- Crimes Unspoken: The Rape of German Women at the End of the Second World War by Miriam Gebhardt
Anna K. was twelve years old in April 1945 when she was raped by a group of Soviet soldiers in her East Prussian town. In the coming months, she survived the typhoid fever she caught while being forced to bury corpses, but she also endured the deaths of her mother, father, and four younger siblings. With no family remaining, Anna disguised herself as a boy and sought work in local households. Because she kept running away from her employers, Anna was reported to the authorities, diagnosed as a “sexual degenerate,” and placed in a reformatory school. There she wrote that she was forced to write a self-examination of her life’s experiences, all endured before the age of thirteen.
This story of a German girl raised in the Third Reich reminds us of the complicated intersections of victimhood, complicity, gender, sexuality, and violence at the end of the Second World War. It is one example of why the English translation of Miriam Gebhardt’s Als die Soldaten kamen: Die Vergewaltigung deutscher Frauen am Ende des Zweiten Weltkriegs (2015) is an important addition to the scholarship on Central Europe in the 1940s and 1950s. Gebhardt explores the experiences of the 860,000 Germans, mainly women and girls but including men and boys, who were raped by Allied soldiers during the final weeks of war and the ensuing military occupation. She provides a new analysis of attacks by Soviet soldiers, and she joins Mary Louise Roberts and others in drawing attention to crimes committed by American, French, British, and Belgian men.1 Indeed, Gebhardt asserts that some 190,000 rapes were committed by members of Western militaries, complicating the Cold War stereotype that “the Russians raped, the Americans distributed candy” (11). Though the large number of victims seems to imply a coordinated use of sexual violence as a military tactic, Gebhardt asserts that no one has yet produced evidence of this.
Gebhardt writes that she was motivated to correct an inaccurate historical record because “the lens through which we look at this time is in urgent [End Page 487] need of cleaning” (1). She is implying, in other words, that feminist scholarship too often considers sexual violence as an unfortunate but “natural” by-product of war. Instead of focusing on the inevitability of the attacks, Gebhardt examines the motivations of male perpetrators from several perspectives: psychological group dynamics, peer pressure in military settings, and the use of sexual aggression to mask male fear and vulnerability. She describes prejudices about the sexual availability of German women and the Allied desire for revenge on the families of Nazi criminals. One soldier wrote, “We will exact our judgement over these dregs of humanity” (71), while another laid bare his desire to punish the “mothers, wives, and sisters of executioners” (73). Gebhardt even problematically suggests that African American soldiers may have sought sexual relations with white women because they were denied them at home.
More compelling is her focus on the female targets of these attacks, though some readers will question whether the women of the Third Reich were “defenseless victims without rights” (84). It is clear that rape victims were denigrated by medical professionals, shamed by religious leaders, gossiped about by their neighbors, and targeted by social welfare workers, as in the case of Anna K. They were largely left out of appeals for financial compensation, and they were certainly ignored in public commemoration. Unsurprisingly, mass sexual violence left long-reaching effects on individuals, families, and communities. In the final chapter, which is the book’s most innovative, Gebhardt rejects previous scholarship that maintained that women were able to use the idea of mass trauma as a coping mechanism. She instead asserts that many rape victims suffered posttraumatic stress disorder, though this was a rare diagnosis in the 1940s and 1950s. That rape victims had little...