Dorn, Erna (1912–1953)

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Dorn, Erna (1912–1953)

German war criminal, concentration camp guard at Ravensbrück, and controversial participant in the Cold War. Name variations: (forged identity) Erna Brüser née Scheffler. Born Erna Kaminski in 1912; executed in Halle on October 1, 1953; daughter of Arthur Kaminski; married Erich Dorn; children: two.

Was able to avoid punishment for her activities in the Nazi period until 1951 when she was tried and convicted of war crimes in East Germany; under circumstances that are still unclear, was freed from prison during the uprising of June 17, 1953 but was recaptured and sentenced to death, a sentence that was carried out on October 1, 1953.

Many of the details of the life of Erna Dorn, who served the Nazi state with fanatical loyalty as a concentration camp guard, remain obscured by the massive propaganda unleashed by opposing forces of the Cold War in Germany. To some, she remains a war criminal as well as a possible intelligence agent of the West, pure and simple. To others, she appears to be as much a victim as a perpetrator of evil, being executed by the East German state at the height of the Cold War's often fierce tensions. Erna Kaminski's fateful encounter with the malevolent forces of history began in 1933 when she was working as a secretary in the police department of Königsberg, East Prussia (modern-day Kaliningrad, Russia). Soon after the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, her father Arthur Kaminski had become chief of the dreaded Gestapo in Königsberg. Erna began work in the Königsberg Gestapo offices. She appears to have been directly involved in the brutal measures taken against underground German Socialist and Communist organizations in the first phase of the Third Reich. In her private life, she married Erich Dorn, who began a career in the elite Nazi SS. Erna Dorn gave birth to two children.

During World War II, Erna Dorn worked for the SS in the political division of Ravensbrück, the largest concentration camp for women in Nazi Germany. She served in several other, smaller concentration camps, including Lobositz, and in the last weeks of World War II received a set of expertly forged identity papers from the commandant of Hertine, one of the subsidiary camps of Ravensbrück. Although the precise nature of the role she played in the Nazi concentration camp system remains obscure to this day, in general only high-level camp officials received officially sanctioned forged documents in the final days of Hitler's Germany. Now known as Erna Brüser née Scheffler, Erna Dorn was able to successfully hide her Nazi past in what in the spring of 1945 became the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany. Claiming to be "a victim of Fascism," she benefited materially from her fabricated past, receiving housing, work, and financial assistance. Dorn's deception was so successful that she soon began living with a man whose anti-Fascist credentials were impeccable, being a Communist veteran of the Spanish Civil War against Franco Fascism.

Dorn's deception finally collapsed in 1951 when it became obvious that her papers were forged. A court of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the German Communist state that had evolved out of the Soviet Occupation Zone, sentenced her to 15 years imprisonment for having been a willing participant in the Nazi concentration camp system. She was serving out her sentence in the city of Halle an der Saale when the mass uprising that convulsed the GDR began on June 17, 1953. A crowd stormed the prison, and she and other prisoners were released. Rather than disappear into the populace or attempt to flee to West Germany, Dorn appeared at an anti-GDR rally in one of Halle's main squares. She called for an overthrow of the regime, a demand that was popular with the majority of Halle's population. Within days, however, the GDR state authority was stabilized with help from Soviet occupation troops, and Erna Dorn found herself back in prison. This time, however, she was accused of high treason and sentenced to death—one of the few women ever to receive such a sentence in GDR history.

With the revolt quashed, the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) admitted to having committed "errors" in the recent past, making a number of conciliatory gestures to the workers and farmers of the GDR. At the same time, however, it blamed the uprising of June 17 on provocateurs and spies from the West. In a statement released on June 21, 1953, the SED Central Committee laid blame on:

Fascist and common criminals, whose names appeared on the lists prepared at the agents' headquarters in West Berlin, [who] were temporarily released from prison. One of these was Erna Dorn, the SS Commandant [sic] of the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp for Women, who had been found guilty of bestial crimes against humanity by a democratic court. Clearly, these western agents were intent on setting up a fascist power in the German Democratic Republic, thus blocking the path to unity and peace for Germany.

On the eve of her execution in Halle on October 1, 1953, Dorn wrote a farewell letter in which she cryptically spoke of having "with forbearance taken blame for the crimes of others." After the passage of more than four decades and the collapse of the GDR, the events of 1953 as they relate to Erna Dorn have not been completely clarified. Despite extensive research, much remains unexplained about Erna Dorn. The GDR picture of her as a Nazi concentration camp sadist who later worked as an intelligence agent of the Western powers during the Cold War era, which appeared in a thinly disguised portrait of her as Hedwig Weber in Stephan Hermlin's story "Die Kommandeuse," may be an exaggeration. Indeed, after the unification of Germany took place in 1990, Hermlin was violently attacked for having written this story. Some anti-Communist Germans regarded Hermlin's "Die Kommandeuse" as a slanderous attack on a woman, whatever her Nazi past may have been, who in fact ended her life as a genuine victim of Marxist tyranny. In 1993, the German politician Rainer Eppelmann demanded that Hermlin be denied membership in the newly created Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of the Arts because he had written and published "Die Kommandeuse" in the days of the GDR. Some public figures went so far as to advocate the reburial of Dorn's remains in the newly created "Cemetery of Honor for the Victims of Stalinist Violence" in Dresden-Tolkowitz. In death, as in life, the message of Erna Dorn's life remained shrouded in factual obscurity and ideological passions. In this sense, the changing details of her biography symbolize the immense difficulties that remain to be resolved as Germany continues to struggle with its painful past.


Baring, Arnulf. Uprising in East Germany: June 17, 1953. Translated by Gerald Onn. NY: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Ebert, Jens, and Insa Eschebach. Die Kommandeuse: Erna Dorn—zwischen Nationalsozialismus und Kaltem Krieg. Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1994.

Gerats, Josef. "Wer Erna Dorn wirklich war, wird nicht geklärt," in Neues Deutschland. August 26, 1994, p. 13.

Hollis, Andy. "Stephan Hermlin's 'Die Kommandeuse': A Re-Interpretation in the Light of Recent Events," in GDR Monitor. No. 23, 1990, pp. 27–37.

Lorey, Christoph. "Zur Innenund Aussen-perspektive in Stephan Hermlins Erzählung 'Die Kommandeuse'," in Seminar. Vol. 33, no. 2. May 1997, pp. 134–148.

"Verhöhnung der Opfer," in Süddeutsche Zeitung. June 18, 1993.

Weringh, Koos van. "Een rasopportuniste in een verloederd Duitsland," in Trouw. January 13, 1995, p. 2.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia