- Crimes Unspoken: The Rape of German Women at the End of the Second World War by Miriam Gebhardt
Beginning in the 1990s, global women’s human rights mobilizations have helped redefine wartime rape as a crime against humanity and of genocide and turned women’s vulnerability to sexual violence in war and peacetime into a matter of grave, if not contested, international concern. These movements in transnational and national venues provide support for a public airing of long repressed and silenced memories and also a context for accountability and even financial compensation. Demonstrating the intricate connections between past and present, this new milieu has emboldened scholars to challenge and reshape long-held historical narratives. The human rights culture of protection might be challenged in today’s climate of wars and terrorism; however, it has profoundly impacted the work of historians and memoirists.
Miriam Gebhardt is a German journalist and historian who situates her popular, rather than strictly academic, study in the context of German national history. It is purposefully directed at German audiences, addressing the complex ways that the German public has sought to come to grips with the past—although in Gebhardt’s case, not the Nazi past. Rather, she raises questions about how Germany’s gender culture, despite change over time, contributed to silencing a full accounting of the rape of German women by the invading and occupying armies of the victorious allies—East and [End Page 997] West. What are, she asks, the “distorted representation[s]” that have “kept us in ignorance.”1
Hers is as much a study of sources and historiography specific to the German case as it is an effort to piece together the facts, figures, and contexts of the rape of German women and, to a lesser extent, of men at the war’s immediate end and subsequent decade. If her purview is national history, this study also can be placed in a transnational context, making it of interest to readers of this human rights journal. She is cognizant of the changing definitions of rape over the timeframe of her study, although surprisingly loath to engage creatively with contemporary notions affecting historical interpretation. Offering extracts from police reports in immediate postwar Berlin,2 she wonders “what it would look like if we applied today’s standards for sexual aggression?”3
Gebhardt is driven by a complex agenda to right historical wrongs after roughly seventy years. “My aim,” she says in no uncertain terms, “is to cast new light on this difficult subject and to untangle the half-truths and traditional prejudices”4 that have hidden the extensive rape culture that goes well beyond the hitherto documented and debated aggressions of the invading Russian army. Thus, she draws considerable attention to what has been overlooked in the literature: the actions of Western liberators—the Americans, British, and French—who “followed precisely the same script of plunder and rape” as the Russians.5 Her case studies and evidence, then, come not only from Berlin, but are drawn from women’s vulnerabilities throughout southern and western Germany as well. She also is concerned with the historiographical and present-day difficulty of Germans to claim their experiences as victims without somehow relativizing German responsibility for Nazi and Wehrmacht crimes. Her work carefully unpacks this historiographical minefield.
Gebhardt’s attention to sources and historiographical debates makes the book particularly compelling for readers already well versed in postwar German history and historiography. But it also finds its counterpart in the highly acclaimed although controversial recent publication by Mary Louise Roberts, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France, which Gebhardt cites.6 Roberts addresses the centrality of sex in the American campaign to liberate France during the final allied push east against the Nazis, a perspective which angered many in the American reading public holding on to the notion of the Second World War as the country’s “good war.” From this and other sources, Gebhardt raises an...