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The Memory of Violence: Soviet and East European Mennonite Refugees and Rape in the Second World War Marlene Epp Although contemporary studies of sexual violence against women are becoming more prevalent, until recently, historians have given sUght treatment to the topic of rape. Even less examined is the issue of wartime rape, although media exposés of widespread rape in the Bosnian conflict have similarly heightened contemporary awareness of rape as an integral part of müitary conflict, both as random incident and systematic strategy. Susan Brownmiller's groundbreaking study of rape, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape in 1975 provided an introductory analysis to rape as a "common act of war."1 While the media focus on Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s may leave the impression that wartime rape is a recent phenomenon, Brownmiller's brief survey of the history demonstrates the large scale raping of women which occurred during conflicts in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and both world wars. This paper focuses on wartime rape as remembered by Mermonite refugees who experienced the Soviet advance into Eastern Europe in the latter months and aftermath of the Second World War.2 Mennonite Refugees in Germany The Mennonites, a culturally German, ethnoreUgious group with ancestral origins in the Netherlands and Prussia, represented almost 10 percent of close to one and one-half milUon ethnic Germans tiving in the Soviet Union at the outset of World War Π.3 Most Mennonites lived in the part of Ukraine under German occupation from August 1941 through September 1943. By the time the German army arrived, the Mennonite population of Ukraine had been altered dramatically due to Communist authorities' forced deportation of thousands of German-speaking colonists to labor camps in the east and north of the country. Stalin's government perceived that the Mennonites (along with other .reUgious and cultural minorities) were untrustworthy and a potential threat to the state, which led to the arrest and disappearance of much of the adult male population throughout the 1930s, climaxing in the purges of 1937-38. This, foUowed by the evacuation eastward of numerous youth and men and later entire viUages in the summer of 1941, left an unusuaUy unbalanced ratio of women to men. In most Mennonite viUages, about 50 percent of © 1997 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 9 No. ι (Spring) 1997 Marlene Εϕ ϕ 59 households were without a father and in some villages there was only a handful of men between the ages of 16 and 60. Approximately 35,000 Mennonites—mostly women and children— left their homes in Ukraine in the fall of 1943 and traveUed west with the retreating German forces. Their first destination for resettlement was in the Warthegau region of Poland, annexed by Germany at the outset of the war. During the last 2 years of the war, Soviet Mennonites were scattered across Germany and its occupied territories; some remained near the eastern front, others trekked further west and north, and stiU others were sent to Austria and Yugoslavia. By war's end, the Mennonite refugee population included Mennonites displaced from their homes in Poland, Prussia, and the Free City of Danzig; in 1939 the Mennonite population in these areas had numbered approximately 11,000. In the half-decade following the war, approximately 12,000 Mennonites immigrated to Canada and South America as displaced persons.4 As an ethnoreUgious minority, Mennonite refugees represented a very small proportion of the civilian population displaced from their homes during the course of the war. Mennonites had distinct religious beUefs and doctrines that included pacifism, adult baptism, and separation between church and state, as weU as cultural patterns and institutions that had traditionally set them apart in varying degrees from the surrounding society. Yet Mennonites from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe also identified themselves very strongly as Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans). Indeed, given the official repression of reUgious practice in the Soviet Union beginning in the late 1920s, many Mennonites, particularly of the generation that grew up in the 1930s, thought of themselves as German first and Mennonite second. Few fuUy knew what being a Mennonite meant. Thus, the Mennonites tiving in Ukraine welcomed the German occupation forces, hoped that Germany would win the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 58-87
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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