Victims, Heroes, Survivors: Sexual Violence on the Eastern Front During World War II
Sexual assault, often by an intoxicated perpetrator, was a ubiquitous threat across the eastern front, primarily to women and girls, but also to men and boys caught in the crossfire between the Germans, the Soviets, and partisans. Unarmed civilians, camp inmates, and others were touched by sexual violence during World War II. Fear and rumors existed, but for thousands of people sexual violence clearly was a reality. Because of the absence of detailed studies of individual communities on the topic of sexual violence in the east, I investigate a wide geographical range and explore camp and non-camp settings, and the experiences of Jews and Christian Slavs and Balts. My conclusions are broad in scope and based on a wide variety of sources. In addition to documenting a large system of military brothels under the German occupation, I found a variety of evidence for mass rape of east Europeans both during and after the German occupation, and further evidence of sexual abuse inside and outside of camps. I argue that 1) in many instances, gender transcended race, culture, or religion since females of all backgrounds, including Jews, became victims of sexual violence; 2) that alcohol significantly contributed to the sexual violence, 3) that German racial laws did not reflect the sexual reality in the east, and finally, 4) that sexual desire or the desire for some kind of sexual activity often played a significant role in the motivation to rape. In addition to contributing to the dearth of scholarship on the gendered experience of World War II for Russians and east Europeans under German occupation, I challenge three major interpretations: 1) The view that only race, and not gender, mattered in Nazi persecutions, 2) that Jewish women were only incidentally victims of sexual violence; and 3) that the motivation to rape is only about power and not sexual desire.
During the great upheaval on the eastern front, unarmed civilians experienced a range of forms of sexual violence and coercion. Based on research in archives of the German military, it is clear that the German army maintained an extensive system of brothels all over occupied eastern Europe. The deliberate deprivation of life-sustaining resources and the starvation of civilians led to a less obvious, but altogether important tragedy: the willingness of many to exchange live-saving materials only with those desperate enough to sell their bodies. Prostitution and prostitutional relationships, in which a woman or girl (or occasionally a man or boy) became someone’s lover with the expectation that she could save herself and her family, flourished and caused widespread disease. In my venereal disease chapter, largely based on German occupation documents, I emphasize the incredible effort the Germans put into controlling men’s sexual activities by offering classes, lectures, and pamphlets on the duties of a good soldier and on the dangers of disease. Despite the shortage of rubber, free condoms were always available. Men were required to have themselves sanitized before and after sexual intercourse, and the “morality police” hunted down and arrested “sources of infection” (females suspected of having infected a soldier), who were forced into a gynecological examination and, if necessary, treatment.
Because of the lack of efficient treatment options, venereal disease was considered a threat to Germany’s military capabilities. Primarily in response to disease, but also out of the belief that men “need” sex, the Germans established, maintained, and documented hundreds of military brothels throughout the Reich and forced thousands to serve, either by starvation or by gunpoint. German wartime documents reveal discussions about the lack of compliance with regulations surrounding sanitation and the use of condoms, about the levels of disease, the organization of and need for brothels, the long lines at the brothels, and the workloads of the women and girls.
Organizing such a system varied from region to region. In some cases German authorities set up new brothels, and in others they took over brothels that already existed. The army medical staff attempted to ensure the absence of disease by regular examinations of the females, by the requiring the use of condoms and the sanitation of men before and after intercourse. Usually the field commander was in charge of the brothels in his area, and he worked with company and sanitation officers. Sometimes a control system was built from scratch, but despite having to register prostitutes, find houses, beds, bedding, complete paperwork and other details, the men clearly seem to have managed to get what they wanted. For example, in the spring of 1940 military authorities agreed with the civil administration in Poland that “where there was need” brothels would be opened. By October, the chief sanitation officer wrote that the establishment of Wehrmacht brothels – on a very large scale – was absolutely essential, and that already in most large cities brothels were established or were planned.
Various methods were used to staff the brothels, including the recruitment of those who already were sex workers. Others were forced to work as prostitutes, and still others were brought from camps, such as Ravensbrück. The women and girls were of different backgrounds, including Jews, Balts, and Slavs. The evidence points to a horrifying workload. I found documents attesting to brothels in which the women and girls serviced between twenty-four and forty-five men a day. According to a 1942 German military report from Poland, between 120 and 150 men came each day to the Wehrmacht brothel in Lublin, where only four or five “girls” worked. In July 1943 the monthly visitor numbers for the brothels in Lublin and Cholm were 2820 and 4081, respectively. These and other examples are found in German documents and portray an inconceivable physical and psychological demand that was placed on the women and girls.
The German state also established brothels in camps, primarily used by prisoners, and in towns all over the occupied areas. In this chapter I integrate recent research with additional records, primarily on the brothel in Buchenwald. In addition to brothels documented by others, I found references in German wartime documents to military brothels in eighteen different Polish cities, references to two brothels in Ukraine, and to brothels in Russia and the Baltic. This list does not include camp brothels, brothels in the west, an investigation of sources that state that brothels were in “most major cities,” or references from novels. Historian Christa Paul conservatively estimated that a minimum of 34,140 women worked in German state-run brothels. But this number is extremely low, considering that it does not include the brothels for foreign and slave laborers from 1943 to 1945, for the Wehrmacht from 1943 to 1945, for the SS for the entire war, nor the brothels I have documented. Thus, it seems apparent that many more women than Paul estimated worked in the system of military prostitution, and the extensive documentation calls to question the dearth of scholarship on the topic.
Sexual violence was not limited to military brothels. Civilians were raped and mutilated, and often died as a result of their mistreatment. Less documented than the rapes of Germans by Soviet men are the rapes by members of the German army. A few instances are documented in court cases, and many references exist in memoirs, testimonies, and novels. Oral histories I collected in Ukraine revealed many more cases. Punishment was rare. Especially in Slavic areas, the Germans also did not consider rape a crime. The Red Army viewed the rape of a civilian, Soviet, Polish, Slav, or German, as a well-deserved indulgence. Although rape was not a formal military tactic by either army, there was a tacit understanding that men had a right to rape. Partisans also were known to rape. These examples support the notion that many women were victims of rape, and that females in general feared sexual violence, less so from members of a particular military or cultural group, but from armed men in general, emphasizing the importance of gender.
Despite the great diversity of experiences, the irony in trying to make sense of all the combinations of perpetrators and victims is that the perpetrators were frequently intoxicated. Based on an array of archival sources, including memoirs, testimonies, German police reports, and several rape cases, it is clear that the consumption of alcohol was widespread and contributed to the ubiquity of sexual violence. With alcohol people were more willing to break regulations, such as the Rassenschande laws, and they could have experienced heightened sexual desire. With alcohol, one’s beliefs could have become more or less accentuated. Since the differentiations between, for example, Jew, Orthodox Russian, or Latvian, did not always involve obvious external distinctions, alcohol would have rendered it even more difficult for perpetrators to calculate who the person was.
Concerning race, there are no easy answers to why one rapist raped a certain female, or why members of the German army recruited any particular female into a brothel. Despite the common argument that Jews did not experience widespread sexual violence because of the racial laws, it is clear that for Jews sexual coercion and violence was a reality – either in the form of fearing it, watching it, running from it, or falling victim to it. German documents from military leaders, SS officers, and even Himmler reveal Jews and Slavs in military brothels and widespread sexual relationships with locals. The constant in the many examples is that there were armed males and unarmed females, affirming that rape and other kinds of sexual violence need to be understood as crimes of gender. Violations of racial laws by Germans were widespread, and the Soviets seem to have raped indiscriminately, Slavs and Balts alike. Both sides raped females, whether Jewish or Christian.
The motivations of perpetrators are difficult to assess, but the wide variety of sexual activities and abuses of power often were motivated in part by sexual desire. Brothel visits, prostitutional relationships, rape, and sexual harassment lie on a continuum of sexual desire and sexuality. The rampant spread of diseases, widespread prostitution in camp and non-camp settings, and the long lines at the brothels suggest that men prized sexual activity. In this context, it seems implausible to argue, following the feminist contention, that rape had nothing to do with sexual desire for the perpetrator.
In various settings, biological factors were similar, such as alcohol, men, extended periods of sexual abstinence, life-threatening situations, high stress levels, and unarmed females who became victims of sexual torture. Because we are able to choose whether to follow our desires, considering biological influences does not minimize the perpetrators’ responsibility. Furthermore, underlying the violence was an affirmation of male sexuality, an affirmation so strong that the German state could legitimize establishing hundreds of brothels. Clearly, military culture, peer pressure, and large groups of armed, exhausted, relieved, terrified, or intoxicated men together pose grave dangers to unarmed and often starving civilians.
To investigate the extensive nature of sexual violence, I utilized a broad array of sources in German, Russian, Ukrainian, English, and to a lesser extent Latvian. I researched in archives held at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington D.C., the Latvian State Historical Archive and the Latvian State Archives in Riga, the Estonian State Archives in Tallinn, and the German Federal Archives in Berlin. In these archives exist abundant documentation provided by Germans and by survivors who told their accounts to Soviet officials during and after the war. I also drew on sources from the Nuremberg War Crimes trial and from postwar investigations by the United States Army. Additionally, I interviewed over thirty Ukrainians in Ukraine and several Latvians in Latvia and the United States. I also consulted dozens of memoirs, testimonies, and novels.
Those targeted for sexual violence demonstrated incredible fortitude and innovation by camouflage, other acts of deception, and heroic acts of self-sacrifice. Since the war, numerous survivors of sexual violence courageously revealed their stories in various ways, although most have remained silent. The shame many have experienced is misplaced and belongs instead to the perpetrators. The long-standing, deafening, and pervasive silence surrounding the topic of sexual violence in the east has served well the perpetrators and others inclined to disbelief. To contribute to a future with less sexual violence and dysfunctional behavior, the silence needs to end.
Last fall it was reported in a German newspaper that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had hinted that it was time for Germany to move beyond the Nazi crimes. Having recently finished my dissertation on this topic I could only shake my head in dismay. Both the Russians and the Germans have yet to accept responsibility for mass rape, and the Germans for their extensive system of sexual slavery (this is still true in 2017). My research has been an attempt to shed light on these crimes that touched so many people. It is a contribution to the history of Russia, Germany, and other central and eastern European countries, as well as to a greater understanding of the nature of sexual violence and armed conflict.