Sexual Violence in Conflict: The Holocaust
This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
The Holocaust, also known as Shoa, is among the biggest state sponsored genocides and case of ethnic cleansing of a particular community in recorded history (1933 – 1945). Two thirds of European jews, roughly 6 million people, including 1 million children, were exterminated during the Holocaust era (Encyclopaedia n.d.).
The Jews had been systematically subjected to anti-Semitic oppression based on Christian theology right from the middle ages. By the late 19th century, Germany and Austria-Hungary saw conservatives movements like the Völkischmovement that mushroomed in opposition to the socio-cultural changes of modernity (United Nations n.d.). Adolf Hitler was a prominent figure of the Völkischmovement. He blamed disloyal Jewish officers for orchestrating German surrender in World War 1. He rose to power after WW1 and took this oppression to the next level by shaping the German domestic and foreign policy to achieve his goals of racial purity. The systemic oppression of Jews by the Nazi party and the military was conducted in stages. First, the oppression targeted and confined the Communists and rebel politicians alone in concentration camps (Jewish Gen n.d.). Eventually, the general Jewish population was targeted, too. The first concentration camps started operations around 1933 and kept ‘Communists’ and other moral enemies of the government in protective custody (Jewish Gen n.d.). Racial enemies could never be ‘corrected’ in the camps. They had to be removed from the society and hence more camps sprouted.
With the start of World War 2, the Nazi party occupied areas of Poland and Austria and expanded the extermination (Jewish Gen n.d.). The Nazi party also conducted a campaign of euthanasia in the aftermath of the great depression, whereby people deemed handicapped or mentally ill were gassed to death. This ran as a “pilot” to eventually pave the way for the Holocaust. With the expanding control of the Nazi party over other parts of Europe (including the Netherlands, Belgium, parts of France, Luxembourg, Greece, Croatia, and Serbia) and parts of Soviet, the systemic isolation, humiliation, and extermination ran across boundaries.
The Nazi government decided to execute a ‘final solution’ by 1941 by getting rid of non-Aryans altogether. As part of this final cleansing, the confined Jews from all over Europe gathered together in Ghettos were mass transported to concentration camps for extermination. Most of these camps were in Austria and Germany and were held and maintained in secret, in the cover of a bigger war looming across the world (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d.).
The scale of operations by the Nazi were kept secret for the most part and conveniently so, as long as the operations were continued within the German borders (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d.). However, when Nazi activities spread to parts of captured Soviet in 1941, information began traveling to the rest of the world (Jewish Virtual Library n.d.).
Systemic targeting of women through sexual violence
Although most of the violence was racial in nature, there is evidence supporting the prevalence of gender-based and sexual violence as well (Chalmers 2015). The Jewish population was subject to severe violence in the form of abuse, forced labour, starvation, deportation, disease exposure, humiliation, and death. Alongside this, women had to cope with pregnancies, abortions, invasive examinations, rape and other forms of sexual violence in addition. Sexual violence happened anywhere: on the streets, in Jewish homes, at factories and workplaces , the ghettos and concentration camps (Heinrich Boll Stiftung 2020).
German soldiers, guards, SS members, non-German allies and collaborators, and civilians as well as fellow prisoners, all from different countries, perpetrated rapes and gang rapes (Chalmers 2015). There is no concrete and irrefutable evidence of any mention of orders from the authorities to rape and disgrace women during the Holocaust, as is common to genocides elsewhere (Heinrich Boll Stiftung 2020). However, this does not necessarily mean that sexual violence did not have state backing.
Misogyny was an imminent part of the Nazi ideology, well put in practice in the Third Reich (Goldenberg 1996, Heinrich Boll Stiftung 2020) Sexual violence targeting women was more or less a part of the bigger ideological campaign that prevailed outside the camps and was executed by frustrated men within the camps alongside men of power outside. (Kremer, 2010). Routine procedures included women being subjected to body-hair shaving, forced undressing and genital inspection by men. This was against the religious, conservative Jewish culture and thus particularly devastating to them (Goldenberg, 1996; Heinrich Boll Stiftung 2020) Adding to such ‘routine’ searches especially before extermination explored internal examinations to check for hidden valuables (Chalmers 2015). The clothing provided in the camps were insufficient, unwashed and unclean. No sanitary materials or even usable toilets were available for women, menstruating or not. The women with insufficient clothing on them, were subjected to more sexual violence for their ‘exposure’. (Ibid.)
Forced nakedness was a repeated assault. The male authorities often groped and touched private parts as part of ‘examinations’. Women were stripped and made to stand in assembly, perform physical activities for long hours. The ‘unfit’ were sent to gas chambers on priority. Women report that these naked sessions were often accompanied by lewd comments with sexual connotations (Ibid).
Women were also inspected for pregnancy and immediately sent to the gas chambers along with those who were deemed ‘unfit’. Non-pregnant women who had stretch marks or who were obese were also deemed pregnant and sent along for gassing. There are also reports stating instances of SS men of all ranks pushing their fingers into the sexual organs of “pretty young women” (Goldenberg, Myrna 1996).
Rapes and gang rapes were a common occurrence too. Despite the notion that sex with a Jewish woman would constitute “racial defilement” (Rassenschande), SS soldiers and police units would rape Jewish women frequently. In ghettos, rape of Jewish women was perpetrated by German ghetto leaders, by those who enlisted women into forced labor, before their mass murder, during deportations and while on transit trains. The perpetrators were sometimes frustrated Jewish leaders of the ghetto appointed by the Nazis. (8; Katz 2012) Women were subjected to sexual violence in confinement, in public and in hiding as well. There were also reports of women in hiding being subject to rape as a show of power by the host providing shelter.
It has been reported that 50-80% troops that were operational in the eastern territory were guilty of sexual abuse towards Jewish women (Modern Judaism 2012). Hedgepeth and Saidel (2010) and Fogelman (2010) reported that approximately 1,000 of the 52,000 interviews conducted by the Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education at the University of Southern California mention rape or sexual violence. This number is most likely representative of extremely limited data. Reports suggest that rape as a final tool of humiliation was employed in concentration camps. Most who were raped in camps, however, may not have survived to tell of their experience.
The basis of sexual violence
The Völkisch movement was a German ethnic and nationalist conservative movement that was active through early 20th century Germany. The aim of the movement was to bring back the ancient German way of life and traditions by ‘purifying’ the country racially and ideologically. The common denominator of such movements has been inferred to be the myth of a ‘national rebirth’ in order to revive the pre-Semitic German traditions. Jews were called the ‘pollutants’ of German race.
Sexual violence targeting Jewish women was largely carried out as a power dynamic. The Nazi ideology was patently anti-Semitic, and their aim was to carry out the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Jewish people. The systemic process of targeting Jewish women with sexual violence, and sending pregnant Jewish women to the gas chambers was informed by the goal of annihilating the Jewish population. The perception of the Jews as “pollutants” of the German race motivated the large-scale ethnic cleansing – not only through the concentration camps, but also through sexual violence.
Healing from Trauma and Reparations
The documentation of the cases of gender based violence faced by women clearly fails to reflect the actual scale of violence. This is because such violence was merely a weapon of show of power by the Nazis. Rape was often accompanied along with other brutal acts of whipping, forced stripping and cleaning, and burning alive. The statistics was neither actively recorded by the Nazi government nor by any other agent. This explains the extremely limited data available. Consequently, there were very few prosecutions for offences against the civilian populations for looting, rape or murder (Evans, 2009). Of the 1.5 million members of the German armed forces condemned by court-martial for offences of all kinds, only 5,349 were for sexual offences (Chalmers 2015).
1. United Nations. (n.d.) Holocaust Remembrance: An Introduction. https://www.un.org/en/holocaustremembrance/PDF/Introduction%20to%20the%20Holocaust.pdf
2. Jewish Gen (n.d.) The Holocaust. https://www.jewishgen.org/databases/holocaust/
3. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (n.d.) “Killing Centers: An Overview. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/killing-centers-an-overview
6. Jewish Virtual Library. (n.d.). When did the World Find out about the Holocaust? https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/when-did-the-world-find-out-about-the-holocaust
7. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (n.d.) World War II and the Holocaust, 1939–1945. https://www.ushmm.org/learn/holocaust/path-to-nazi-genocide/chapter-4/world-war-ii-and-the-holocaust-1939-1945
8. Chalmers, B. (2015). Jewish women’s sexual behaviour and sexualized abuse during the Nazi era. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 24(2), 184–196.
9. Heinrich Boll Stiftung. (2020). Sexual Violence in the Holocaust: Perspectives from Ghettos and Camps in Ukraine. https://www.boell.de/en/2020/05/18/sexual-violence-holocaust-perspectives-ghettos-and-camps-ukraine 10. Goldenberg, M. (1996). Lessons learned from gentle heroism: Women’s Holocaust narratives. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 548(1), 78-93.
11. Katz, S. (2012). Modern Judaism. Oxford University Press.
Documentation by: Madhumitha S