised killings began on a relatively small scale in 1941, with shootings and fatal injections. In the autumn of 1944 a gas chamber was built on Himmler’s orders and up to 2,000 women a month were gassed. Many women, providing slave labour for a nearby Siemens electrical factory, died from sheer exhaustion. However, the many accounts of women rallying to help each are a reminder of the power of good in a world of evil.
Helm does not demonise the guards, although some of them, both male and female, were appallingly cruel and many, like Irma Grese, a local girl, were ‘taught’ at Ravensbrück and went on to Auschwitz. The story of Johanna Langefeld, head guard, provides the spine to the first half of the book, trying to behave reasonably towards her prisoners. In 1942 she was transferred to Auschwitz. Her replacement, Maria Mandl, was known to have kicked a woman to death during a roll call.
After the war, Ravensbrück fell into the Soviet zone that later formed East Germany. The camp became a shrine for Communist resistance to Hitler in the East but, out of sight, it was almost forgotten in the West. Even the transcripts of the trials of guards held in Hamburg were closed for 30 years. Only in the 1990s did a group of mostly female German historians begin to look again at the camp’s history. Sarah Helm has taken this a considerable step further in writing her ‘biography’ of the camp. It not only fills a gap in Holocaust history but it is an utterly compelling read and a deserving winner of this year’s Longman-History Today book prize.
Taylor Downing’s most recent book is Secret Warriors: Key Scientists, Code-Breakers & Propagandists of the Great War (Little, Brown, 2014).