A guest post by Patton Oswalt.
This is Irma Grese. Blond, coiffed, dreaming of a future career in the movies. She’s 22 years old. The photo is taken in August, 1945. Four months later she’s executed for war crimes.
Irma was the Work Service Manager at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp when she was captured in 1945. Before that she was the Senior Supervisor at Auschwitz – in charge of about 30,000 female prisoners. Her career as a prison guard started at Ravensbrück when she was 19. When she first entered Ravensbrück’s gates she was your typical, drifting teen. Life had dealt her, in equal amounts, shocks and salves. Her mother committed suicide when she was 13. She dropped out of school at age 14 because of poor grades and bullying by classmates.
But she had four loving siblings and a doting dad. A dairy worker and member of the Nazi Party, her father strangely disapproved of her fanatical obsession with the League of German Girls, a female counterpart to the all-male Hitler Youth. This was a group that promoted health, beauty, self-reliance and strength in young women. Irma had aspirations of being a nurse, and even worked as an assistant nurse for the SS for two years before being assigned as a dairy helper by the Labor Exchange. Applying once again for a nursing position, she was instead sent to her first concentration camp job.
The Ravensbrück posting was brief. Ten months later she was at Auschwitz. It was here, beneath the chimneys belching human smoke and amid the sunken, terrified eyes staring out from the concertina wire, a different Irma Grese emerged.
Or was it so different? More about that in a moment.
Irma – the bullied, thwarted adolescent who worked as a dairy helper – was now SS Aufseherin Grese, clad in heavy boots, armed with a pistol, and swinging a plaited whip from one hand. Groomed to Teutonic perfection, wafting perfume and resplendent in tight-fitting, custom-tailored couture, Grese was especially cruel to any female prisoners who retained even the slightest vestige of their former beauty. Roll calls (“appells”) were especially terrifying. Grese seemed to scan the starved, haunted faces of her charges for the particular curve of chin, swell of cheekbone or angelic aura of her former, schoolhouse tormenters. These roll calls were, ostensibly, for choosing work assignments. Grese used them for to deal out random shootings, beatings and, when her blood was in full, murderous bloom, siccing her half-starved dogs on defenseless, screaming women.
The constant parade of horror that Grese was exposed to seem to excite her in other, decidedly monstrous ways. She seduced many of her male SS colleagues – including Josef Mengele. When she discovered she was pregnant, she strong-armed the camp doctor into performing an abortion. How could she possibly raise a child when it was obvious that, after the Axis won the war, she’d become a star of the cinema? It pays to think ahead when you have big dreams. One has to make concessions to fame.
In April of 1945, fame came for her, but not on her terms. Captured by Allied soldiers, she was charged with crimes against humanity and, after a 54 day trial, was hanged. She was defiant to the end – singing Nazi songs in her cell on the eve of her death, using rags to create ringlets in her hair as she was marched to the noose and, as executioner Albert Pierrepoint slipped the hood over her head, saying “Schnell!” (“Quickly!”) before the drop crashed down and her neck snapped.
A tragic tale. A young girl, with a troubled childhood, falling under the sway of the Third Reich. Maybe she would have become a nurse if not for the dark direction her country turned in the post-Anchluss death-decade. Maybe she would have comforted the weak instead of terrorizing the helpless. Perhaps, even, she would have ended up in films. Look at those eyes. They burn with the same eldritch flame as Theda Bara, or Barbara Steele or…Marlene Dietrich. Just another reminder of how young minds are easily warped by the vicious, base and violent.
But is that really the story here? Yes, her mother committed suicide, and who can say what sort of cosmic disruption a trauma like that inflicted on Irma’s moral compass. And then there’s the bullying in school, and the shame – in a culture where learning and intelligence were prized – of lagging behind her classmates. All mitigating factors.
Enough to mitigate the operatic, ogre-like cruelty she seemed causally capable of on a day-to-day basis? Yes, she was mired in the deepest bowels of the Nazi genocide apparatus. But remember, the Nazis were, at least in their own twisted viewp, obsessed with beauty and purity. No deviant art, or “Jewish jazz”, or “inferior races.” Irma had no violent video games to play, exploitation cinema to watch, pornography to view or internet alleyways to blunder down. And as hard as it is to understand, in her mind, the torture and killing of Jewish prisoners was a good thing. In her mind, she was cleansing the world of an ancient stain.
I’m shaken to this day by a documentary I saw by the brilliant British science historian James Burke, in which he talks about the burning of witches in England in the 1500s. He points out that the people who attended witch burnings saw nothing awful or disturbing going on. In their hearts and minds what they were looking at was an act of grace. They were saving an innocent soul from perdition’s flames. The screams of agony, the bursting of skin and organs, and the charring and snapping of bones were all signs of a spirit being wrenched free from the clutches of a filthy, demonic captor.
It’s hard to accept that perhaps Irma was born this way. Born capable – despite any familial nurturing or societal validation – of transitioning from a confused young nursing student to a pitiless, unflinching murder maiden, all in the span of four short years.
Because maybe the ultimate horror here – and in some of the cases on this website – is that there was no transition at all. Only the lifting of a lovely, blond-haired mask, to reveal an evil as old as time. Did Irma hear Dietrich crooning, “…I was made this way/I can’t help it…” and, smiling ruefully at those out-of-context lyrics, stride out into the world, trailing perfume and punishment?