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  • Reframing Sexual Violence as a Weapon and Strategy of War: The Case of the German Wehrmacht during the War and Genocide in the Soviet Union, 1941–1944
  • Regina Mühlhäuser (bio)

When I presented my research on sexual practices, including sexual violence, by German soldiers during the war of annihilation at a public event in the spring of 2009, a man in the audience—who, as I later learned, had survived the Holocaust as a child—asked me if the Nazis had implemented rape as a strategy. I answered cautiously that the evidence suggested that the perpetration of this form of violence was pervasive during all stages of the war and the genocide in the Soviet Union, but I was not sure if the term “strategy” could be applied. He was clearly disappointed.

Since then, the question of whether sexual violence was used as a strategy, tactic, or weapon in the German warfare and the genocidal campaign against the Jews in the Soviet Union has been posed to me many times. My replies have changed over the years, and they have sometimes led to fierce and emotional debates. Ultimately, I realized, my answer depends on what we mean by strategy, tactic, or weapon. Drawing on the empirical case of the German Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union, I would thus like to discuss in which ways military actors on different levels of command were aware that their men perpetrated sexual violence and how they made use of this knowledge in light of military objectives, political aims, and operational needs. In the process I want to contribute to recent efforts to develop a more differentiated understanding of the ways in which sexual violence can become a military weapon or a strategy.1 [End Page 366]

To begin with, it seems helpful to throw some light on different usages of “sexual violence as a weapon or strategy of war”—a terminology that originated in feminist thought in the 1970s and that has been used in different ways since it was introduced into the realm of global politics and international law. Second, I will introduce Michel de Certeau’s argument that strategy is the art of powerful subjects, while tactics are the techniques of nonpowerful subjects, suggesting that we can make use of his insights in order to explore how sexual violence becomes part of military conduct. Arguing that it is crucial to specifically focus on an analysis of the complex relationship between strategic calculations by an army command and tactical actions by the soldiers in the field, I will then rely on an evaluation of the actions of the German military (the Wehrmacht) and the SS (Schutzstaffel, Nazi Elite Guard) to substantiate my argument. I will demonstrate that— regardless of the motives of the individual soldiers—the German Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, OKW) and the Supreme High Command of the German Army (Oberkommando des Heeres, OKH) did anticipate sexual violence by their men from the beginning of the war against the Soviet Union; they made (explicit and implicit) assumptions about its effects and consequences and utilized this knowledge for their own strategic goals. To conclude, I will argue that it is crucial to grasp the various ways that military commanders exploit the ground soldier’s behavior in order to explore how sexual violence becomes a weapon of war—during the battles on the Eastern Front as well as in other theaters of armed conflict.

The Origins of “Rape as a Weapon of War

It is actually far from clear what rape is. While some scholars claim that it is a sexual act with a violent manifestation, others argue the reverse—that it is an act of violence with a sexual manifestation. Gaby Zipfel has pointed out that current research and debate tends to focus on theorizing how violence is entangled with gendered power relations, whereas the question of how bodily practices of violence intersect with sexuality, sexual affects, and meanings has barely been tackled.2 The relationship between violence, sexuality, and gender is further complicated when taking into account other forms of sexual violence than penile rape, from enforced nakedness, sexual...


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pp. 366-401
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