The Red Army’s orgy of rape in the dying days of Nazi Germany was conducted on a much greater scale than the previous suspected, according to a new book by the military historian Anthony Beevor, the author of the best-selling Stalingrad, says advancing Soviet troops raped large numbers of Russian and Polish women held in concentration caps, as well as millions of Germans.
Beevor – was educated at Sandhurst and served in the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own), an elite cavalry regiment. Beevor’s high reputation as a historian ensures that his claims will be taken seriously. Stalingrad was widely praised and awarded the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize, the Wolfson Prize for History and the Hawthornden Prize.
Beevor is careful to qualify any suggestion that what happened from 1944 onwards is in any way typical of male behaviour in peacetime. But he admits that he was “shaken to the core” to discover that Russian and Polish women and girls liberated from concentration camps were also violated.
“That completely undermined the notion that the soldiers were using rape as a form of revenge against the Germans,” he said.
His account of the siege of Berlin, however, promises to be more controversial. “In many ways the fate of the women and the girls in Berlin is far worse than that of the soldiers starving and suffering in Stalingrad.”
To understand why the rape of Germany was so uniquely terrible, the context is essential. Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941, began the most genocidal conflict in history. Perhaps 30 million inhabitants of the Soviet Union are now thought to have died during the war, including more than three million who were deliberately starved in German PoW camps.
The Germans, having shown no quarter, could expect none in return. Their casualties were also on a vast scale. In the Battle of Berlin alone more than a million German soldiers were killed or died later in captivity, plus at least 100,000 civilians. The Soviet Union lost more than 300,000 men.
Against this horrific background, Stalin and his commanders condoned or even justified rape, not only against Germans but also their allies in Hungary, Romania and Croatia. When the Yugoslav Communist Milovan Djilas protested to Stalin, the dictator exploded: “Can’t he 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?”
And when German Communists warned him that the rapes were turning the population against them, Stalin fumed: “I will not allow anyone to drag the reputation of the Red Army in the mud.”
The rapes had begun as soon as the Red Army entered East Prussia and Silesia in 1944. In many towns and villages every female, aged from 10 to 80, was raped. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel laureate who was then a young officer, described the horror in his narrative poem Prussian Nights: “The little daughter’s on the mattress,/Dead. How many have been on it/A platoon, a company perhaps?”
But Solzhenitsyn was rare: most of his comrades regarded rape as legitimate. As the offensive struck deep into Germany, the orders of Marshal Zhukov, their commander, stated: “Woe to the land of the murderers. We will get a terrible revenge for everything.”
By the time the Red Army reached Berlin its reputation, reinforced by Nazi propaganda, had already terrified the population, many of whom fled. Though the hopeless struggle came to an end in May 1945, the ordeal of German women did not.
How many German women were raped? One can only guess, but a high proportion of at least 15 million women who either lived in the Soviet Union zone or were expelled from the eastern provinces. The scale of rape is suggested by the fact that about two million women had illegal abortions every year between 1945 and 1948.
It was not until the winter of 1946-47 that the Soviet authorities, concerned by the spread of disease, imposed serious penalties on their forces in East Germany for fraternising with the enemy.
Soviet soldiers saw rape, often carried out in front of a woman’s husband and family, as an appropriate way of humiliating the Germans, who had treated Slavs as an inferior race with whom sexual relations were discouraged. Russia’s patriarchal society and the habit of binge-drinking were also factors, but more important was resentment at the discovery of Germany’s comparative wealth.
The fact, highlighted by Beevor, that Soviet troops raped not only Germans but also their victims, recently liberated from concentration camps, suggests that the sexual violence was often indiscriminate, although far fewer Russian or Polish women were raped when their areas were liberated compared to the conquered Germans.
Jews, however, were not necessarily regarded by Soviet troops as fellow victims of the Nazis. The Soviet commissars had commandeered German concentration camps in order to incarcerate their own political prisoners, who included “class enemies” as well as Nazi officials, and their attitude towards the previous inmates was, to say the least, unsentimental.
As for the millions of Russian prisoners or slave workers who survived the Nazis: those who were not executed as traitors or sent to the Gulag could count themselves lucky. The women among them were probably treated no better than the Germans, perhaps worse.
The rape of Germany left a bitter legacy. It contributed to the unpopularity of the East German communist regime and its consequent reliance on the Stasi secret police. The victims themselves were permanently traumatized: women of the wartime generation still refer to the Red Army war memorial in Berlin as “the Tomb of the Unknown Rapist”.
By Daniel Johnson
The Telegraph – London
THE RAPE OF BERLIN
Note: Some readers may find this story disturbing.
The USSR’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany World War Two 70 years ago is seen as the nation’s most glorious moment. But there is another story – of mass rapes by Soviet soldiers of German women in the dying days of the war.
Vladimir Gelfand, a young Jewish lieutenant from central Ukraine, wrote with extraordinary frankness from 1941 through to the end of the war, despite the Soviet military’s ban on diaries, which were seen as a security risk.
In February 1945, Gelfand was stationed by the Oder River dam, preparing for the final push on Berlin, and he describes how his comrades surrounded and overpowered a battalion of women fighters.
“The captured German female cats declared they were avenging their dead husbands,” he writes. “They must be destroyed without mercy. Our soldiers suggest stabbing them through their genitals but I would just execute them.”
It gets worse.
One of the most revealing passages in Gelfand’s diary is dated 25 April, once he had reached Berlin. Gelfand was whirling around on a bicycle by the River Spree, the first time he’d ever ridden one, when he came across a group of German women carrying suitcases and bundles.
In broken German, he asked them where they were going and why they had left their homes.
“With horror on their faces, they told me what had happened on the first night of the Red Army’s arrival,” he writes.
“‘They poked here,’ explained the beautiful German girl, lifting up her skirt, ‘all night. They were old, some were covered in pimples and they all climbed on me and poked – no less than 20 men,’ she burst into tears.
“‘They raped my daughter in front of me,’ her poor mother added, ‘and they can still come back and rape her again.’ This thought horrified everyone.
“‘Stay here,’ the girl suddenly threw herself at me, ‘sleep with me! You can do whatever you want with me, but only you!'”
By this stage, German soldiers had been guilty of sexual violence and other horrors in the Soviet Union for almost four years, as Gelfand had become aware as he fought his way to Berlin.
“He went through so many villages in which the Nazis had killed everyone, even small children. And he saw evidence of rape,” says his son, Vitaly.
The Wehrmacht was supposedly a well-ordered force of Aryans who would never contemplate sex with untermenschen.
But the ban was ignored, says Oleg Budnitsky, a historian at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Nazi commanders were in fact so concerned about venereal disease that they established a chain of military brothels throughout the occupied territories.
It’s hard to find direct evidence of how the German soldiers treated Russian women – many victims never survived – but in the German-Russian Museum in Berlin, director Jorg Morre shows me a photograph taken in Crimea from a German soldier’s personal wartime album. A woman’s corpse is sprawled on the ground.
“It looks like she was killed by raping, or after the rape. Her skirt is pulled up and the hands are in front of the face,” he says.
“It’s a shocking photo. We had discussions in the museum, should we show the photos – this is war, this is sexual violence under German policy in the Soviet Union. We are showing war. Not talking about war but showing it.”
As the Red Army advanced into what the Soviet press called “the lair of the fascist beast” posters encouraged troops to show their anger: “Soldier: You are now on German soil. The hour of revenge has struck!”
In fact, the political department of the 19th Army, which fought its way into Germany along the Baltic Coast, declared that a true Soviet soldier would be so full of hatred that he would be repulsed by sex with Germans. But once again soldiers proved the ideologists wrong.
While researching his 2002 book, Berlin, The Downfall, historian Antony Beevor found documents about sexual violence in the state archive of the Russian Federation. They were sent by the NKVD, the secret police, to their boss, Lavrentiy Beria, in late 1944.
“These were passed on to Stalin,” says Beevor. “You can actually see from the ticks whether they’ve been read or not – and they report on the mass rapes in East Prussia and the way that German women would try to kill their children, and kill themselves, to avoid such a fate.”
Another wartime diary, this time kept by the fiancee of an absent German soldier, shows that some women adapted to the appalling circumstances, in order to survive.
Starting on 20 April 1945, 10 days before Hitler’s suicide, the anonymous author is, like Vladimir Gelfand, brutally honest, with razor-sharp powers of observation and occasional flashes of gallows humour.
Describing herself as “a pale-faced blonde always dressed in the same winter coat”, the diarist paints vivid pictures of her neighbours in the bomb shelter beneath her Berlin apartment block, including a “young man in grey trousers and horn-rimmed glasses who on closer inspection turns out to be a young woman” and three elderly sisters, “all dressmakers, huddled together like a big black pudding”.
As they await the arrival of the Red Army, they joke “better a Russky on top than a Yank overhead” – rape is preferable to being pulverised by bombs. But when the soldiers reach their basement and try to haul women out, they beg the diarist to use her Russian language skills and complain to the Soviet command.
Braving the chaos on the rubble strewn streets, she manages to find a senior officer. He shrugs his shoulders. Despite Stalin’s decree banning violence against civilians, he says, “It happens anyway.”
The officer returns to the cellar with her and reprimands the soldiers, but one is seething with fury.
“‘What do you mean? What did the Germans do to our women!’ He is screaming: ‘They took my sister and…’ The officer calms the man down and gets them outside.”
But when the diarist steps back into the corridor to check they have gone, the men have been lying in wait and grab her. She is brutally raped and nearly strangled. The terrified neighbours, or “cave dwellers” as she calls them, had slammed the basement door shut.
“Finally the two iron levers open. Everyone stares at me,” she writes. “My stockings are down to my shoes, I’m still holding on to what’s left of my suspender belt. I start yelling ‘You pigs! Here they rape me twice in a row and you leave me lying like a piece of dirt!'”
Eventually the diarist realises that she needs to find one “wolf” to stave off gang rape by the “male beasts”. The relationship between aggressor and victim becomes less violent, more transactional – and more ambiguous. She shares her bed with a senior officer from Leningrad with whom she discusses literature and the meaning of life.
“By no means could it be said that the major is raping me,” she writes. “Am I doing it for bacon, butter, sugar, candles, canned meat? To some extent I’m sure I am. In addition, I like the major and the less he wants from me as a man, the more I like him as a person.”
Many of the diarist’s neighbours made similar deals with the conquerors in the ruins of Berlin.
When the diary was published in German in 1959 under the title A Woman in Berlin, the author’s frank account of the choices she made to survive was attacked for “besmirching the honour” of German women. Not surprisingly, she refused to allow the book to be republished until after her death.
Seventy years after the end of the war, new research on sexual violence committed by all the Allied forces – American, British and French as well as Soviet – is still emerging. But for years the subject slid under the official radar. Few reported it and even fewer would listen.
Besides the social stigma, in East Germany it was sacrilegious to criticise Soviet heroes who had defeated fascism while across the Wall in the West, the guilt for Nazi crimes made German suffering unmentionable.
What was the scale of the rapes? The most often quoted number is a staggering 100,000 women in Berlin and two million on German territory. That figure – hotly debated – was extrapolated from scant surviving medical records.
In a former munitions factory which now houses the State Archive, Martin Luchterhand shows me an armful of blue cardboard folders. These contain abortion records dated July to October 1945 from Neukolln, just one of Berlin’s 24 districts – it’s a small miracle that they survived intact.
Abortions were illegal in Germany according to Article 218 of the penal code, but Luchterhand says “there was a small window for those women because of that special situation of the mass rapes in 1945″.
Altogether 995 pleas for abortion were approved by this one district office in Berlin office between June 1945 to 1946. The files contain over 1,000 fragile scraps of paper of different colours and sizes. In childish round handwriting, one girl testifies that she was assaulted in the living room of her home in front of her parents.
We will probably never know the true scale of the rapes. Soviet military tribunals and other sources remain classified. The Russian parliament recently passed a law which says that anyone who denigrates Russia’s record in World War Two could face fines and up to five years in prison.
Vera Dubina, a young historian at the University of Humanities in Moscow, says she knew nothing of the rapes until a scholarship took her to Berlin. She later wrote a paper on the subject but struggled to get it published.
“The Russian media reacted very aggressively,” she says. “People only want to hear about our glorious victory in the Great Patriotic War and now it is getting harder to do proper research.” (bbc.com)
A German girl being led from a Berlin train station – having been gang-raped by Polish youths (typically, war orphans) who regularly boarded trains to rob or rape German refugees fleeing Poland (pinterest)
On June 22nd, 1941, Nazi Germany initiated Operation Barbarossa, the massive invasion of the Soviet Union. Denis Chrissikos examines the evolution of the Red Army from its disastrous performance in Operation Barbarossa’s opening stages to the fall of Berlin in 1945.
In July 1942, the situation improved by refashioning the Red Army’s command structure. The officer corps was cleared of incompetent leaders, replacing the older generation with younger, more professional officers with recent battle experience: officers like Georgy Zhukov, Vasily Chuikov (commander of the famous 62nd Army at Stalingrad), and Ivan Konev. Commanders gained increasing autonomy in their execution of battle plans; emphasis was now placed upon skill and a culture of professionalism rather than class or political background. To make up for the catastrophic losses in the opening stages of the war, up to 800,000 women were recruited throughout the war beginning in 1942, and new reserves of younger men were tapped, bringing the total count of Soviet troops to six million by the end of 1942. Military units were reorganized to increase cohesiveness and radio technology was widely employed.
The results of these improvements manifested themselves from Operation Uranus and onwards. Operation Uranus was preceded by a colossal concentration of Red Army forces that went nearly unnoticed by German military intelligence. The turning point of the Nazi-Soviet War, Operation Citadel, became a victory for the Red Army thanks to the dense defensive zone created by Zhukov that withstood German assaults. Citadel was the first time Soviet forces did not retreat en masse in the face of a German summer offensive. (http://russia-eastern-republic.com/)
“Kill! Kill! In the German race there is nothing but evil. Stamp out the fascist beast once and for all in its lair! Use force and break the racial pride of these German women. Take them as your lawful booty. Kill! As you storm forward. Kill! You gallant soldiers of the Red army.” Ilya Ehrenburg
The photo below, far right, was smuggled out of Danzig by US news sources and shows a public hanging of 11 “war criminals” consisting of 10 Germans, four of whom were women. A crowd of 35,000 watched as the cars the victims had been forced to stand on drove away, leaving them dangling from the ropes. These events took place in all communist occupied formerly German areas. (revisionist.net)