Sexual Violence in World War II: New German Study Looks at Rape Trauma 60 Years On

By Siobhán Dowling

A new German film explores the fate of one of the many women who were raped by Red Army soldiers at the end of World War II. A research project launched the same week is hoping to find some of the victims more than six decades later.

Germany in the spring of 1945. Hitler's Nazi regime was on the brink of defeat in the catastrophic war it had launched six years earlier. After invading and occupying large swathes of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union -- and murdering tens of millions of people in the process -- the German army was retreating, and the Red Army was following hot on its heels, intent on revenge.

The film "A Woman in Berlin," staring Nina Hoss, opens in Germany this week.
DDP

The film "A Woman in Berlin," staring Nina Hoss, opens in Germany this week.

Sweeping across German territory, many of the Russian soldiers burned, killed, looted. And they also raped German women. The Soviets, of course, weren't the only ones; soldiers from other Allied armies were also guilty of sexual violence as they moved into Germany from the West. But most agree that the problem was particularly acute in eastern Germany. Historians estimate that close to 2 million German women and girls were raped in the closing months of the war, many repeatedly.

This week a new film, called "A Woman in Berlin," opens in Germany which deals with the story of one of those women. The film is based on "Anonymous," an autobiographical account, originally published by a German journalist and editor in the 1950s, describing her experiences between April and June 1945. When it was originally published, reaction was overwhelmingly negative, prompting the author to forbid it from being republished during her lifetime. She died in 2001 and the book hit the shelves again in 2003, going on to become a best-seller.

The woman, played by Nina Hoss in the film (the film's North American release date is still pending though it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in September), is raped several times by Red Army soldiers before forming a liason with a Russian officer in order to protect herself from further attacks. While the film tries to turn this into a love story of sorts in the book the relationship is purely functional.

'Their Stories Will Be Heard'

Whether or not the film is strictly accurate, it seems certain to open up the theme of World War II rapes to a much wider audience. And that is exactly what Dr. Phillip Kuwert is hoping for. He is the director of a new research project, based at the University of Greifswald in eastern Germany, which is studying the trauma of women raped during that period. The study has been in the planning stages for over two years and Kuwert decided to launch it officially on Monday to coincide with the release of the film. "It's important to reach the women," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

With the events in question dating back 63 years, Kuwert knows that only a small minority of the women who were the victims of sexual violence in those months can be found. Encouragingly, however, since Monday his team has already been contacted by a number of elderly women who want to participate in the project.

The interviews with the women will be carried out by two female Ph.D. students and will be strictly confidential. Kuwert is seeking to find out exactly what these women experienced, how the rapes affected the victims' quality of life and the extent of their trauma. While the study is not designed to provide direct therapy, he is convinced that merely talking about their experiences can still be of benefit to the victims of sexual violence even decades later.

"Their stories will be heard," he says. "This produces a kind of healing effect, known as social acknowledgement of trauma."

The project has been given added impetus by the backing of Dr. Monika Hauser, whose group Medica Mondiale helps traumatized women and girls who have experienced sexual violence in conflict zones. Hauser, who recently won the Alternative Nobel Prize -- an international award given to those helping people in other disciplines than those recognized by the official Nobel Prize -- contacted Kuwert, he says, expressing hope that the project could help to break the taboo associated with the World War II rapes.

'Not Just from a German Point of View'

Kuwert admits that the topic of German victims of the murderous war perpetrated by Nazi Germany, is a sensitive and at times ambivalent one in the light of the terrible suffering of "the primary victims," particular the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. "It's very difficult for Germans to classify themselves as some kind of victim of the war."

There are many accounts of the SS and German soldiers raping women during the war and Kuwert emphasizes that he does not want to paint Germans as the only victims of sexual violence. The nationality of the victim and the perpetrator is not the focus. "It's not important for the scientific study if it was a Russian soldier in Germany or a German soldier in Eastern Europe," he says. "We have contact with projects in Eastern Europe, in the Ukrainian town of Donetsk, and in St. Petersburg. So it's not just from a German point of view."

While the film "A Woman in Berlin" deals with the Red Army rapes in the East, Kuwert points out that women in western Germany were also the victims of sexual violence. There were hundreds of trials of French and US soldiers for rapes committed in the first months of 1945, though the British armed forces had fewer such cases. While there was also some punishment of Russian soldiers, including executions, most got away with their crimes.

In East Germany, these rapes were particularly taboo because the Red Army was officially regarded as an army of liberation, freeing the Germans from the scourge of fascism and creating a communist state. "In East Germany, women did not have any official acknowledgement, whereas in the West it was more possible to talk about it," Kuwert says. However, he points out that "sexual violence is always stigmatized," and the rapes were rarely talked about in any part of Germany.

In the book "Anonymous," the narrator describes how the German women initially talked freely about their experiences with each other. Then the men came home from the front and the rapes became a source of shame -- a family secret. Kuwert acknowledges that there can be a difference between war-time rape and other rapes because women feel freer to discuss it.

However, he points out that the experience of rape during conflict is often particularly traumatic because the women have no access to any therapy -- and because they are afraid they will also be killed. Kuwert's previous research shows that around half of women raped during war develop post-traumatic stress disorder. "That is very high, compared to say 10 percent of those involved in a serious car crash. Only torture is more severe."

This post-traumatic stress can manifest itself in nightmares or flashbacks, where the woman feels she is once again experiencing the attack. "She can smell the alcohol on the breath of the rapist and it doesn’t feel as if it is happening 60 years ago, but now," he says.

The victims can develop a number of health problems, including depression and anxiety. Kuwert is also interested in why some women are particularly resilient after these experiences and do not suffer the same trauma. "We will look at whether they have forgiven their persecutors."

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