This essay I dedicate to all these writers and movie directors who still propagate an utterly false notion saying that if you are beautiful you are also morally good, intelligent, kind, interesting, appropriate, decent etc.
If it weren’t for the Second World War I am sure my heroine would remain more or less obscure. After all in her case nothing indicated any possibility of fame. Irma Ida Ilse Grese was born at Wrechen, a small German town not far from Berlin in a normal, hardworking, agricultural family. Her father, Alfred Grese, was a dairy worker and a member of the Nazi Party from 1937. At that time it seemed a good idea to plenty of blue collar Germans after all. There were four other children in the family. In 1936 a tragedy occurred- Irma’s mother committed suicide supposedly because marital problems. It must have been quite a shock for young Irma, aged just 13, who had to take care of herself and her younger siblings. It seems the task didn't suit her and she was eager to escape. She left school in 1938, at the age of fifteen. She was a poor student and the fact that she was bullied by classmates certainly didn’t help. Apart from that she has been already fanatically preoccupied with the League of German Girls (Bund Deutscher Mädel) a Nazi female youth organization. It was notable that her father disapproved rather strongly –he wanted Irma to find a decent job, marry, have a normal family and a happy life, not meddle with the politics. As you might guess none of his wishes came true. Quoted below is what Irma Grese herself told about her early career:
"In 1938 I left the elementary school and worked for six months on agricultural jobs at a farm, after which I worked in a shop in Luchen for six months. When I was 15 I went to a hospital in Hohenluchen, where I stayed for two years. I tried to become a nurse but the Labour Exchange would not allow that and sent me to work in a dairy in Fürstenburg. In July, 1942, I tried again to become a nurse, but the Labour Exchange sent me to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, although I protested against it. I stayed there until March, 1943, when I went to Birkenau Camp in Auschwitz. I remained in Auschwitz until January, 1945."
This way at age of 19 Irma landed in hell or one of its many divisions, scattered around Nazi Germany and occupied Poland. Like many other young people at that time, she was sufficiently swayed by Hitler's oratory to believe she was doing the right thing. She found herself a supervisor at Ravensbrück which was used as a training camp for many female SS guards, just at the time the Nazi anti-Jewish programmes (a.k.a. crimes against humanity but only after the war) were at their height in July 1942. In March 1943 she was transferred to Auschwitz. She later did a further spell at Ravensbrück and then went to Bergen-Belsen in March 1945. Irma rose to the rank of Oberaufseherin (Senior SS-Supervisor) in the autumn of 1943, in day to day control of around 30,000 women prisoners, mainly Polish and Hungarian Jews. She was the second most senior female guard there. She was like a half-goddess, deciding who is to survive and who is to die. A very dangerous situation for anybody, let alone a not very intelligent, poorly educated and heavily indoctrinated young woman. That’s why it is a classic case of what happens when an immature person is given total charge of a large number of people who are viewed by those in authority as totally expendable human trash. No one seemed to care how many of the concentration camp inmates were killed even though there were nominal rules against mistreatment of prisoners. So Irma was given a free hand. She clearly felt that she was carrying out the Hitler's and Himmler's policies, which in her mind largely exempted her from any responsibility for her actions. Plenty of Nazis thought the same.
In January 1945, Grese briefly returned to Ravensbrück before ending her wartime career at Bergen-Belsen as a Work Service Manager from March to April. She was not welcome at home – her father had clearly disapproved of her chosen profession. She was captured by the British on 17 April 1945, together with other SS personnel who did not flee. Irma pleaded not guilty to the specific charges brought against her but the survivors provided detailed testimony of murders, tortures, cruelties and sexual excesses in which Grese willingly engaged during her years at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. They testified to acts of sadism, beatings and arbitrary shootings of prisoners, savaging of prisoners by her trained and allegedly half-starved dogs, and to her selecting prisoners for the gas chambers. They always emphasized the fact that these acts of cruelty seemed to give her the highest, almost sexual pleasure. Grese was reported to have habitually worn heavy boots and carried a whip and a pistol. Witnesses testified that she used both physical and emotional methods to torture the camp's inmates and enjoyed shooting prisoners in cold blood. They also claimed that she beat some women to death and whipped others using a plaited cellophane whip. This monster of a woman was more than averagely good-looking. Some even called her beautiful – "beautiful beast" and "blond angel”: these were her nicknames used most often among prisoners .
The beauty of the 20-year-old Irma Grese must have caught the eye of more deportees:
"There was a beautiful woman called Grese who rode a bike. Thousands and thousands of people were standing there on their knees in scorching heat, and she took delight in watching us," remembered a survivor from Kalocsa. In accordance with a collective testimony of sixteen young women from Munkács: "Greze used to be an actress, she was a gorgeous, pretty young woman". Jewish physician Olga Lengyel was told by Grese that after the war she wanted to be an actress. She used to gaze at her reflection in the mirror for hours, and she constantly made her seamstress sew new dresses. She had more than one lover, even prisoners among them. When she got pregnant, she made another Hungarian prisoner, a former doctor, abort her baby.
Grese was undoubtedly a sadist. She preferred hitting the faces of good-looking female prisoners with a whip. According to the survivor of Técső, she simply "put out the eyes of a girl because she talked with an acquaintance through the wires”.
The precise extent of her crimes is not easy to be assessed- it is impossible to know exactly how many prisoners Irma Grese killed, tortured, whipped or in other ways assaulted although all the witnesses claim it was a very large number. What drives a teenage girl to behave in this awful fashion?
She admitted that she regarded the inmates of the concentration camps as "dreck", i.e. subhuman rubbish and like you or I may kill an insect without feeling guilty about it, she saw nothing inherently wrong in what she was doing.
It has been said that Nazism replaced this young girl's normal sex life and that her sexuality manifested itself in the brutal and sadistic treatment of her female prisoners. But for the conditions of war prevailing at this time in her life, one wonders whether Irma would have kept her sexual/sadistic impulses contained or just acted them out in sexual fantasies with her partner. She may well have grown up and become a respectable citizen, wife and mother had she lived under normal peacetime conditions.
Grese was among the 44 people accused of war crimes at the Belsen Trial. She was tried over the first period of the trials (September 17 to November 17, 1945) and was represented by Major L. Cranfield.
After a fifty-three day trial, Grese was sentenced to hang. She was the youngest woman to die judicially under English law in the 20th century and also the youngest of the concentration camp guards to be hanged but judges had no doubts about her guilt. Even in these sad circumstances she could deceive and surprise people with her innocent good looks and youth. In Albert Pierrepoint's biography (the official British hangman at that time), he describes the events leading up to Irma's execution and the hanging itself:
"At last we finished noting the details of the men, and RSM O'Neil ordered 'bring out Irma Grese'. She walked out of her cell and came towards us laughing. She seemed as bonny a girl as one could ever wish to meet. She answered O'Neil's questions, but when he asked her age she paused and smiled. I found that we were both smiling with her, as if we realised the conventional embarrassment of a woman revealing her age. Eventually she said 'twenty-one,' which we knew to be correct. O'Neil asked her to step on to the scales. 'Schnell!' she said - the German for quick."
Mugshot of Irma Grese just before her execution via Wikipedia
It is clear that she accepted her fate with great courage - perhaps she felt she was dying for her country. I suppose it was almost a form of martyrdom and also the best way out for her as Germany had lost the war and the Nazi propaganda proved to be nothing but propaganda in the end. However, I doubt she understood that she was also a victim of the Nazis, that they turned her into a monster allowing and encouraging her to use sadistic inclinations. She was executed because she was too weak to oppose them.
Florence Nightingale's quote sums up the wartime career of Irma Grese:
"What the horrors of war are, no one can imagine. They are not wounds and blood and fever, spotted and low, or dysentery, chronic and acute, cold and heat and famine. They are intoxication, drunken brutality, demoralization and disorder on the part of the inferior... jealousies, meanness, indifference, selfish brutality on the part of the superior."
Irma Grese Beast of Auschwitz: The most notorious SS guard in the history of Auschwitz http://www.suite101.com/content/irma-grese-beast-of-auschwitz-a3183#ixzz1BtmumBsc