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In Search of the Ordinary Female War Criminal

Women's crimes are seen as something that falls beyond the 'normal' scope of violence. Male criminals in the Second World War and Rwanda were painted as brutal, thuggish. The female criminals were brutal too, but also sexually-perverted, diabolic, and often mad.

Last month, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, 65, became the first woman in history to be convicted of genocide by an international court. Standing before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Tanzania, Nyiramasuhuko was sentenced to life in prison for her involvement in genocide and rape during Rwanda's 1994 ethnic massacres.

Nyiramasuhuko, Rwanda's stern-faced minister of Family Affairs and Women's Development at the time of the genocide, directed the slaughter of ethnic Tutsis in the Southern Rwandan district of Butare. She is best known for ordering the mass rape of women and girls (her son committed some of those rapes himself), as well as for forcing her victims to undress before boarding the trains that drove them to their slaughter.

The day of Nyiramasuhuko's conviction was heralded by newspapers worldwide as a great historical moment. That an international court finally convicted a woman of genocide, commentators opined, is a sign that our international tribunals are maturing -- that they are at last capable of ploughing down the cultural and legal obstacles to prosecuting violent women.

But Nyiramasuhuko's trial was not quite as exceptional as some journalists have made it out to be.

Women have been convicted by international courts before. It wasn't before the ICTR -- but rather, before Allied military tribunals after the Second World War -- that issues of gender and violence first collided before international law.

Back then, the public seemed uneasy about prosecuting female perpetrators for violent crimes. Sixty five years later, some of that anxiety persists.


At the end of the Second World War, the Allied victors (The U.S., Britain, France, and the Soviet Union) set up tribunals to prosecute Nazi war criminals: from Hitler's closest confidantes, to more pedestrian concentration camp guards. Trials of women were rare: in part, because far fewer women were in positions of authority under Nazi rule. That said, some estimate around 3,000 German women served as concentration camps guards during the Holocaust. And many others aided the regime without changing their day jobs. Less than one year after the war's end, some of those women found themselves in front of Allied judges: charged with the brand new class of crimes known as 'crimes against humanity.'

I've studied some of these trials. And I find it striking that so much of the language used to describe those German women back in 1946 is being used again today, to comment on the Rwandan Pauline Nyiramasuhuko.

In both cases -- post-Second World War Germany and post-genocide Rwanda -- female perpetrators were less likely to be prosecuted than their male counterparts. The majority of post-war cases did not involve women. It took almost 20 years after the war for Germany to deal with the many nurses who staffed Hitler's euthanizing 'killing centers,' for instance. And even then, all 14 of the women tried in the famous 'Nurses' Trial' were acquitted.

Former Rwandan prosecutor general Gerald Gahima says the same holds true in Rwanda: "[It] is too low a figure," he says. "But I can't explain it. We know women were involved in the genocide...." Women were prosecuted locally: famously, a nun was convicted by a gacaca court in 2006 for helping militia kill Tutsis in the hospital where she worked, in addition to purposefully starving Tutsi hospital patients. But these trials happened more rarely.

Women who were brought before judges, however, often bore the full brunt of the law -- and sometimes more. In both Germany and Rwanda, prosecuted women could face additional scrutiny, especially outside the courtroom. Whereas judges, lawyers and journalists were interested in men's alleged crimes -- what they did, when they did it -- they were preoccupied with the female criminals themselves: with the question of 'why?' Men's actions were scrutinized; women's psyches were probed and their characters disparaged.

Judges in both cases often answered the 'why?' question by turning to a common theme: sex. Women's war crimes were often described as sexually-motivated, and the women themselves as overcome by sexual perversion.

During their trials, it was common for female concentration camp guards to become media icons: popular characters, with raunchy nicknames like "The Bitch of Buchenwald" and "The Sadist of Stutthof." (Men tended to be "Butchers" or "Hangmen.") Holocaust memoirs emphasized the sadistic pleasure that women got out of beating inmates. When Ilse Koch -- the notoriously brutal wife of a concentration camp commandant -- was put on trial after the war, observers attributed her particularly twisted behavior (Koch is said to have made lampshades out of tattooed prisoners' skin) to a sexual fetish.

Last month, international press coverage of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko focused, in my opinion, obsessively on the sexiest of her alleged crimes: her rape charges -- as opposed to her much broader role in co-ordinating Tutsi slaughters. At her conviction, Presiding Judge William Sekule described "a clear picture of unfathomable depravity and sadism."

It was the same back in 2003, when Biljana Plavšić, the first woman accused of genocide by an international court (she was eventually released following a plea deal) was sentenced. Plavšić, a silver-haired professor, directed ethnic cleansing campaigns as Bosnian Serb president during the 1992-95 Bosnian war. But in terms of public opinion, what damned Plavšić more than anything was a photo that captured her stepping over the body of a dead Muslim to kiss an infamous Serbian warlord.

Women's crimes are seen as something that falls beyond the 'normal' scope of violence. Male criminals in Germany and Rwanda were painted as brutal, thuggish. The female criminals were brutal too, but also sexually-perverted, diabolic, and often mad.

What's more, in both post-war Germany and post-genocide Rwanda, women war criminals were further blasted for not showing sufficient remorse in court: something that seemed to highlight their inhumanity.

In 1946, when the Ravensbrück concentration camp functionary Carmen Mory was put on trial for crimes against humanity, journalists harped on her alleged disinterest and emotional coldness during proceedings. Last month, Pauline Nyiramusuhoki was also said to have "showed no emotion as she was sentenced"-- to have "mostly looked blankly around the courtroom."

Would a convicted male war criminal be expected to break down in hysterics when his guilty verdict is read out? Would he be vilified if his eyes stayed dry instead? Maybe in Camus's literary world, but probably not in today's press.

This all boils down to a somewhat banal point: women aren't expected to be physically violent. Pauline Nyiramasuhuko said as much herself, in an interview with the BBC in 1995: "I couldn't even kill a chicken. If there is a person who says that a woman, a mother, could have killed, I'll tell you truly then I am ready to confront that person."

This partly explains why women's war crimes are such easy media fodder.

It's likely that some of this relates back to the different roles that women usually assume in violent contexts. Most of the time, women don't play the role of a strong-armed concentration camp guard, or a Pauline Nyiramasuhuko. Instead, they kill more indirectly.

During the Holocaust, women were active in ratting out family and friends to the Nazi Police. In Rwanda, women were critical in revealing Tutsi hiding places to their husbands.

These acts -- which amount to just a step or two in the genocidal production line -- are harder to prosecute, and less likely to end up in court.

Still, when female war criminals do find themselves before the law, it seems that judges, lawyers, the press and the public can't help but act surprised.

This is a critical divergence from how we've come to understand wartime violence, more generally.

In the past few decades, trendier Second World War historians have turned away from top-down histories: the kind that emphasize gun-blazing generals, or ruthless politicians. Their aim instead has been to get at the mindset of ordinary men. (One of my favourite Second World War history books goes by that very name: Ordinary Men, by Christopher Browning).

Historians have considered what general circumstances drove men to violence. They have assessed how much agency different groups of men had, when it came to deciding whether to resort to physical assault. They have considered the psychology of male brutality, the effect of masculine groupthink.

But today, we still don't have a model for 'ordinary' violent women. The narrative still focuses on exceptional women, and the anomalous nature of their crimes.

The Rwanda tribunal has completed 65 cases, with dozens more in the works. Most of the men involved have not been interesting enough to garner international headlines. It was the same after the Second World War. Thousands of low-level Nazi officials were tried; but it was more often the murderesses who became household names.

This is surely a distraction.

And it should also make us cautious when reading accounts of women's violent crimes. It is doubtful that Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, the Rwandan government minister, and Ilse Koch, the dark-eyed Nazi wife, had much in common. But subsequent descriptions of their crimes and post-war trials do share a great deal. Is it that violent women, more than violent men, share common traits? Or is it just that, in the 65 years since the Second World War, we've failed to vary the script?

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