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Canadian soldiers display a Nazi flag removed from a building in Xanten, Germany as the Second World War was coming to an end in 1945. Recent research has revealed thousands of German women were raped by Allied forces after fighting stopped in Europe. (CP PHOTO/National Archives of Canada/K. Bell )

As we remember VE Day, remember too the German women who were raped

The Second World War in Europe ended when Nazi Germany signed an unconditional surrender on May 7, 1945. As the Allies gained control over the Western and Eastern Fronts in 1944 and 1945, German soldiers were not the only casualties.

Recent historical research has revealed German women and girls were also targets, subjected en masse to a wide range of sexual violence allegedly committed by American, Canadian, British, French and Soviet soldiers.

By the spring of 1945, Nazi Germany was crumbling and the Soviets were racing toward Berlin. The Red Army swept across the Eastern Front, first taking Poland, then East Prussia, Austria and Czechoslovakia. While sexual violence against German civilians was committed by all Allied powers, the Soviet rapes are considered the most prevalent and severe.

The exact number of rapes is unknown, with estimates ranging from tens of thousands to millions. It is clear, however, that this violence was driven in no small part by a desire to exact revenge on the Germans for atrocities committed in the East, including mass sexual violence perpetrated against “non-Aryan” women.

Remembering Soviet atrocities

Over the last decade, with only the last survivors still living, there has been a surge of interest within German society in stories of the Soviet rapes. The film Eine Frau in Berlin (“A Woman in Berlin”), released in 2008 and nominated for a German National Film Prize, dramatically represented one journalist’s anonymous diary of her experiences during the fall of Berlin. Another woman, Gabriele Köpp, published the first non-anonymous account of the rapes in 2010.

The women and girls who were subjected to Soviet sexual violence suffered intensely. Many endured multiple violations or found themselves impregnated by their assailants.

However, wartime sex between soldiers and enemy civilian women occurs within a complex sexual economy. During the Second World War, it was common for both German women and women living in German occupied zones to enter into negotiated relationships of exchange, wherein sex was traded for protection and provision.

Consent in a ‘coercive environment’

The international law that deals with wartime atrocity, however, rejects the ambivalence of these kinds of interactions. When it adjudicates the war crimes of rape and sexual violence, the International Criminal Court considers a woman’s actual consent to sexual activity irrelevant when that consent is obtained by a male soldier taking advantage of a “coercive environment.”

This approach makes virtually all wartime sex between civilians and enemy soldiers criminal, regardless of whether the women involved saw it that way. The reality is that women engage in strategic bargaining under wartime conditions, often using their sexuality as a lever of power. Many of these women regard their exchange of sex for survival as a choice; a constrained one, to be sure, but nevertheless a meaningful choice.

Social memory of sexual violence always has a politics. German society’s recent remembrance of the 1945 rapes, much like the structure of the #MeToo movement that came later, emphasizes women’s victimhood over their sexual agency. In both instances, women are encouraged to think of ambiguous sexual encounters primarily through the lens of victimization and trauma.

An open secret

German women’s experiences of the 1945 rapes, we are told, were silenced for nearly 70 years. Knowledge and discussion of these events were a kind of open secret, especially within the former East Germany, where the regime depended on portraying the Soviets as liberators from Hitlerite fascism.

The question of how we should make sense of Allied sexual violence perpetrated against German women must be considered within the broader context of political struggles over wartime cultural memory. Feminist mobilization around the rapes, led in part by the activist and filmmaker Helke Sander, began in the 1990s and was explicitly structured around the idea of silence-breaking for the purpose of combating a patriarchy premised on women’s sexual subjugation.

But the “remembering” of these rapes has been accompanied by another set of wartime memories.

Revelations of Wehrmacht atrocities, along with the realization that many ordinary soldiers knew about the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe, belied the myth that the regular German military had been insulated from the worst Nazi crimes.

As Germany was forced to reckon with the grim reality of the criminal complicity of ordinary soldiers and civilians alike for the horrors of the Second World War, there was a backlash from neo-Nazi and more moderate right-wing groups.

A matter of public interest

This generated a cultural discussion about wartime German victimhood. No longer limited to the sphere of feminist activism, discussion of the 1945 rapes became a matter of public interest.

But any movement that focuses on German suffering during the Second World War is a fraught enterprise, to say the least. Feminist projects that seek to unearth stories of sexual harassment, assault and other forms of misconduct can easily appeal to right-wing political groups with regressive policy agendas.

German children displaying surrender flag in Sogel, Germany, on April 10, 1945. (CP PHOTO/ National Archives of Canada/Alexander Mackenzie Stirton )

Key to the German victimhood debate was a series of memory projects related to the forced mass population transfer effected by the Allies at the end of the war.

Millions of Germans — most of them women and children —who had been living in East Prussia, the Sudetenland, and areas of what are now Poland and Russia, fled the Red Army during the last months of the war. (All of those areas used to have large ethnic German populations — the German Reich at the beginning of the war was much larger than Germany today.) After the war, those who remained were expelled into what is present-day Germany, and those who had already left were forbidden from returning to their homes in the East.

Flight and expulsion

Today, Germans often remember these events together as the Flucht und Vertreibung (“flight and expulsion”). According to many, including some women survivors that I interviewed for a research project, this Allied-sponsored event is one of the great unrecognized crimes of the war.

Many of the 1945 rapes were committed while women and girls fled westward. During the 2012 Berlin Biennale, there was even an art exhibit devoted to artifacts of the Flucht, including the diary of a sexual violence survivor.

Legal and cultural claims related to the rights of the Vertriebene (“expellees”) have historically been made on behalf of far-right constituencies. In 2006, a group of German “refugees,” calling themselves the Prussian Trust, filed a controversial suit with the European Court of Human Rights, asking for compensation from Poland for property lost as a result of the expulsion.

And after much political wrangling, AfD-aligned politician Erika Steinbach succeeded in establishing the federally funded Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation Foundation in Berlin, which is mandated to research, document and memorialize the expulsion.

In German politics, the Flucht is often a dog whistle for right-wing nationalism. The German right has used the 1945 rapes to build a narrative of sexual victimhood to gain support. Regarding all wartime sex as rape, regardless of the circumstances, makes it more likely the issue will be exploited by dangerous forces.

Countless German women and girls suffered deeply during the last months of the Second World War. While their suffering was often caused by sexual violence, it was also brought about by hunger, disease and exposure to the elements: In other words, the simple material conditions of a country on the brink of losing a war.

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