Rape and War, Gender and Nation, Victims and Victimizers: Helke Sander's BeFreier und Befreite
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Camera Obscura 16.1 (2001) 99-141



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Rape and War, Gender and Nation, Victims and Victimizers:
Helke Sander's BeFreier und Befreite

Richard W. McCormick

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I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say that the fear of death I endured in the process of being raped was even worse than the rape itself. . . . The rapes inflicted harm that can never be made good, in a human and in a political sense. . . . Other things too played a role, but through this experience relationships became impossible for me, I think. Already at an early age I came to embrace a certain view of the world, namely, that never again should there be war, but instead respect for the life of all human beings regardless of race, tolerance for those of different beliefs, consistent rejection of nationalist and fascist ideologies, the dignity of all people and equality for women. This belief system, which stems originally from those times, I personally consider to be a positive result. Even today, at 67 years of age, I'll still go out into the streets to demonstrate for this, if it must be.

It's hard for me to understand why no one until today has dealt with this topic, as if absolutely nothing had happened to women. . . . What I experienced personally injured my dignity as a woman deeply, also. But hasn't the silence for decades, the indifference and lack of interest in the fate of these women on [End Page 99] the part of significant social and political groups taken away a piece of our dignity for the second time?

--Ingeburg Menz

Introduction to a Controversy

The statement above was made by Ingeburg Menz, a German woman raped at the end of World War II, when the Allied Forces swept through Germany. 1 Menz's remarks were solicited by the director Helke Sander in the course of making the film BeFreier und Befreite (Germany 1992; the title was translated into English as Liberators Take Liberties). 2 Sander's documentary examines the mass rapes of German women by Soviet soldiers as they marched toward and conquered Berlin in 1945, and it contextualizes these events with information about rapes by the German army as well as the armies of the other Allies against Hitler.

Sander's film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February 1992; it won the Nestor Almendros Prize at the 1993 Human Rights Festival in New York. 3 Initially the film was a critical and popular success. There had been few negative reviews until German film scholar Gertrud Koch published her critique in the Frankfurter Rundschau in November 1992. 4 Koch was the first of a number of prominent scholars who questioned whether the film itself was as progressive as the views voiced by Menz. 5 Indeed, many of the film's detractors implied that the film risked uncomfortable proximity to revisionist ideas about German history and the Holocaust that right-wing West German historians had expounded during the famous Historikerstreit (historians' debate) of the 1980s.

I witnessed the controversy over the film in one of its early stages on this side of the Atlantic. During the annual conference of Women in German in the autumn of 1992, a brief but heated debate arose concerning Sander's film. No one arguing about the film at the conference had actually seen it yet, and at that point I had not either, so I did not join the debate. The film had been mentioned in the midst of a somewhat tense discussion of racism, or at least of insensitivity to racism and xenophobia, on the part [End Page 100] of German feminists. Sander's film was cited as an example of this type of insensitivity, as a film that portrayed German women yet again as victims--precisely at a historical moment when the most troubling victimization occurring in Germany was xenophobic violence against minorities. Related to this issue, of course, was a long-standing concern about depicting Germans as victims of World War II, since such...