Book review: If This Is a Woman - Inside Ravensbrück: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women

OPENING its gates in May, 1939, four months before the outbreak of the Second World War — to be liberated by the Russians six years later — Ravensbrück, 50 miles north of Berlin, in Germany, was the only concentration camp the Nazis built to house only female political prisoners.

Sarah helm

Little Brown, €13.99

During its busiest period, towards the end of the war, the camp had a population of 45,000. And 130,000 women passed through its gates in its six years. 

Estimates of the final death toll range from 30,000 to 90,000.

But why is so little known about a death camp that eliminated tens of thousands of women?

The wholesale destruction of evidence partially explains for this historical vacuum. 

In the camp’s final days, every prisoner’s file was burned by the Germans, and the ashes were thrown in the lake beside the camp.

If Auschwitz was the capital of crimes against Jews under the Third Reich, Ravensbrück was the capital of crimes against women.

At least, that’s the argument the British freelance journalist and author, Sarah Helm, makes with compelling conviction in her latest book, If This Is a Woman, Inside Ravensbrück: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women.

“Ravensbrück was forgotten, because it was liberated by the Russians,” says Helm.

Many historical documents concerning the sadistic activities carried out at Ravensbrück may still be lying in Russian archives, Helm believes. But most evidence was destroyed by the Nazis.

“There was a massive destruction of documents by Heinrich Himmler and the SS, who made a concerted effort to dump all evidence,” says Helm. “This made it difficult to piece this story together.

“However, the prisoners were remarkable. Smuggling out documents with any chance they could, because they were determined the historical record wouldn’t be destroyed.”

Perhaps what’s most fascinating about the history of Ravensbrück is how it was transformed, over time, from an institute that housed political prisoners only into the cruellest of Nazi death camps.

By the autumn of 1944, the camp had become horrifically overcrowded. The vast numbers arriving into Ravensbrück were the result of an apocalyptic evacuation process in the east, as the Russians began closing in on the Third Reich.

As Auschwitz was no longer operating after November, 1944, many prisoners began — in an extraordinary mass exodus of biblical proportions — to be marched back towards the west.

In this situation, says Helm, Himmler took the view that killing more people would be the only possible outcome.

“And so a gas chamber was set up: parts of which were said to have been brought from Auschwitz.” 

When the first, and most important, Ravensbrück war-crimes trials were held in Hamburg, in 1946 and 1947, facts about the extermination were revealed.

But no evidence emerged showing the killing order had come directly from Himmler.

Moreover, as time went on, bringing to trial those who were complicit in Nazi war crimes became more of an ideological showdown than a real exercise in criminal justice.

This was primarily because the international agenda during the Cold War had shifted. Thus, the historical script of Ravensbrück changed with it.

In the GDR (German Democratic Republic), the security services — the Stasi — did look for perpetrators of the camps.

However, they had many motives for this, says Helm.

“The East Germans distorted the way they approached the investigation,” says Helm, “mainly by playing up the heroism of the communists in the camp.”

When the Cold War ended, ideas of how to remember Ravensbrück shifted again, especially as new evidence began emerging in the west.

Of the estimated 3,500 female guards who passed through Ravensbrück, only a fraction have ever come under investigation in the German courts. 

This is mainly because Germany still doesn’t keep a proper record of the numbers they have charged, says Helm.

“The system did not want to confront this subject. So, very few of the guards from Ravensbrück were ever confronted, or held to account for their actions.”


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