Rape during the occupation of Germany

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Territorial changes and occupational zones of Nazi Germany after its defeat. Includes the front-line along the Elbe from which U.S. troops withdrew in July 1945 US Army Germany occupation zones 1945.jpg
Territorial changes and occupational zones of Nazi Germany after its defeat. Includes the front-line along the Elbe from which U.S. troops withdrew in July 1945

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 of Germany. 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. [1] [2] [3] [4] 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. [5] Some Russian historians disagree, claiming that the Soviet leadership took some action.


Soviet troops

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. [6] 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. [7] [8] [9] [10] According to historian William Hitchcock, in many cases women were the victims of repeated rapes, some as many as 60 to 70 times. [11] 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, [9] with an estimated 10,000 women dying in the aftermath. [12] Female deaths in connection with the rapes in Germany, overall, are estimated at 240,000. [1] [13] 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. [14] According to Soviet war correspondent Natalya Gesse, Soviet soldiers raped German females from eight to eighty years old. Soviet and Polish women were not spared either. [15] [16] [17] When General Tsygankov, head of the political department of the First Ukrainian Front, reported to Moscow the mass rape of Soviet women deported to Germany for forced labour, he recommended that the women be prevented from describing their ordeal on their return to Russia. [18]

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." [19] 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." [20]


Historian Norman Naimark writes that after mid-1945, Soviet soldiers caught raping civilians were usually punished to some degree, ranging from arrest to execution. [21] The rapes continued until the winter of 1947–48, when Soviet occupation authorities finally confined Soviet troops to strictly guarded posts and camps, [22] separating them from the residential population in the Soviet zone of Germany. [23]

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. [24] 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. [25] 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. [26] 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. [26]

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 labour at farms and factories. [27] They were often committed by rear echelon units. [28]

The description of the events by Beevor was challenged by Makhmut Gareev who said the work by Beevor was worse than Goebbel's propaganda. [29] According to Russian historian Oleg Rzheshevsky, 4,148 Red Army officers and "a significant number" of soldiers were convicted of atrocities for crimes committed against German civilians. [30]

Richard Overy, a historian from King's College London, has criticised the viewpoint put forth 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." [31]

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. [32]

In 2015, Beevor's books were banned in some Russian schools and colleges. [33] [34]

Eyewitness accounts

A documentary book, War's Unwomanly Face by Svetlana Alexievich includes memories by Soviet veterans about their experience in Germany. [35] 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." [36] 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." [37] 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". [38]

Social effects

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. [39] The number of babies, who came to be known as "Russian Children", born as a result is unknown. [40] 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. [41]

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. [39]

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. [42] [43] [44] [45] [46]

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. [47]

In Soviet literature

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn took part in the invasion of Germany, and wrote a poem about it called Prussian Nights . Parts of the poem read "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!" [48] " Records of sexual violence were found in works of other Soviet authors, mostly in the form of war memoirs mentioning particular incidents witnessed by the authors, such as Lev Kopelev, Vladimir Gelfand, Mikhail Koryakov, Eugenii Plimak, David Samoilow, Boris Slutskii, Nikolay Nikulin, Grigorii Pomerants, Leonid Ryabichev and Vassily Grossman. Vera Dubina and Oleg Budnitskii were among those few historians who investigated the subject more systematically. [49]

As most women recoiled from their experiences and had no desire to recount them, most biographies and depictions of the period, like the 2004 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)], [50] [51] or the 2006 films Joy Division and The Good German .

The topic is the subject of much feminist discourse. [52] The first autobiographical work depicting the events was the ground-breaking 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. [53] [54] [55]

U.S. troops

In Taken by Force , J. Robert Lilly estimates the number of rapes committed by U.S. servicemen in Germany to be 11,040. [56] 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. [57]

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. [58] 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.' [59]

A typical victimization with sexual assault by drunken American personnel marching through occupied territory involved threatening a German family with weapons, forcing one or more women to engage in sex, and putting the entire family out on the street afterward. [58]

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. [57]

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." [57]

The black soldiers of America's segregated occupation force were both more likely to be charged with rape and severely punished. [57] Heide Fehrenbach writes that, while the American black soldiers were in fact by no means free from indiscipline,

The point, rather, is that American officials exhibited an explicit interest in a soldier's race, and then only if he were black, when reporting behavior they feared would undermine either the status or the political aims of the U.S. Military Government in Germany. [60]

In 2015, German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that German historian Miriam Gebhardt "believes that members of the US military raped as many as 190,000 German women by the time West Germany regained sovereignty in 1955, with most of the assaults taking place in the months immediately following the US invasion of Nazi Germany. The author bases her claims in large part on reports kept by Bavarian priests in the summer of 1945." [61]

British troops

Sean Longden states that while not on the scale of the Red Army in the Soviet Zone, the British Military Police regularly investigated reports of rape. However the numbers were small compared to the number of desertions:

The question of how they should respond to the few soldiers who committed serious criminal acts, such as rape and murder, was of little concern to the [British] military authorities. It made good sense to arrest such trouble makers, bring them to trial and dispose of them in military prisons. Such men were easily dispensable and best kept locked away. However how to deal with the army's largest group of offenders, the deserters, was rather less simple. [62]

Longden mentions that some rapes were carried out by soldiers either suffering from post traumatic stress or drunk, but that these were not considered as serious as the less common premeditated crimes. [63]

Longden mentions that on 16 April 1945 three women in Neustadt am Rübenberge were raped, however he does not make clear if this was one incident or three separate ones. He also does not make clear if they were spontaneous or premeditated. [63] He gives an example of a premeditated rape: In the village of Oyle, near Nienburg, an attempted rape of two local girls at gunpoint by two soldiers ended in the death of one of the girls when, whether intentionally or not, one of the soldiers shot her. [63] In a third example Longden highlights that not all British officers were willing to punish their men: When a German woman reported a rape to a British Army medic, two British soldiers were identified by the woman in a line up as the perpetrators, however their commanding officer declined to take any action because "they were going on leave". [63]

Clive Emsley quotes a senior British Army chaplain as reporting that there was "a good deal of rape going on, those who suffer [rape] have probably deserved it", but adds that this probably referred to attacks by former slave labourers (displaced persons) seeking revenge. [64] Longden also mentions such incidents and highlights that for a time Hanover (in the British zone) was in a state of anarchy with deplaced persons raping and murdering German civilians. Initially when German family members approached the overstretched British authorities about murders they were told "we only have time for living people here". [65]

French troops

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." [66] French soldiers were alleged to have committed widespread rape in the Höfingen District near Leonberg. [67] Katz and Kaiser, [68] 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 behaviour of Soviet troops when it came to rape, in particular in the early occupation of Baden and Württemberg, provided the numbers are correct. [69]


It has been frequently repeated that the wartime rapes were surrounded by decades of silence [1] [3] [4] 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. [70]

In post-war Germany, especially in West Germany, the wartime rape stories became an essential part of political discourse [7] 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. [7] 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. [12]

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