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Past & Present 188 (2005) 133-161

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Remembering Rape:

Divided Social Memory and the Red Army in Hungary 1944–1945*

University of Exeter

During the Soviet occupation of Budapest at the end of the Second World War, it is estimated that around fifty thousand women in Budapest were raped by soldiers from the Red Army.1 After Berlin, the women of Budapest suffered in greater numbers than those of any other Central or Eastern European capital. This was partly because it was defended, was subjected to a drawn-out siege, and the civilian population was not evacuated. Moreover, Hungary's alliance with the Axis powers meant that the besieging Soviet army saw Budapest as enemy territory and its women as more legitimate targets than those in regions perceived to be sympathetic to the Allied cause.2 During these months, for the majority of the inhabitants of the city, rape was a common occurrence that might be suffered by family, friends, acquaintances or neighbours. [End Page 133]

Modern Western representations of the Red Army have been dominated by stories about brutal rapists. Populist historical accounts of the behaviour of the Red Army in Central Europe, such as Antony Beevor's Berlin: The Downfall, 1945, have presented Soviet troops as drunken, out of control and sexually repressed. The principal interaction they are seen to have had with local populations is one of brutal, indiscriminate violence.3 Feminist scholarship on rape, which has enlarged our understanding of the role of sexual violence in war, has also contributed to this type of representation.4 Since the collapse of Communism, stories about the cruelty of the Red Army have become widespread in public discourse in Hungary too.

Yet rape has not always played a central role in histories of the Red Army's behaviour in Eastern Europe. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, faced with their own soldiers' fraternization, use of prostitutes and rape, the Allied powers did not draw attention to Red Army atrocities.5 Rather, accounts of mass rape available in the West were first published by Eastern European leaders who had been forced into exile because of their opposition to Communism.6 Within the Soviet Union, perpetrators of the atrocities defended their actions. Boris Slutsky, the Russian poet who travelled with the Red Army through Eastern Europe, suggested in his memoir Things [End Page 134] That Happened that Hungarian women had enjoyed being raped:

Hungarian women loved the Russians in their turn, and along with the dark fear that parted the knees of matrons and mothers of families, there was also the affectionate nature of young women and the desperate tenderness of the women soldiers, who gave themselves to the men who had killed their husbands.7

Despite the demise of the Soviet Union, ex-Soviet citizens' persisting pride in the Red Army for defeating Fascism has meant that such war crimes have continued to be denied. One documentary film-maker found that many ex-Red Army soldiers still refused to accept that rapes had occurred at all, admitted only to consensual sexual relations or claimed that Eastern European women deliberately used sex to spread diseases in order to weaken the fighting capabilities of the Red Army.8

This article focuses on the particularly striking finding that within the Hungarian civilian population that experienced Red Army occupation both types of story were told; denials that rape occurred have existed alongside descriptions of the brutal behaviour of Soviet soldiers. Accounts taken from the Fascist period, from the Soviet occupation itself and from the Communist and post-Communist periods are used to explore the diverse range of experiences of, and meanings attached to, mass rape committed by the Soviets in Hungary. It analyses how the issue of rape became politicized in 1944 itself, and in remaining so, has forged deeply divided interpretations of what occurred amongst different groups within the Hungarian population. It examines how the experience of three different political systems — Fascist, Communist and post-Communist — has shaped the ways in which Hungarians have interpreted...


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