Historiography Saturday: Irma Grese


Although the details of her time as a guard at the Ravensbrück, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps are a matter of some contention due to a paucity of living witnesses and the tightly focused nature of her trial, it is known that Grese was 22 years old when she was sentenced to death by hanging for war crimes. Witnesses claimed that she was a sadist who took pleasure in violently tormenting prisoners; details of the allegations can be found in this open letter published during her trial. What is certain is that she was an officer in the SS who was given a high-ranking position of authority in the camps, and she admitted to beating prisoners in her own testimony.

Some of the allegations against Grese involve the sexual abuse of prisoners; as a result, she is sometimes referred to as a lesbian or bisexual. Regardless of what her sexual orientation may have been, the possibility of a powerful bisexual Nazi guard poses a challenge for scholars of queer history: Not only is her story tempting to sensationalize (for example, the film Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, which was inspired in part by Grese), but it complicates the narrative of how homosexuality was treated in Nazi Germany; additionally, there is the eternal temptation to avoid unflattering portrayals of members of a subaltern group lest they be employed as proof of the group’s poor moral character.

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