- Making Sense of a Rape Photograph: Sexual Violence as Social Performance on the Eastern Front, 1939–1944
This article begins with A disturbing image that has a no-less-unsettling provenance. It shows a group of fifteen young German soldiers standing in a semicircle, carousing and laughing as one of their comrades emulates a sex act with an unidentified woman who may or may not be dead. The laughter of his comrades suggests approval for the actions of the man on the ground. Although it is not clear if the photograph depicts an act of actual rape, its aftermath, or mere mimicry, what is certain is that the depicted scene ascribes the woman only one function: she is an object of amusement that mediates coercion and asymmetric power relations.1
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It is very possible that this picture was taken before or after the soldiers raped the woman. However, irrespective of whether any penetration actually occurred, the men imitated a rape scene showcasing the woman’s body as a sexualized object of ridicule and [End Page 489] subjugation. Sexual subordination cannot be defined solely in terms of physical assault; it is also (or even largely) carried out through seemingly more pedestrian social practices such as rape talk or rape gestures.2 The casualness with which the photograph(er) puts oppressive misogyny and sexism on display is disturbing. What makes the scene even more offensive to contemporary viewers is that we find ourselves drawn into the logic of the male harassers and the comedic antics. Why are these men laughing? More precisely, what is so funny about this rape scene, whether real or imagined? Precisely because nothing is obvious about this picture, the explicit—and elusive—image raises fundamental epistemological questions: What does the photograph communicate to the viewer? What remains silent and unseen? How can one grasp the overarching cultural, social, and political meanings of this image? And finally, what does it tell us about the connections between gender, sexuality, and war?
Romanian historian Adrian Cioflanca discovered this photo in the National Archives of Romania, and it carried no caption or indication of the specific context in which it was taken.3 The photograph is part of a larger corpus of sixty reprinted—not original—photographs. They are named after their collector, Karoly Francisc-Iosif, who, it appears, was a member of the Tudor Vladimirescu Division, which was formed in the summer of 1944 after the Soviet invasion of Romania and which fought alongside the Red Army.4 During the final stages of World War II, Francisc-Iosif traveled widely across Eastern Europe, which gave him the unique opportunity to gather photographic evidence of German crimes. However, he is unlikely to have been the photographer, because his collection constitutes a very eclectic mix of atrocity images. Certain photographs seem to have been taken with the clear purpose of documenting mass crimes, such as images of crematoria, concentration camp inmates, and boxes of Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide used in the gas chambers. These bear an odd resemblance to the photos taken by the Red Army at the liberation of the Majdanek and Auschwitz camps. Yet other photographs have a more private, voyeuristic perspective, depicting public executions, mass graves, and images taken from the perspective of the German occupiers, like the rape scenario [End Page 490] I have described.5 It is thus very likely that Francisc-Iosif seized some of these private photographs from German soldiers who had been captured by the Red Army. It is also possible that he simply found them among the objects left behind during the Wehrmacht’s hasty retreat.
The Eastern European style of the rustic wooden house looming in the background suggests that the photograph was taken in the countryside or in a rural town somewhere in the Nazi-occupied Eastern territories.6 The image’s chronological provenance could lie anywhere between the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, now considered the prelude to the war of extermination, and the Red Army’s westward push in the summer...