Liberation and Rape

A perspective on abuses in WWII times

On 15th February, 1945, a group of Soviet soldiers barged into a hospital in Chojnice, a small town in northern Poland, liberated only the day before. The hospital had been emptied of sick and wounded a few days before, but there were about a dozen women – a group of Catholic nuns and three young women, who had been helping to run the facility. The soldiers started grabbing the younger girls and herding them into the cellar. One of the nuns, 51-year old Adeglund Tuminska, run after the group into the cellar to confront the soldiers. In the resulting confusion, all the young girls managed to escape with the nuns. Sister Tuminska, however, was not among them. The next day, when frightened locals dared to enter the hospital’s cellar, they found her body strewn on the floor. She was gang-raped and brutally murdered. A small piece of her habit, which has been preserved by her congregation, shows five holes made with bayonets. She was one of many Polish women to be raped by troops of the Red Army, supposedly liberating their country from German occupation.

Establishing exactly how many women were raped during the liberation is next to impossible. In most cultures rape has been traditionally considered shameful – for the victim. Hence thousands of rape victims chose to stay silent about their tragic experience. This situation has been even more pronounced in countries under communist rule, where the Soviet Union and Soviet Army had been sacrosanct; no negative information about the behaviour of Soviet troops could pass through the net of official censorship or political police. The truth about the events 1944 and 1945 lived on, however, in the memories of the victims and their relatives. Only after the peaceful revolution of 1989 could the matter be discussed across the formerly communist countries. Numerous recollections have been gathered, often lacking precision or personal details. After over 40 years ascertaining the scale of Soviet rapes in Poland or other post-communist countries is next to impossible.

Soviet soldiers harass a German woman. Leipzig 1945.

However, traditional negativity towards rape victims could freeze any debate on the topic as effective as lack of freedom of speech. Arguably the most famous and one of the earliest records of rapes of German women by Soviet soldiers, written by Marta Hillers, was published anonymously, first in the United States in 1954. Only five years later did the first German edition appear; the author was accused of undermining the honour of German women. In her description, many German women, lacking any means of obtaining food and in constant danger of gang-rape, would choose to sleep with one – more or less chosen – Soviet soldier in return for food and protection from his comrades. This survival strategy was traditionally heavily criticised afterwards by those unaffected; due to the existing and expected criticism, the author never revealed her name publically, although in some literary circles her authorship was known. It only became known after her death in 2003, two years after she had passed away, when one of the journalists who knew her secret broke it to the public.

Soviet troops capturing German territory were notorious for rape. In the confused situation of defeat, the fleeing masses of German population, and resulting death and fear, numerous instances will forever remain unrecorded and forgotten. The scale of atrocities was also magnified by Nazi propaganda, naturally interested in denigrating their Soviet enemy and inspire the resistance of the beleaguered Wehrmacht. After the war, like in Poland and the rest of the Soviet bloc, discussion of this topic in East Germany was impossible. The issue remains controversial even today, years after Soviet bloc has fallen. British author Antony Beevor, who in his ‘Berlin: The Downfall 1945’ published in 2002 elaborated on this tragic matter, has met with vehement criticism by Russian authorities and some historians. At least in one Russian province his book was withdrawn from libraries. Russian critics claim that describing Soviet atrocities is either repetition of wartime Nazi propaganda, or blemishing the sacrifice of heroic Red Army which had saved the world from Nazism. Hence this delicate and difficult issue remains in the realm of uncertainty. It is estimated that about 200,000 German women were raped by the Soviets in Berlin alone; over 100,000 in Vienna, and hundreds of thousands across Germany.

Various Western armies were not blameless in this respect, either, although. Rape was also committed by soldiers under command of the Western allies although on a much smaller scale than in the east. This of course does not diminish the horrific nature of these crimes. For the most part rapes remained singular occurrences, not mass rampages. The most notorious example of Western Allied troops who conducted mass rape were the irregular Moroccan troops attached to the French Expedition Corps in Italy, during the Cassino campaign. These ‘Goumiers’, recruited from North Africa, proved to be ferocious in battle and singularly well prepared to fight in the rugged terrain of the Apennines. It were the goumiers who, having broken through German defences in the Aurunci Mountains, penetrated deep into the German flank, eventually forcing the Germans to withdraw from Cassino. Nevertheless, the some of the goumiers treated civilians as spoils of war. In many Italian villages and towns they passed, hundreds of women were raped. French officers proved unable to control them. Like in Germany, memory of these atrocities remained controversial, and exact number of victims remains unknown.

In case of American, British of French troops, the largest contingents to enter Germany and Italy, the rapes were seldom perpetrated by whole formations, being the deeds of individual troops or, at most, small units. There are only vague estimates of the total number of victims, ranging from a small number to about 200,000. Although freedom of speech returned to the countries liberated by the Western troops, discussing the crimes committed by the liberators remained controversial. We will never know the true extent of rape by the liberating or conquering troops. We may safely say that in case of the Western Armies, atrocities toward the civilians were much more common when their units entered the land of the enemy – Germany and Italy – while the female populations of France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg were much safer. Brutal treatment of women in these countries affected mostly those who had romantic or purely sexual relationships with German soldiers, which was perceived as treason.

Rapes during liberation remain one of the most sensitive, personal, and difficult topics connected to the final stage of the war, which remains the focus of Liberation Route Europe. The multi-perspective approach, the hallmark of LRE, in this respect forces anyone wishing to comment on the liberation responsibly to bear in mind that war corrupts everyone involved, even those who were sent to fight to liberate others.

It is also important to consider the lasting consequences of rapes on the societies. While it is difficult to determine the number of rape victims, it is even more difficult to ascertain how many women were permanently injured, how many children were conceived, how many aborted, how many born and yet scorned by their mothers, and how many marriages and relationships had been affected beyond repair by this trauma.

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