Rape during the occupation of Germany
As Allied troops entered and occupied German territory during the later stages of World War II, mass rapes took place both in connection with combat operations and during the subsequent occupation. Most Western scholars agree that the majority of the rapes were committed by Soviet servicemen, while some Russian historians maintain that these crimes were not widespread. The wartime rapes had been surrounded by decades of silence. According to Antony Beevor, whose books were banned in 2015 from some Russian schools and colleges, NKVD (Soviet secret police) files have revealed that the leadership knew what was happening, including about the rape of Soviet women liberated from labour camps, but did nothing to stop it. Some Russian historians disagree, claiming that the Soviet leadership took swift action.
Historians have written about sexual violence committed by the armies of the Western Allies and the Red Army as these forces fought their way into the Third Reich and during the period of occupation. On the territory of Nazi Germany, it began on 21 October 1944 when troops of the Red Army crossed the bridge over the Angerapp creek (marking the border) and committed the Nemmersdorf massacre before they were beaten back a few hours later.
The majority of the assaults were committed in the Soviet occupation zone; estimates of the numbers of German women raped by Soviet soldiers have ranged up to 2 million. According to historian William Hitchcock, in many cases women were the victims of repeated rapes, some as many as 60 to 70 times. At least 100,000 women are believed to have been raped in Berlin, based on surging abortion rates in the following months and contemporary hospital reports, with an estimated 10,000 women dying in the aftermath. Female deaths in connection with the rapes in Germany, overall, are estimated at 240,000. Antony Beevor describes it as the "greatest phenomenon of mass rape in history", and has concluded that at least 1.4 million women were raped in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia alone. According to Natalya Gesse, Russian soldiers raped German females from eight to eighty years old. Russian women were not spared either. When General Tsygankov, head of the political department of the First Ukrainian Front, reported to Moscow the mass rape of Soviet women deported to East Germany for forced labour, he recommended that the Soviet women be prevented from describing their ordeal on their return to Russia.
When Yugoslav politician Milovan Djilas complained about rapes in Yugoslavia, Stalin reportedly stated that he should "understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle." On another occasion, when told that Red Army soldiers sexually maltreated German refugees, he reportedly said: "We lecture our soldiers too much; let them have their initiative."
Historian Norman Naimark writes that after the summer of 1945, Soviet soldiers caught raping civilians were usually punished to some degree, ranging from arrest to execution. However, the rapes continued until the winter of 1947–48, when Soviet occupation authorities finally confined Soviet troops to strictly guarded posts and camps, separating them from the residential population in the Soviet zone of Germany.
In his analysis of the motives behind the extensive Soviet rapes, Norman Naimark singles out "hate propaganda, personal experiences of suffering at home, and an allegedly fully demeaning picture of German women in the press, not to mention among the soldiers themselves" as a part reason for the widespread rapes. Naimark also noted the effect that tendency to binge-drink alcohol (of which much was available in Germany) had on the propensity of Soviet soldiers to commit rape, especially rape-murder. Naimark also notes the allegedly patriarchal nature of Russian culture, and of the Asian societies comprising the Soviet Union, where dishonor was in the past repaid by raping the women of the enemy. The fact that the Germans had a much higher standard of living visible even when in ruins "may well have contributed allegedly to a national inferiority complex among Russians". Combining Russian feelings of inferiority, the resulting need to restore honor, and their desire for revenge may be the reason many women were raped in public as well as in front of husbands before both were killed.
According to Antony Beevor revenge was not the only reason for the frequent rapes; but the Soviet troops' feeling of entitlement to all types of spoils of war, including women, was an important factor as well. Beevor exemplifies this with his discovery that Soviet troops also raped Soviet and Polish girls and women that were liberated from Nazi concentration camps as well as those who were held for forced labor at farms and factories.
Richard Overy, a historian from King's College London, has criticized the viewpoint held by the Russians, asserting that they refuse to acknowledge Soviet war crimes committed during the war, "Partly this is because they felt that much of it was justified vengeance against an enemy who committed much worse, and partly it was because they were writing the victors' history."
Historian Geoffrey Roberts writes that the Red Army raped women in every country they passed through, but mostly in Austria and Germany: 70,000–100,000 rapes in Vienna, and "hundreds of thousands" of rapes in Germany. He notes that the German Army probably committed tens of thousands of rapes on the Eastern Front, but that murder was the more typical crime for them.
Criticism from Russian historians
According to Oleg Rzheshevsky, a President of the Russian Association of World War II Historians, only 4,148 Red Army officers and many soldiers were convicted of atrocities. He explains crimes such as acts of sexual assault as inevitable parts of war, and notes that soldiers in other Allied armies committed them. However, in general, he says Soviet servicemen treated peaceful Germans with humanity.
Makhmut Gareev states that he had not even heard about sexual violence. He says that "instances of cruelty, including sexual, occurred", and that they "simply could not be absent after what the Nazis did" in the USSR, but also states that "such cases were strongly suppressed and punished," and that "they did not become widespread." He notes that the Soviet military leadership signed an executive order on 19 January 1945 that demanded the prevention of cruel treatment of the local population.
The exact number of German women and girls raped by Soviet troops during the war and occupation is uncertain, but western historians estimate their numbers are likely in the hundreds of thousands, and possibly as many as 2 million. The number of babies, who came to be known as "Russian Children", born as a result is unknown. However, most rapes did not result in pregnancies, and many pregnancies did not result in the victims giving birth. Abortions were the preferred choice of rape victims, and many died as a consequence of internal injuries after being brutally violated, untreated sexually transmitted diseases due to a lack of medicine, badly performed abortions, and suicides, particularly for traumatized victims who had been raped many times. In addition, many children died in postwar Germany as a result of widespread starvation, scarce supplies, and diseases such as typhus and diphtheria. The infant mortality in Berlin reached up to 90 per cent.
As to the social effects of this sexual violence Norman Naimark notes:
In any case, just as each rape survivor carried the effects of the crime with her till the end of her life, so was the collective anguish nearly unbearable. The social psychology of women and men in the soviet zone of occupation was marked by the crime of rape from the first days of occupation, through the founding of the GDR in the fall of 1949, until—one could argue—the present.
West Berliners and women of the wartime generation refer to the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park, Berlin, as the "tomb of the unknown rapist" in response to the mass rapes by Red Army soldiers in the years following 1945.
Hannelore Kohl, the wife of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, had been gang-raped at age 12 by Soviet soldiers in May 1945, according to her biographer. As a consequence, she sustained a serious lifelong back injury after being thrown out of a first-floor window. She had been suffering long and serious illnesses that experts thought of as the consequence of childhood trauma. Hannelore committed suicide in 2001.
Russian language literature
Twenty-two Hoeringstrasse. It's not been burned, just looted, rifled. A moaning by the walls, half muffled: the mother's wounded, half alive. The little daughter's on the mattress, dead. How many have been on it? A platoon, a company perhaps? A girl's been turned into a woman, a woman turned into a corpse. . . . The mother begs, "Soldier, kill me!"
Svetlana Alexievich published a book, War's Unwomanly Face that includes memories by Soviet veterans about their experience in Germany. According to a former army officer:
We were young, strong, and four years without women. So we tried to catch German women and ... Ten men raped one girl. There were not enough women; the entire population run from the Soviet Army. So we had to take young, twelve or thirteen year-old. If she cried, we put something into her mouth. We thought it was fun. Now I can not understand how I did it. A boy from a good family... But that was me.
A woman telephone operator from the Soviet Army recalled that:
When we occupied every town, we had first three days for looting and ... [rapes]. That was unofficial of course. But after three days one could be court-martialed for doing this. ... I remember one raped German woman laying naked, with hand grenade between her legs. Now I feel shame, but I did not feel shame back then... Do you think it was easy to forgive [the Germans]? We hated to see their clean undamaged white houses. With roses. I wanted them to suffer. I wanted to see their tears. ... Decades had to pass until I started feeling pity for them.
In popular culture
As most women recoiled from their experiences and had no desire to recount them, most biographies and depictions of the period, like the German film Downfall, alluded to mass rape by the Red Army but stopped shy of mentioning it explicitly. As time has progressed more works have been produced that have directly addressed the issue, such as the books The 158-Pound Marriage and My Story (1961) by Gemma LaGuardia Gluck [reissued as Fiorello's Sister: Gemma La Guardia Gluck's Story (Religion, Theology, and the Holocaust) (2007, Expanded Edition)], or the 2006 films Joy Division and The Good German.
The topic is the subject of much feminist discourse. The first autobiographical work depicting the events was the groundbreaking 1954 book A Woman in Berlin, which was made into a 2008 feature film. It was widely rejected in Germany after its initial publication but has seen a new acceptance and many women have found inspiration to come forward with their own stories. The role of Ilya Ehrenburg is censored to this day.
In Taken by Force, J. Robert Lilly estimates the number of rapes committed by U.S. servicemen in Germany to be 11,000. As in the case of the American occupation of France after the D-Day invasion, many of the American rapes in Germany in 1945 were gang rapes committed by armed soldiers at gunpoint.
Although non-fraternization policies were instituted for the Americans in Germany, the phrase "copulation without conversation is not fraternization" was used as a motto by United States Army troops. The journalist Osmar White, a war correspondent from Australia who served with the American troops during the war, wrote that:
After the fighting moved on to German soil, there was a good deal of rape by combat troops and those immediately following them. The incidence varied between unit and unit according to the attitude of the commanding officer. In some cases offenders were identified, tried by court martial, and punished. The army legal branch was reticent, but admitted that for brutal or perverted sexual offences against German women, some soldiers had been shot – particularly if they happened to be Negroes. Yet I know for a fact that many women were raped by white Americans. No action was taken against the culprits. In one sector a report went round that a certain very distinguished army commander made the wisecrack, 'Copulation without conversation does not constitute fraternisation.'
As in the eastern sector of the occupation, the number of rapes peaked in 1945, but a high rate of violence against the German and Austrian populations by the Americans lasted at least into the first half of 1946, with five cases of dead German women found in American barracks in May and June 1946 alone.
Carol Huntington writes that the American soldiers who raped German women and then left gifts of food for them may have permitted themselves to view the act as a prostitution rather than rape. Citing the work of a Japanese historian alongside this suggestion, Huntington writes that Japanese women who begged for food "were raped and soldiers sometimes left food for those they raped."
Many rapes were committed under the effects of alcohol or post-traumatic stress, but some cases of premeditated attacks, like the attempted rape of two local girls at gunpoint by two soldiers in the village of Oyle, near Nienburg, which ended in the death of one of the women when, whether intentionally or not, one of the soldiers discharged his gun, hitting her in the neck, as well as the reported assault on three German women in the town of Neustadt am Rübenberge. On a single day in mid-April 1945, three women in Neustadt were raped by British soldiers. A senior British Army chaplain following the troops reported that there was a 'good deal of rape going on'. He then added that "those who suffer [rape] have probably deserved it.'
French troops took part in the invasion of Germany, and France was assigned an occupation zone in Germany. Perry Biddiscombe quotes the original survey estimates that the French for instance committed "385 rapes in the Constance area; 600 in Bruchsal; and 500 in Freudenstadt." French soldiers were alleged to have indulged in an orgy of rape in the Höfingen District near Leonberg. Katz and Kaiser, though they mention rape, found no specific occurrences in either Höfingen or Leonberg compared to other towns.
According to Norman Naimark, French Moroccan troops matched the behavior of Soviet troops when it came to rape, in particular in the early occupation of Baden and Württemberg, providing the numbers are correct.
It has been frequently repeated that the wartime rapes were surrounded by decades of silence or, until relatively recently, ignored by academics, with the prevailing attitude being that the Germans were the perpetrators of war crimes, Soviet writings speaking only of Russian liberation and German guilt, and Western historians concentrating on the details of the Holocaust.
Elizabeth Heineman, University of Iowa, on the other hand, has argued that in post-war Germany, especially in West Germany, the wartime rape stories became an essential part of political discourse and that the rape of German women (along with the expulsion of Germans from the East and Allied occupation) had been universalized in an attempt to situate the German population on the whole as victims.
The way the rapes have been discussed by Sander and Johr in their "BeFreier und Befreite" has been criticized by several scholars. According to Grossmann, the problem is that this is not a "universal" story of women being raped by men, but of German women being abused and violated by an army that fought Nazi Germany and liberated death camps. Attempts to de-emphasize the historical context of the rape of German women is a serious omission, according to Stuart Liebman and Annette Michelson, and, according to Pascale Bos, is an example of ahistorical, feminist and sexist approach to the wartime rape issue.
According to Pascale Bos, the victim discourse "would become wholly discredited by the late 1960s in the wake of the student movement. German leftist politics from the 1970s on came to critically investigate the Nazi past and criticize the older generations’ unwillingness to face that past, their continued anti- Communism, and their tendency to portray themselves as victims rather than as perpetrators, particularly of the Holocaust."
In Bos's view, the feminist attempt to universalize the story of the rapes of German women contradicts Sander's and Johr's own description of the rapes as a form of genocidal rape: the rape of "racially superior" German women by "racially inferior" Soviet soldiers, implying that such a rape was especially harmful for the victims.
In contrast, the issue of the rapes of Soviet women by Wehrmacht soldiers, with numbers ranging between hundreds of thousands and ten million according to different estimates, is not treated by the authors as something deserving serious mention.
- War rape
- Rape during the occupation of Japan
- Rape during the liberation of Poland
- U.N. Comfort Station
- Special Comfort Facility Association
- Comfort women
- Marocchinate rape after the Battle of Monte Cassino
- Soviet war crimes
- War crimes of the Wehrmacht: Mass rapes
- German camp brothels in World War II
- Rape during the liberation of France
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