Irma and the Doctors


One morning Irma Grese woke up, as we all will eventually, on the day she was to die.  She was 21, a girl who had left school while still in her elementary years, had worked for some time on farms and then tried unsuccessfully to become a nurse.  Finally she found employment as a guard at Birkenau and then Auschwitz concentration camps. Here she carried out her tasks with alacrity. When women ran and hid from the fatal selections of Dr Mengele, Irma would seek them out, beat them and return them for gassing. 

And, as it often does, on a cold winters day, justice came marching loudly to the door of Irma’s cell.  As the youngest, it was decided to hang her first so that she would not be upset by the sound of the traps opening as the other 11 prisoners were hanged the same morning.  At 9.34 she walked to the centre of the execution chamber, apparently calm, and uttered only one word after the cap was pulled over her head, “Schnell.”  Twenty minutes later she was pronounced dead and taken down for burial. 

I can’t cry for Irma Grese; there are tears enough for the 6 million men, women and children who died before her.  She was uneducated, unsophisticated, the child of a brutish time grown fully and fitfully into a brute.  What can you expect from a pig but a grunt? 

And yet, I sometimes think that Irma Grese is only the easy face of evil; her route to the gallows paved by something quite different.  Five years earlier, in an old villa in a quiet residential street, 15 men sat down to a small conference not far from a nearby popular swimming beach.   All of them held high positions in the government; nine of them had been awarded doctorates.  Their names sound impressive yet also somehow benign – Dr Joseph Buhler, Dr Roland Freisler, Dr Gerhardt Klopfer, Dr Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger. Why, one of them, Dr Neuman, had studied law and economics at the universities of Freiberg, Leipzig and Halle. 

These smart and energetic men sat down in Wannsee to plan the killing of the Jews of Europe.  Their final solution was to create the momentum for other smart men to build railways and timetables and wire and huts and schedules of great logistical complexity.  All to stop the heartbeats of innocent strangers. 

Irma and the good scholars would have seen themselves as worlds apart and yet they were bound by a cruelty that neither ignorance nor education could dent.  

I guess there is one thing you can say about education: it can make you smart but it can’t make you good. 



Filed under death, education, fear, life, Nazism, racism, war

13 responses to “Irma and the Doctors

  1. Tim


    Although I’m a gun owner and generally support the right of owning firearms, this week I’ve found myself wondering about the thoughts of those who manufacture 9mm semi-auto handguns, like the one used in Monday’s tragedy at Virginia Tech. As the people work to design, manufacture, and distribute these products, do they hold each one and think about what it might be used for?

    True, you could say the same thing about the car coming off an assembly line. Will it be driven by a little old lady from Pasadena (until the lack of miles and age turn it into a collector’s item), or by a careless drunk (who may take innocent lives with his/her decision)?

    However, it would be short-sighted to suggest that guns have an intended purpose that is not destructive in nature. True, they can be used for good, but the are frequently used for evil.

    As each person in the product chain handles the components, the sub-assemblies, or even the boxed weapons (ready to fire), do the possibilities haunt them? Do they grieve, in advance, for the lives that may be taken? Do they envision them used at all, or do they hope for them to be locked up in a gun cabinet, never to be touched again?

    It reminds me of watching “Future Weapons” with my younger son (who just turned 16), and seeing the fascination in his eyes. I asked him if he knew what a “Bouncing Betty” was, and then explained to him the operation of a land-mine that pops up into the air (roughly waist level) prior to exploding, to increase the number of injuries/fatalities. I pointed out that, for reasons I don’t quite understand, we never seem to run out of creative and ingenious ways to hurt and kill other people. – Tim

  2. Thanks for such a thoughtful response, Tim – I guess the saying that it takes a village to raise a child could as easily be substituted for “It takes a village to kill a child.” Complicity is subtle sometimes.

  3. Tim

    I was grateful for the original article.

    Here’s another thought. One of the side-effects of war is, to be a good soldier requires a certain type of psychological change. Think about it… you have to modify people pretty deeply to get them to willfully take the life of another human. You have to change not only them, but their perception of the enemy (the dehumanization effect).

    Some resist this, and never become useful in fighting. For others, it’s very easy. Sadly, it seems to be a type of change that is almost impossible to reverse. Once someone has learned to see an opponent with such a mindset, they have to constantly work at not seeing every opponent that way.

    Note: I’m not suggesting that your local WWII vet is constantly trying to not blow away the rude clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Then again…)

    Again, thank you for a thoughtful post, and the reminder of what we can become, and what we have the capacity to turn ourselves into. Sadly, we seem to need this reminder frequently. – Tim

  4. The holocaust was definitely the work of clever men. Have you come across this site?


  5. hossein parsian

    Irma Grese was not a criminal to be hanged. Many articles have been written about her that she never deserved to be hanged because the court could co nvict her of killing people or even torturing them. The jewish women testified against her out of vengence and hatred .

  6. Tim

    I think it’s interesting that “Iron Man,” which is currently showing in US theaters to large crowds, explores the issues of war profiteering, the gradual introduction of evil, naivety, and so on. In response to Hossein’s comment, if I work as an agent to deliver people to their deaths, am I less guilty. Why did the Jewish women testify against her out of vengeance and hate? Is it because she was “just doing her job”?

    Do I, as an American, deserve guilt and punishment (as many in the Third World would suggest I do) because I haven’t acted with sufficient vigor to stop a given administration from carrying out foreign policy that takes the lives of innocents? If, as I posit on my own site, the wives of men who sexually abuse their daughters are complicit in those crimes by not doing everything in their power to stop their husbands, can’t the same be said for me, as an American, failing to do everything in my power to stop my country from doing unlawful or immoral things? – Tim

  7. I think the answer is most definitely (and uncomfortably) yes, Tim, even though what is within our power is often limited. At least, in a democracy, we have the very real opportunity to vote out governments that bring about bad laws or murderous foreign policy. Our sense of responsibility does seem to diminsh with distance, however, and so a person who would never exploit a child in their own street may quite easily do so by buying the product born of the labour of an exploited child in some unseen foreign land. I’m afraid that, when we look at our behaviour globally,there is very little about us that is really moral. Or deserving of Heaven…?

  8. hossein parsian

    In response to Tim , I would like to say that not a single name of the women claimed by Jewish women to have been killed by Grese was given in the court . After Grese’s execution , the main witness , Sara Leingbein, and other s like Rachel Gold , Lei Flen and Lena Kapinsky recanted their stories and confessed to lying in the court .What is this ? Did she deserve to be hanged for just hitting women with her whip and hands to which she confessed to ? Where were the evidences given apart for her just being in the camp regarding her crimes ? Why didn’t she escape when allied troops closed in on her camp ?

  9. Irma wanted to die. Her mother committed suicide by drinking hydrochloric acid. The mother’s husband had been having an affair with the butcher’s daughter. This had a profound affect on young Irma. Irma dropped out of school and tried to work on farms without much success. After working in the local hospital, young Irma joined the SS at age 18 after her father forbid her to do such a terrible thing. I think Irma tried to do just the opposite of what was expected of her. I think this is a very sad case. The only time Irma broke down and cried was when her sister tried to speak on her behalf at the trials. The family history came to light and Irma age 21 sobbed uncontrolably. 6million dead bodies didn’t get a tear from her but her mother’s suicide caused her to break down. I think Irma was lost before her 18th birthday.

  10. bell

    Irma was executed for ordering a guard to shoot a woman who had fallen out of ranks. Although Irma had no authority to order anyone to shoot anyone, the guard did anyway, for this she was found guilty. It is true to say however that the testimony against her was recanted later by the witnesses. But her acts still pale in comparison to what the average American must tolerate from an overwhelming police state presence.

    Just like building the component parts of weapons and wondering how the manufacturers might feel about it pales in comparison to the multitudes of people turning their backs on the horror and oppression dished out by our police. How many turn their backs on corrupt politicians(with dual citizenships)/bankers/lawyers and fraudulent elections, and how many turn their backs on the overwhelming hegemony within the so called legal profession, politics and banking?
    The human drones building those components received the same indoctrination and conditioning as everyone else. Work hard, pay your bills, go into debt, do what your told and never ever think.

    I suggest that Tims comment is not thought out all the way through. Many more factors exist than the ones that are convenient.

  11. André de Hooge

    Ik heb als geschiedenisfreak verscheidene malen de biografie over Irma Grese echt intensief gelezen (evenals die van Elisabeth Volkenrath, Johanna Bormann, Maria Mandl, Herta Bothe, Ilse Koch en anderen); hoe sommige dingen toch zo kunnen lopen vraag ik me dan af!!! De enige verklaring die ik ervoor heb is dat mensen gevoelig kunnen zijn vanwege ophitsingen door anderen!!! Herta Bothe schijnt echter nog steeds te leven; de laatst bekende aufseherin!!!

  12. Shahid

    Irma grese had become victim of lies,she was just 16 years old when wwii had started,teen age girl tried her best to become a nurse it reveals her nature then what depicted,most of witness confessed later they were lying,most sad part was when general montgommery did rejected her clamency appeal,the general had done nothing remarkable as soldier during wwii, by rejecting Irma Grese clamency appeal he proved again as same.

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