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The Red Army rapes

ArmataRosie
©commons.wikimedia.org  |   Steagul sovietic e arborat pe clădirea Reichstag-ului, Berlin, 2 mai 1945.

Lately, the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Bucharest has repeatedly drawn attention to a sensitive topic: the rapes committed by the Red Army soldiers among the civilian population during the offensive against Nazi Germany in 1944-1945 and in the immediate aftermath of the war. The embassy has tried to suggest that the figures "circulating on the net" in relation to this matter are "inflated". However, some of these figures are based on studies by important historians, such as the American Norman Naimark, who wrote that although it was not given a central place in the works on the war and the postwar period, rape was "an issue mentioned everywhere in the archives and documents of the time”. This creates a discrepancy between the Western estimates, according to which there were hundreds of thousands of rape victims, and the Russian ones, where figures are in the order of tens. But let’s see the arguments of each side of the dispute.

Russia’s official stand: several cases, punished by the then authorities

When it comes to the honor of the Red Army, the embassy of the Russian Federation in Romania takes Facebook by storm. And this has happened more than once.  In late 2018, in a post on social media, the embassy denounced what it called "the existence in Romania of a campaign of denigration against the Red Army", by means of which the Soviet soldiers were presented as "a gang of robbers and rapists”. Presented in such a light, the embassy argued, the soldiers of the Red Army could no longer be seen in their main roles, namely that of "liberators of Romania". "Who benefits from the poisonous oil of lies spilled on the fire of Russophobia, infiltrated in the public consciousness of the Romanian people, many years after the end of hostilities in Europe? Is this because of the coming 75th anniversary of the liberation of Romania by the Red Army?", the Russian diplomats were wondering then.

The embassy reverted to the issue on August 13, 2019, with a post on its Facebook page, titled "The myth of the two million raped German women finally debunked." The embassy admits that during the advance to Berlin, "Red Army soldiers did commit war crimes", but claims that their magnitude was exaggerated in the West, and the perpetrators of those reprehensible acts "were held accountable".

The embassy wrote that the version of the two million rapes committed in Germany by Red Army soldiers was circulating "on the net", without specifying the timeframe in which they allegedly took place. The indicated source is the British historian Antony Beevor, author of several works on the Second World War. The embassy writes that Antony Beevor started from a document from a clinic in Berlin where 32 children "of Russian fathers" were born in 1945 and 1946.  From there, "extrapolating, assuming and estimating" - and the embassy explains in detail the whole process attributed to the British historian - Beevor would have reached two million rapes throughout Germany. "Interesting calculations!", the post reads! "[Beevor] turned 32 newborn children into two million raped German women. But here's the bummer: even in the document he cites, the phrase 'Russian / rape' appears only in five cases out of 12, and in four cases out of 20, respectively.  The myth is based on nine raped Germans!”, the message of the embassy reads. This "debunking of the myth" is attributed, at the end of the post, to one Feodor Shcepetov, about whom the embassy does not provide any other information.

The embassy does not say what is the number of rapes estimated by historians that Moscow would agree with. The only reference in this regard is that "according to the report submitted by the prosecutor of the 1st Belarussian Front, from April 22 to May 5, 1945, 72 cases of rape were registered." The 1st Belarusian Front, along with the 1st Ukrainian Front, were the two Soviet forces that led the battle of Berlin, and the timeframe mentioned recorded a peak of abuses by the Red Army, including over May 2nd to 7th, the week of maximum anarchy in Berlin, between Hitler's suicide ( April 29/30) and the capitulation of May 8.However, there is a lot of information showing that the Soviet prosecutor's report is just the tip of the iceberg.

What historical documents say. The 200 “Russian children” born in Germany.

The British historian Tony Judt, in his monumental work Postwar. A History of Europe Since 1945, wrote that in Vienna, three weeks after the Red Army entered the city, doctors reported about 87,000 cases of rape. According to Judt, "[a] slightly larger number of women in Berlin were raped during the Soviet advance into the city, most of them between May 2 and 7," and adding to this were the "countless cases of aggression against women in the villages and cities on the route of the Soviet forces marching into or toward Germany, through Austria and western Poland.” In total, in the area of ​​Soviet occupation in Germany, claims Judt, "between 150,000 and 200,000 'Russian children'" were born in 1945 and 1946, "not to mention the countless abortions" or rape cases that did not result in pregnancies. Judt does not say exactly how many of these ‘Russian children’ were conceived as a result of rape, although it is presumed that it’s the vast majority.

Another historian wrote that "in its wild form, free from any official restrictions, the rape of German women continued throughout the summer of 1945." In his book 1945. Year Zero, the Dutchman Ian Buruma added that since the fall of 1945, Soviet military and civilian officials tried to curb the phenomenon, but that "the risk of a woman being raped by a Soviet soldier did not disappear until 1947, when the troops were confined to base”. Ian Buruma also noted that rapes had been reported in western Germany as well. "In Stuttgart, for example, 3,000 women were raped by French soldiers, many of them from Algeria. In the area occupied by the Americans, by far the largest, the number of rapes recorded by American troops throughout 1945 did not exceed 1,500.” But the only region where rape was "a disaster for the population," he wrote, was the area occupied by the Red Army.But the historian who dealt specifically with the topic was the American Norman Naimark. His book The Russians In Germany: The History of The Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945–1949, Harvard, 1995, has remained a work of reference in the field. Naimark studied the phenomenon of rapes committed by Red Army soldiers in Germany, but also in other Eastern European countries. To this end, between 1987 and 1989, Naimark reached as far as the archives of East Berlin and Moscow, which were apparently more accessible in the time of Mikhail Gorbachev than they are today, in the time of Vladimir Putin. The conclusions drawn by the American historian are broad and nuanced.

Rape as a weapon and a means of revenge.

Naimark said that against the background of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany in the USSR and the fierce anti-German propaganda subsequently unleashed by the Soviets, the phenomenon of rape committed by the Red Army manifested itself in all Eastern European countries, but especially in Germany. It was most acute in East Prussia, Silesia and Pomerania. Naimark also mentioned the "cultural" explanation for the rape of the enemy's woman, seen as a means of restoring male pride, severely affected by the Nazi aggression two years earlier. During the counter-offensive, Soviet soldiers were urged by official hate propaganda to take revenge for the Nazi aggression through a war of extermination. Diatribes such as those of the writer Ilia Ehrenburg were widespread among the military: “We are no longer talking. We don't get excited anymore. We kill. The day you don't kill a German is a lost day… If you kill a German, kill the next one - nothing is more exciting for us than a pile of German corpses”. The soldiers had their own experience with the Wehrmacht, but they had also been bombarded with images from the newly discovered Nazi extermination camps; the victims of the camps were not presented as Jews, but as Soviet citizens, in order to increase the determination of the military. So, when the propaganda tried to make the Soviet soldiers distinguish between Germans and Nazis, in order to save the image of communism in the East German area, it was already too late.

Naimark said that the Soviet takeover of Berlin marked the outbreak of "extreme violence" against women. He estimated that "almost half of the city's female population" suffered from this scourge. The situation was improved, the historian said, by the capitulation of May 8 and the establishment of the Soviet military administration on June 9, but the danger of rape "was not removed until the confinement of Soviet soldiers in the winter of 1947-1948." On the other hand, Naimark noted, not all Soviet soldiers behaved the same way towards German women, just as the commanders' tolerance of acts of violence was not generalized. The American historian mentions the Russian commander in Magdeburg, "known as very harsh with soldiers who raped, sometimes executing those caught in the act.

At one point the issue became public in what would become the German Democratic Republic. The communist authorities launched a debate on the adoption of the Soviet "superior" social model, which sought to capture the reasons for local resistance to its takeover. Called "About 'Russians' and About Us" - the Russians being the generic name under which the Soviets were perceived - the debate started in the winter of 1948-1949 in Neues Deutschland quickly touched on the issue of mass rape, which weighed heavily in the public perception. In the face of the accumulating testimonies, Naimark said, the Soviet authorities decided to stop the talks in January 1949, and the subject "remained taboo" throughout the existence of the GDR.

Hazaika, idi siuda!

Norman Naimark said the rapes started to become part of the Red Army’s routine around the time they crossed the Soviet Union's pre-war border. But Naimark makes a distinction between the situation in Romania and Bulgaria, on the one hand, and that in Hungary. Romania had been an aggressor country but then sided with Moscow and its allies. And indeed, in the transcripts of the Sănătescu government meetings, published in 2011, there are several references to “abuses by Red Army soldiers and officers”, especially robberies and violence, but not rapes. For example, at the government meeting of August 31, 1944, the General Director of the mines, Gheorghe Andonie, recalls  what he saw as an official envoy to the Ploiești refineries where he was sent to empirically assess the damage caused by the German withdrawal and the Soviet advance. "Not only did the Russians take gas from the refineries, but they broke into the material stores and took what they wanted from there. (...) The Russians also devastated Ploiești ", the director said. From other reports, we learnt that the female population seemed to be aware of the danger and was trying to avoid contact with the passing Soviet soldiers. An eyewitness told me that in Focșani, the women who had to leave the house tried to be as unattractive as possible and would surround themselves by small children. It is almost certain, however, that the method was not always effective and that the soldiers did not limit themselves to calling at them, as the witness still remembers today: Hazaika, idi siuda! - which, in a relative translation, would mean "woman, come here!"Across the Danube, in Bulgaria - Naimark continued - relations were even better, there was a "cultural and linguistic closeness", and the population received the Soviet troops "with genuine enthusiasm".  This would explain the relative absence of rape in Bulgaria. Moreover, the Bulgarian campaign was led by the more disciplined troops of Marshal Feodor Tolbuhin. In this regard, Naimark mentioned that among the most undisciplined soldiers were those under the command of Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, somewhere in the middle of this ranking being those of Marshal Ivan Konev.It was the very troops of Marshal Malinovksy that were involved in the siege of Budapest. The fierce German resistance, supported by Hungarian troops, but also the clearly superior standard of living of the city's inhabitants were also "a source of resentment" for the victorious Soviet army. "As a result, a terrible wave of rapes and robberies followed the Soviet takeover of Budapest in February 1945," Naimark said. "The girls were kept prisoners in Soviet barracks in Buda, where they were repeatedly raped and sometimes killed," quoted Naimark from the documents discovered during his research.

Under Koba's indulgent gaze

None of the mentioned historians have missed the opportunity to report the high-level reaction to the complaints that were accumulating in real time about the behavior of the Red Army soldiers. When the Yugoslav communist leaders opened the discussion, Marshal Konev accused them of denigrating the "glorious Red Army". According to Naimark, there were 121 cases of rape later documented by the Yugoslav communist authorities, including ten ending in the killing of the victim, during the short time the Red Army passed through the northeastern corner of the country. Konev, faced with the complaints of the Slovak communist leader Vladimir Clementis, blamed the "decayed elements" represented by deserters. But the best known is the episode from Conversations with Stalin, a memoir written by Milovan Djilas. According to the Yugoslav communist leader, who later became a dissident, Stalin, informed about the rapes, said that "we preach too much to soldiers", who should be given "more freedom of initiative" instead. "Can't we really understand the soldier who travels thousands of miles through fire, blood and death when he wants to have some fun with a woman?" Stalin said at a party, after which he kissed Djilas' wife. "I did this, he said, even at the risk of being accused of rape," the author said.Stalin's empathy for the transgressions of the Soviet soldier fighting for the noble cause of defeating Nazism and spreading communism - "The Red Army also has the role of promoting the revolution", he said on another occasion about the Soviet military incursion into Eastern Europe - may have roots in his personal history of relations with women. As a "soldier of the revolution" exiled several times to hostile Siberia by the tsarist authorities, Stalin considered himself distressed enough to indulge in a series of sexual affairs that didn’t take into consideration much of the moral precepts of the time. In his impressive monograph on the Soviet dictator, the American historian Stephen Kotkin reconstructed Stalin’s experience in Siberia.  His wife, Ketevan "Kato" Svanidze, died in Baku in December 1907, and Stalin left his son Jacob in the care of his in-laws. His revolutionary activity was kept an eye on by the ochranka, the tsarist political police, and he had already been deported once.  In 1910, Ioseb Dzhugashvili, then aged 32, was deported again to Solvicegutsk, in the Arkhangelsk region. There, apparently, he had another son, Constantine, whom he did not recognize. Arriving in Vologda, considered a kind of Siberian capital, "he kept chasing skirts among the peasants”, as Kotkin put it. He started an affair with a maid, Sofia Kriukova, but also with a revolutionary comrade, Serafima Korosenina, who would be soon released, though. Stalin then "borrowed" the girlfriend of another exiled comrade, a teenager named Pelaghia Onufrieva. In September 1911, he escaped and went to St. Petersburg, where he was immediately arrested and sent into exile again. He arrived in Turuhansk, where in 1914 he again seduced a teenager, the 13-year-old Lydia Pereprighina, who got pregnant. The child died, but after a while Stalin had another son with Lydia, Alexander, who survived, but who, just like his other two older brothers, was abandoned by his father. The auxiliary role of women in Stalin's personal life, before his political advancement in the 1920s, may have had an important influence on the Soviet leader's later perception of rape by Red Army soldiers in their march through Europe in the years '44 -'45.

Back to Beevor. History used for political ends.

There is therefore an irreducible inadvertence between what Russian and Western sources are inclined to accept as to the number of victims of Red Army rape. In his book Berlin. The fall – 1945,  Antony Beevor wrote that " in total, it is estimated that at least two million German women were raped, some - if not most - being subjected to multiple rapes". The British historian does not say however how he came to that number; the task of revealing the calculation method, as we have seen, was assumed by the Russian embassy.But the embassy’s demystification can also be demystified. We can admit that Antony Beevor may not have acted in the most scrupulous way possible. But what he stated as certain, by quoting medical sources, was not the figure of two million, but "the reports of the two main hospitals in Berlin." According to them, he wrote, the number of rapes at that time, in the summer of 1945, was between 95,000 and 130,000. A number close to the one mentioned by Tony Judt, and which therefore seems to have become the academic standard in this grim statistic.It contradicts the official discourse of the Kremlin, which insists on the "liberating" role of the Red Army, ignoring the abuses committed by Soviet soldiers and officers and, even more, completely ignoring the task of the time, that of assisting and guaranteeing the emergence in Eastern Europe of "regimes friendly” to the USSR. The differences between the Soviet propaganda and the Kremlin's current discourse on the "glorious Red Army" are not major: the war with Nazi Germany and its allies is now, as it was then, officially referred to as the "Great War for the Defense of the Fatherland," and "denigrating" the role played by the Red Army in World War II is even today punishable by law in the Russian Federation, with up to five years in prison. Under these circumstances, a historic compromise between Moscow and the West over the rapes committed by Soviet soldiers in the last months of the war is difficult to reach.Historical issues are generally debated among historians, so it would have been expected that Beevor's arguments would be dismantled by his colleagues. In Russia, however, history is a matter of state policy and foreign policy, and this is how the embassy's intervention in the dispute is explained. Moscow has been trying for years to impose  its own version of history, especially with regard to World War II, a history in which the USSR appears strictly as a victim and denies, for example, the role of aggressor it had played before being attacked by Nazi Germany – by capturing territories as a result of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, invading  Poland, etc. The historical meta-narrative is part of the Kremlin's information campaign against the West and its former Eastern European satellites.


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  • Lately, the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Bucharest has repeatedly drawn attention to a sensitive topic: the rapes committed by the Red Army soldiers among the civilian population during the offensive against Nazi Germany in 1944-1945 and in the immediate aftermath of the war. The embassy has tried to suggest that the figures "circulating on the net" in relation to this matter are "inflated". However, some of these figures are based on studies by important historians, such as the American Norman Naimark, who wrote that although it was not given a central place in the works on the war and the postwar period, rape was "an issue mentioned everywhere in the archives and documents of the time”.
  • Soviet soldiers were urged by official hate propaganda to take revenge for the Nazi aggression through a war of extermination. Diatribes such as those of the writer Ilia Ehrenburg were widespread among the military: “We are no longer talking. We don't get excited anymore. We kill. The day you don't kill a German is a lost day… If you kill a German, kill the next one - nothing is more exciting for us than a pile of German corpses”. The soldiers had their own experience with the Wehrmacht, but they had also been bombarded with images from the newly discovered Nazi extermination camps; the victims of the camps were not presented as Jews, but as Soviet citizens, in order to increase the determination of the military. So, when the propaganda tried to make the Soviet soldiers distinguish between Germans and Nazis, in order to save the image of communism in the East German area, it was already too late.
  • Stalin, informed about the rapes, said that "we preach too much to soldiers", who should be given "more freedom of initiative" instead. "Can't we really understand the soldier who travels thousands of miles through fire, blood and death when he wants to have some fun with a woman?"
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