As Allied troops entered and occupied German territory during the later stages of World War II, mass rapes of women 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, but did little to stop it. Some Russian historians disagree, claiming that the Soviet leadership took some 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, Soviet soldiers raped German females from eight to eighty years old. Soviet and Polish 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.”
A documentary book, War’s Unwomanly Face by Svetlana Alexievich 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.”While serving as an artillery officer in East Prussia Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn witnessed war crimes against local German civilians by Soviet military personnel. Of the atrocities, Solzhenitsyn wrote: “You know very well that we’ve come to Germany to take our revenge” for Nazi atrocities committed in the Soviet Union.
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 two 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 traumatised victims who had been raped many times. In addition, many children died in post-war 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 percent.
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 1945 during and after the Battle of Berlin.
Hannelore Kohl, the wife of former West 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.
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.
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. However, it has been argued that it was 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.
In a sobering and courageous book, After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation, British historian Giles MacDonogh details how the ruined and prostrate Reich (including Austria) was systematically raped and robbed, and how many Germans who survived the war were either killed in cold blood or deliberately left to die of disease, cold, malnutrition or starvation.
His best estimate is that some three million Germans, military and civilians, died unnecessarily after the official end of hostilities.
Most of the two million German civilians who perished after the end of the war were women, children and elderly — victims of disease, cold, hunger, suicide, and mass murder.
Genocidal rape is the action of a group who has carried out acts of mass rape during wartime against their perceived enemy as part of a genocidal campaign. During the Bangladesh Liberation War, the Yugoslav Wars, the Rwandan genocide, Iraqi Civil War and during the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar the mass rapes that had been an integral part of those conflicts brought the concept of genocidal rape to international prominence. Although war rape has been a recurrent feature in conflicts throughout history, it has usually been looked upon as a by-product of conflict, and not an integral part of military policy.
The violence against women during the Partition of India has also been cited as an example of genocidal rape.
The estimates of the numbers of German women raped by Soviet soldiers in 1945 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. Natalya Gesse, who was a Soviet war correspondent at the time, said that the Soviets didn’t care about the ages of their victims. “The Russian soldiers were raping every German female from eight to eighty. It was an army of rapists,” she said. Walter Zapotoczny wrote that even female Russian soldiers did not disapprove of the rapes, some finding it amusing.
Walter S. Zapotoczny Jr. wrote: “There was a sense among Russian soldiers that “Motherland” had been violated by the invasion of German army. This sense was promoted by the government. The governments calls for revenge had given the idea that almost any cruelty would be allowed. Russian government would not permit any discussion of the rape of German woman. Many veterans, even today, are reluctant to talk about it.”
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In Russia and Ukraine, women are still blamed for being raped.
In Russia and Ukraine people who have been raped find it very difficult to talk about it, due to the culture we live in.
We’ve developed a mentality of “don’t wash your dirty linen in public”, a situation which is harmful for women and men. The objectification of women is also rife.
In this climate, how do we explain to little girls that they can say no, and that they have the right to their own boundaries. And how do we teach boys that no means no and about the limits of acceptable behaviour?
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