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M. Gebhardt, Als die Soldaten kamen (Norman M. Naimark)

Francia-Recensio 2015/3 19./20. Jahrhundert – Histoire contemporaine

Miriam Gebhardt, Als die Soldaten kamen. Die Vergewaltigung deutscher Frauen am Ende des Zweiten Weltkriegs, München (DVA) 2015, 351 S., ISBN 978-3-421-04633-8, EUR 21,99.

rezensiert von/compte rendu rédigé par

Norman M. Naimark, Stanford

Miriam Gebhardt, a historian and journalist teaching at the University of Konstanz, has written a very interesting and ambitious book about the rape of German women by Allied troops at the end of the war and during the four-power occupation. She looks at the problem of rape in far-reaching and complex ways, asking myriad questions about the effects of rape on German women and German society from the war until the very present. Most impressive is her empathy with the victims and everything they went through: the violence of the acts themselves, the lack of help in continuing with their lives, the indifference they encountered with German society and bureaucracy after the war, and ultimately the lack of scholarly interest in their plight as victims of the Allied invasion and occupation.

Gebhardt’s treatment is based primarily on the scholarly literature, memoirs, a smattering of local archives, and some use of the National Archives in Washington. But one should be clear about the scope of the book; this is not the study of rape by all four invading armies and in all four zones of occupation in Germany that is much needed in the literature. Her focus is clearly on the Soviet zone and American zones. For all intents and purposes, she leaves out events in the British zone, suggesting that the evidence is too scant to draw any conclusions, and she deals with the French zone mostly through some local archives in Freiburg i. Br. It is unclear from her description of the document base whether she means to indicate that there are no relevant and available materials in the British and French archives or that she was simply unable to use them.

Gebhardt is most interested in the victims and their severe trials after the crimes, which began with the frequent rejection they encountered at the hands of their families, neighbors, and, sometimes, spouses. Even when the women were ready to report the crimes to the authorities, something that was very hard to do, their encounters with the indifference and incapacity of the police made things even more difficult. Occupation authorities proved to be less than sympathetic, while the German police had little power and minimal inclination to record the crimes and help the rape victims. The judicial system seemed geared to insult the women, questioning the veracity of their stories and forcing them to endure interrogations about their sexual pasts and the unpleasant details of the crimes. The welfare bureaucracy that was dedicated to helping single women with children was also less than sympathetic to their plight. There was little willingness on the part of government agencies to compensate the women as victims of the war. Were they really raped or were they just trying to get easy money for cheap dalliances with Allied soldiers? What did they themselves do to bring on the sexual assaults? How were they dressed and how did they protest? Did they physically resist their attackers? As Gebhardt correctly observes, some of the problems with rape prosecution today in terms of the attitudes of male policemen and bureaucrats are similar to those of seventy years ago.

Gebhardt does a very nice job of exploring several salient aspects of the arguments about wartime and postwar rape that have emerged over the past decades. She contributes a number of interesting insights into the debate about the controversial documentary film and book, »BeFreier und Befreite«, by Helke Sander and Barbara Johr, appropriately emphasizing the authors’ pioneering role in bringing the problem of wartime and postwar rape to the attention of feminist scholars and German society as a whole. Similarly, she explores the meaning of the sudden popularity in the early 2000s of the anonymous memoirs, »Eine Frau in Berlin«, originally published in German (in Switzerland) in 1959, but almost completely forgotten for thirty-five years until it was republished by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (2003) and adapted into a feature film in 2008. To her credit, Gebhardt sees through the heavy-handed criticism of the memoir and of the authenticity of the author, »Anonyma«, that sought to undermine the credibility of the story she told. Gebhardt repeatedly insists, as do many German commentators, that there was no »taboo«on the subject of rape during these years. But the fact remains that scholarship on and public discussion of the subject of wartime rape were virtually nil. Gebhardt correctly writes, in some ways contradicting herself that there was in the 1950s no Schweigegebot(speech ban), as is so often asserted, but rather more specific rules about who said what about how (the past) should be remembered (»wer was wie erinnern sollte«). The manner and way that »Anonyma«spoke about those days in Berlin obviously violated these rules (p. 272).

There are two inter-related problems with the Gebhardt book that need discussion. One has to do with the number she uses of rape victims at the end of the war and beginning of the peace, and the second with her attempt, misplaced in my view, to »equalize«– in other wartime contexts Germans would say »relativize«– the severe sexual violence perpetrated by Soviet soldiers in the east versus that committed by other Allied soldiers in the rest of Germany. First, to the numbers: according to Gebhardt there were 860 000 rape victims of Allied armies in wartime and occupied Germany. Of these, she claims, 190 000 were by Americans (p. 8, 31–33). The way she comes to these numbers is questionable, to say the least. She derives these figures from the number of children she claims were born from rape in the western zones (4300) and in the Soviet zone (also 4300). (These numbers, especially for the Soviet zone, are very hard to verify.) She assumes that every tenth rape resulted in pregnancy, so, even if the numbers of those born from rape are correct, there would have been 430 000 rapes by Soviets and the same numbering the west, by Americans, primarily, but also by French, British, Belgians, some Soviets, and others.

I would suggest that Gebhardt’s calculations are far too low for the east (and probably not particularly accurate for the west), especially since she includes in the former case women who were raped by Soviet soldiers during the horrific period from the spring of 1944 through the taking of Berlin. Gebhardt knows the facts of what happened during the Russian offensive as well as anyone else: women and girls were raped multiple times, gang raped, and raped until they died (sometimes, awfully, even after.) I believe it also to be the case that Soviet soldiers raped elderly women and girls more frequently than did soldiers in the west, where, as Gebhardt notes (as do Mary Louise Roberts and J. Robert Lilly in their work respectively on the American rape of girls in Normandy and in the American zone) GI’s tended to pick out »pretty girls« in their prime for sexual abuse.

This doesn’t mean that American soldiers did not also engage in gang rape and rape murder, and that they did not sometimes also rape old women and pre-pubescent girls. It is completely appropriate for Gebhardt to emphasize these facts. But I would maintain from what we know from the documents that the incidence and intensity of murderous and unbridled violence was much greater in the east and, until the establishment of the Soviet Military Administration, much less worrisome to Soviet authorities than it was to American officials in the west. German women and girls were raped and died in comparatively large numbers as they fled from the east and were overtaken by the Soviet offensives and then occupation. The violation of German women became an integral segment of »total war« and ethnic cleansing in the east that only rarely touched parts of the west. Babies died in the womb and during child-birth in large numbers during the flight of the Germans to the west in face of the Russian advances and the violent deportations. Childbirth was highly endangered as well as in camps in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and in Germany itself, where hunger and disease were rampant. It is likely that women’s attempts to rid themselves of unwanted pregnancies were much more common in the east than in the west. All of these factors, and others, mean that the number of »occupation children« can in no way be correlated with the number of rapes in the east the way, perhaps, they might be in the west.

That someone as knowledgeable as Gebhardt about the character of rape and its consequences throughout Germany can have this kind of blind spot about rape in the east derives, in my view, from her overwhelming desire to demonstrate – in contrast to what she labels as old-fashioned, conservative »Cold War«historiography – that the Soviets were no different than the Americans in their assaults on German women. This motif runs throughout the book. »The uniforms of the perpetrators were different«, she writes, but »the deeds were the same«(p. 17). Germans in the GDR didn’t talk about rape by Soviet soldiers, just as Germans in the BRD didn’t talk about rape by the Americans (p. 8). Rape is just a part of any war and occupation. »This is not a specific German history that is being told here« (p. 297).

I beg to differ. Rape is indeed a part of warfare and occupation. But it is always contingent on the particular cultures and histories of the nations involved, the way a specific cohort of soldiers experience particular wars and civilian populations related to those wars. To portray the Soviet behavior in Germany during and after the war as no different in character than the American (or British or French) is to miss an important part of the complex story of rape, which Gebhardt otherwise tells so well.

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PSJ Metadata
Norman Naimark
Deutsches Historisches Institut Paris
Als die Soldaten kamen
Die Vergewaltigung deutscher Frauen am Ende des Zweiten Weltkriegs
Zeitgeschichte (1918-1945)
Deutschland / Mitteleuropa allgemein, Weltgeschichte
Geschlechtergeschichte, Militär- und Kriegsgeschichte
1940 - 1949
Deutschland (4011882-4), Weltkrieg 1939-1945 (4079167-1), Kriegsende (4114316-4), Nachkriegszeit (4421423-6), Frau (4018202-2), Vergewaltigung (4042696-8), Alliierte (4001297-9), Allied Forces (301686-9), Soldat (4055409-0), Massenvergewaltigung (4480505-6)
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M. Gebhardt, Als die Soldaten kamen (Norman M. Naimark)
In: Francia-Recensio 2015/3 | 19./20. Jahrhundert – Histoire contemporaine | ISSN: 2425-3510
URL: https://prae.perspectivia.net/publikationen/francia/francia-recensio/2015-3/zg/gebhardt_naimark
Veröffentlicht am: 11.09.2015 16:53
Zugriff vom: 08.07.2020 05:53
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