I have thought about a passage from a memoir I read almost twenty years ago to this day. I had empathy with a drunken rapist, which surprised me because I am a survivor of many non-life-threatening rapes. But I believe empathy will change the world.
Major Kopelev was on the eastern front during WWII when Marshal Rokossovsky issued his order to execute rapists without trial. The reasoning behind his order was to try to regain control over the troops as they moved through the devastation the Germans and others had caused in the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Germany, and all across the eastern front. Kopelev wrote that a Polish woman with a torn dress came running in screaming for help. The lieutenant in charge threatened to execute the rapist, according to the “orders from headquarters. For rape – execution on the spot.”
The major did not want to shoot a “brave soldier blind-drunk on vodka.” Kopelev drew his pistol, and the drunken man “came at [him], hoarse with anger, spraying saliva. ‘You fucking officers, fuck your mothers! You! Fighting the war on our backs! Where were you when my tank was on fire? Where were you, fuck your mother, when I set fire to that Tiger?’” The officers could hear the men saying things like, “Some commanders…They’ll shoot their own men over a German bitch” (Kopelev, No Jail for Thought, 50-51). (Note that the woman was not German, which I discuss because it helps to explain some of the raping that occurs during war.)
Empathy will change the world
My empathy surprised me because I am a survivor of multiple peacetime violations. I am working on an essay where I explain my reaction to the horrific sexual crimes western and eastern European men committed during the war. I have not felt empathy for the leaders, for example, for the Germans who planned and implemented the largest system of sexual slavery during the war, still mostly unheard of today. But for the desperate soldier who was forced into a nightmare so large and long-lasting most of us cannot even begin to fathom, I have felt understanding and empathy even for those who raped, usually in a drunken and frenzied state. This empathy and your empathy will change the world.
You can read more about sexual violence during World War II in my dissertation here.