Irma Grese was one the most notorious of the female Nazi war criminals and was one of the relatively small number of women who had worked in the concentration camps that were hanged for war crimes by the Allies. She became the youngest woman executed under British jurisdiction in the 20th century and was also the youngest of the concentration camp guards to be hanged.
Irma's childhood was unremarkable, she was born on 7th of October 1923 at Wrechen (
Like many other young people, she was swayed by Hitler's oratory and shocked by the corruption of the
At age 19, 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 were at their height in July 1942. In March 1943 she was transferred to
Her crimes and trial.
Belsen was liberated by the British and Irma along with the camp's Commandant, Joseph Kramer, and other guards were all arrested. He and 44 of the others were indicted for war crimes by a
Irma pleaded not
guilty to the specific charges brought against her. Many of the survivors of
She was alleged to have used both physical and emotional methods to torture the camp's inmates and seemed to enjoy shooting prisoners in cold blood. It was claimed that she beat some of the women to death and whipped others mercilessly using a plaited cellophane whip. Survivors reported that she seemed to derive great sexual pleasure from these acts of sadism.
It has been claimed that in her hut was found the skins of three inmates that she had had made into lamp shades, although this is now disputed.
She said in her defense that "Himmler is responsible for all that has happened but I suppose I have as much guilt as the others above me."
On the 54th day of the trial she was, not surprisingly, found guilty on both counts one and two of the indictment. Of the defendants found guilty, eight men and three women were sentenced to death and 19 to various terms of imprisonment. The President of the court passed sentence on the female defendants as follows: "No. 6 Bormann, 7, Volkenrath, 9, Grese. The sentence of this court is that you suffer death by being hanged." She showed little emotion throughout her trial and none when the death sentence was translated into German for her as "Tode durch den Strang," literally death by the rope. The prisoners were returned to Luneberg prison. Eight of the condemned, including Irma, appealed to Field-Marshal Montgomery but all had their appeals for clemency rejected. Irma’s death warrant was dated Friday the 7th of December and signed by Field-Marshal Montgomery. This was announced on Saturday the 8th of December and all eleven moved from
More details of her trial can be found here.
The hangings were to take place in
Albert Pierrepoint was flown over specially to carry out the executions and their hangings were planned for Thursday, December the 13th, 1945. The women were to be hanged individually and the men in pairs to speed up the process.
In Pierrepoint's biography, he describes the events leading up
to Irma's execution and the hanging itself as follows :
"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." In
to Pierrepoint's biography it was decided that as
Irma was the youngest of the three women, she would be the first to die.
However in the press release from Field-Marshal Montgomery’s office after the
executions it was stated that she was the second to be hanged, after Elizabeth Volkenrath. This is
born out by her death warrant. Click here. The first
execution took place at 9.34 a.m. and the second at 10.04 a.m. and the third,
that of Juana Bormann at Brigadier Paton-Walsh was the British officer
in charge of the executions and with him was the deputy governor of Strangeways
prison, Miss Wilson, to oversee the hanging of the three women. "The following morning we climbed the
stairs to the cells where the condemned were waiting. A German officer at the
door leading to the corridor flung open the door and we filed past the row of
faces and into the execution chamber. The officers stood at attention.
Brigadier Paton-Walsh stood with his wristwatch raised. He gave me the signal,
and a sigh of released breath was audible in the chamber, I walked into the
corridor. 'Irma Grese,' I called.
The German guards quickly closed all grills on twelve of the inspection holes and opened one door. Irma Grese stepped out. The cell was far too small for me to go inside, and I had to pinion her in the corridor. 'Follow me,' I said in English, and O'Neil repeated the order in German. At 9.34 a.m. she walked into the execution chamber, gazed for a moment at the officials standing round it, then walked on to the centre of the trap, where I had made a chalk mark. She stood on this mark very firmly, and as I placed the white cap over her head she said in her languid voice 'Schnell'. The drop crashed down, and the doctor followed me into the pit and pronounced her dead. After twenty minutes the body was taken down and placed in a coffin ready for burial." It has recently been revealed that some of the prisoners were given pericardial injections of chloroform to stop their hearts beating and obviate the need to leave them suspended for an hour which was normal practice in
After the execution Irma’s personal belongings were handed over to her sisters Helene and Lieschen. Among these there was 439.65 Reichsmarks in cash plus a bankbook showing a balance of 4,391.57 Reichsmarks. As a concentration camp guard, single and without children, she would have been paid 186.65 Reichsmarks per month plus 35 Reichsmarks overtime premium. To put this into perspective an unskilled female working in the textile industry would receive just 76 Reichsmarks per month.
The precise extent of her crimes is not easy to be certain of - 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. Bear in mind that at that time in
But 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. At her trial, she denied selecting prisoners for the gas chambers although she did admit she knew of their existence. She did admit to whipping prisoners with the cellophane whip and also to beating them with a walking stick, despite knowing that both practices were contrary to the camp rules.
Hers 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. No one seemed to care how many of the concentration camp inmates were killed or beaten by her even though there were nominal rules against mistreatment of prisoners. So Irma had, effectively, freehand to kill and torture to her heart's content. She clearly felt that she was carrying out the Hitler's and Himmler's policies, which in her mind largely exempted her from responsibility for her actions.
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.
It is clear that she accepted her fate with great courage - perhaps she felt she was dying for her country - almost a form of martyrdom - perhaps she felt that it was the best way out for her as Germany had lost the war.