Major Kopelev, an officer in the Soviet Red Army during World War II wrote about an incident when a screaming Polish woman came running toward him and other officers. Drunken soldiers interested in sex followed her. According to Kopelev, the lieutenant in charge waved his pistol and told the men to go away or he would execute them because of the Rokossovsky Order #006*: “For rape – execution on the spot.” Kopelev drew his pistol, but did not want to shoot one of his own men, this “brave soldier blind- drunk on vodka.” The intoxicated man came at [Kopelev], “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?’”**
Kopelev wrote that he tried to convince the man not to rape by shouting, “Don’t disgrace yourself! Leave the girl alone! She’s Polish. Don’t you have a mother, a sister? Have you thought of them?” but the man yelled back, “and what did the Germans think of? Get out of my way, fuck your mother! I need a woman! I spilled my blood for this!” And other tank men, disgusted with the officers, mumbled comments such as, “some commanders…They’ll shoot their own men over a German bitch.”**
My self analysis and self empathy led me to feel empathy for the rapists
About twenty years ago, when I read this passage from Kopelev’s memoir I was researching sexual violence only because I was angry about my own experiences. Yet through my horror, I felt empathy for the soldiers. I didn’t condone their actions. But I somehow understood why they thought they had a right to take sex from others during the war. I was surprised at my spontaneous reaction, but the moment stuck with me: I knew there was a connection between my pain and the desperation and anger the men expressed, or I wouldn’t have felt the empathy.
* * *
Today there are too many attempts to control other people’s destinies. But if more of us had a greater ability to sympathize with others, policies that ensure people autonomy and self-respect would be more commonplace. Even though we do not all have great trauma and our emotional wounds vary, we can nevertheless build a more empathetic world by taking our own inner growth seriously. Intellectually and emotionally, such examination opens our hearts and minds to sympathy and even empathy. It is as though we were standing in other people’s shoes and seeing the world from their perspective. My experience might seem extreme, but everyone can look inside for insight. Everyone can become more open to others’ experiences, regardless of the level of their trauma.
* * *
For thirty years, I’ve lived with post-traumatic stress disorder while actively trying to grow beyond it. I now understand that it was my determination to face, fight, and heal my emotional wounds that allowed me to understand these soldiers and feel this empathy. In my family of origin, I am the first to break the generations-long cycle of trauma. Instead of passing trauma and subsequent behaviors to my children, I nurtured their self-esteem. I taught them self-care and how to express their emotions.
I believe if we honestly face our demons without numbing the pain, we become stronger and happier. Additionally, we are better able to teach our students to be empathetic. Simply put, self analysis leads to empathy. This emotional work is how we will change our divided world. The current rise of fascism and other forms of hateful politics are possible because individuals fear and see those as “others” despite the many similarities we have. The more we looks inside ourselves, the more we can teach compassion, insight, and empathy to those around us, especially our students and children. Self analysis leads to empathy. This helps stem the tide of hate and fear.
Self analysis and empathy: not condonation
Before seeking help, my despair let me to drink large amounts of alcohol to numb my feelings. I did not rape anyone, but instead turned my anger inward. Still, I too had strong feelings of being out of control and beyond help with anger. I had a scream so loud in my head that I sometimes thought I would have to die. It felt as though I would never be able to live with this much pain inside me. In my anguish, I sought connections with others in ways that were dangerous because of the alcohol and people involved. The wartime rapists also sought connections: sexual connection and release from their desperation. And the motivation for sexual activity fueled the abuse of their physical power, regardless of the female’s desires.
My analysis of why some soldiers rape is not equivalent to condonation. Rape does not have to be a natural part of civilian life or armed conflicts. Individual perpetrators and countries should be prosecuted for all wartime sexual crimes. This attempt to understand wartime trauma, however, helps us understand civilian peacetime struggles.
War time context
How could anyone, let alone a survivor of multiple rapes, feel empathy with these rapists? We must understand both the wartime context for these men and my civilian peacetime context. The eastern front was one of the most brutal areas of warfare during WWII. Soviet soldiers were the most desperate of all soldiers. Often, they did not have adequate training or supplies, including food, water, weapons, and even sufficient clothing and boots. However, the state usually provided plenty of liquor.*** Alcohol helped deaden soldiers’ senses and emotions to the horrors they experienced and perpetrated. This kept them moving, but loosened their inhibitions. Similar to peacetime, alcohol and sexual violence went hand in hand, rendering the nightmare even worse.
Additionally, the Soviet Union lost more of their population during WWII than any other country in the world.**** The desperation men and women felt is something that we can barely begin to understand. Imagine the trauma of seeing Germans carting off women and girls to serve in German military brothels. Or the experience of seeing entire towns disappear to mass graves. Imagine knowing the Germans were attempting to exterminate Slavs through starvation. And you thought about your own malnourished family dying at home because of their policy. As the Soviet soldiers moved west they saw bodies of men, women, and children, murdered, raped, or otherwise violated and mutilated. They also saw carcasses of livestock, cats, and other animals. There were destroyed trees, houses, farmyards, outbuildings, etc.: these soldiers were living a surreal and horrifying existence.
Everything during war was exaggerated, including the drunkenness, filth, and anguish of the rapists, and the size of the rape groups. Even the condition of the girls, women, and men who were raped. In civilian life, historically and currently, much emphasis is put on the rape victim’s appearance and clothing. Similar to countless other examples, the current US president insinuated that one of his accusers wasn’t attractive enough for him to rape. Plus, in the popular press are countless articles about cleanliness and sex.
Yet during wartime, and specifically during WWII, the people were starving, dirty, and often diseased. But in their intoxicated and exhausted states, rapists would attack people they may not have otherwise. The pretense of disease sometimes helped victims deflect unwanted attention from soldiers. Nevertheless, German and Soviet soldiers raped civilians and concentration or POW camp prisoners, regardless of how old or clean their victims were. It was as if many, not all, men turned into frenzied, demonic toddlers who took any toy they saw. They moved in an inebriated, foggy nightmare, their bodies responding to their base instincts of eating, drinking, and fulfilling sexual urges.
Acknowledging the horror of the Soviet WWII experience is only part of the context necessary to explain my reaction to Kopelev’s passage: patriarchal culture was inveterate throughout Russia and Eastern Europe. Centuries of oppression of Slavic women fueled men’s beliefs in their right to sex, whether with their spouse, girlfriend, or stranger. Stalin wasn’t concerned about the mass raping. He is quoted as saying that the men had “earned” the right to sexual release, having fought so hard. These patriarchal beliefs were what some men fell back on in their few moments of respite from seeing blood, entrails, destroyed tanks, corpses, and severed body parts. Having witnessed such monstrosities and many not expecting to survive themselves, in their few hours of reprieve, almost like automatons, some turned to the physical comfort and orgasmic release of sexual activity.
Kopelev’s soldiers dismissed this woman as though she weren’t a sentient being. Despite being a survivor of my own kind of peacetime terror, I understand that because patriarchy told them sex was their right in these extreme circumstances they felt it was somehow a small price for the woman to pay for them to have sexual intercourse with her.
There are obvious problems with thinking that having sex with a soldier was a small price for a person to pay. Often females died from rapes or suffered such physical trauma. Rapists would have to have realized the rapes weren’t a small price to pay. A man at the end of a line of twenty or thirty would have raped someone who was more like a corpse. Her body would have been battered and smeared with blood and sperm. Eventually, she would have stopped screaming and would have passed out from pain and loss of blood. This was a huge price to pay.
Germans raped en masse during the war. They established a system of sexual slavery throughout the entire Reich and occupational territories. They forced thousands of woman of all nationalities, religions, and races to have sex with concentration camp prisoners and their soldiers.
Despite my focus on Red Army rapists, I do not present Kopelev’s testimony to support the long-held view that an eastern horde of rapists exceeded the beastliness of German sexual crimes. Western historians, politicians, and the media have pushed a racist agenda. They have highlighted the image of the lustful, maniacal, and drunken Slav from the east. Yet they have almost never acknowledged the sex crimes of the German Wehrmacht.
But the Germans indeed raped en masse, including females who were racially forbidden. They raped in towns, cities, in workplaces, and after battles. They also established a far-reaching, systematic system of sexual slavery. This consisted of hundreds of brothels all across Europe, the Soviet Union, and Africa. The Germans set up brothels in camps, near battlefields, and in cities and towns. They seized females at gunpoint. They were subjected to up to dozens of rapes a day. Members of the Wehrmacht, SS, mercenary forces, and even concentration camp inmates who had “earned” a brothel visit took part in these rapes. It is paramount that historians and the general public acknowledge these crimes against humanity. It is a kind of racism to only embrace and write about the sexual crimes of the Red Army.
* * *
However, my surprising feeling of empathy, an understanding that went beyond sympathy, was for the Russian rapists in Kopelev’s passage. It wasn’t for the German rapists or for all rapists in general. I am not a saint. Still, I believe I now can better explain how my civilian experience ties to these Soviet soldiers on the eastern front.
I’m a survivor of too many statutory rapes, date rapes, and other assaults, ranging from pinches to rough grabs to tackles, and a couple of narrow escapes from some unknown fate, all before my twenties. The neglect and lack of emotional support in my childhood home, the constant sexual harassment and bullying from grade school through early college years, as well as at one place of employment, added to my PTSD that I still suffer from in various ways today. But my healing began with sharing and self analysis, which led to self empathy and finally to my feeling of empathy for men who committed acts of violence that terrified me to the core.
In 1990 the self analysis that led to greater empathy began
In 1990 my journey to heal began. This meant through the decades having various memories surface and feeling the deep pit of horror in my body. I would often scream out and suddenly jerk to attention if my husband tapped me gently to wake me. It meant hiding myself from all local news, many television shows, and researching before seeing movies because I could not bear to watch or hear about any sexual violence, especially against women. Part of my healing occurred in my forties, when my daughter was a teenager. I finally understood that three of my experiences were in fact statutory rapes, the enormity of which I hadn’t fully grasped before. Somehow I had dismissed my experiences until I saw her and imagined how I would feel if a, for example, thirty-two-year-old man had sex with her.
Even though I have survived such a large number of violations of my body, I cannot imagine the trauma of violent, savage rape by one or many soldiers in wartime. I also cannot imagine having one’s trauma compacted into a few months or years instead of spread over a decade or two. Finally, although I remain silent in many ways, I am eternally grateful that I had the ability to share in so many groups, workshops, and counseling sessions. Without being able to reach out and speak in safe places, I may not have survived. Instead, I sought out and was provided support from countless, loving women and men, who touched me both physically and emotionally, and who helped teach me once again that I was worthy of the space I occupied in this world and that I was more than a sexual entity.
How I can relate to the soldiers’ desperation
As a survivor of patriarchy, male sexual abuse, and childhood neglect, I can relate to the desperation experienced by these soldiers. I can say that growing up and in my early twenties before I sought out professional help and realized what I had survived, I lived in my own kind of desperation despite having been a fairly high achiever. There is a scream in my head that I still hear today, even though it isn’t nearly as loud as it used to be. As a teenager, I used alcohol to quiet the scream and to quash my loneliness and anguish.
Recently someone asked me what the scream said, and the first thing that came to mind was, “get the fuck off me!” Once at a healing workshop, in my mind I went back to feelings of being violated. Nine adults were on top of me trying to hold me down. I pushed them so hard that I they had difficulty holding their positions. I almost succeeded in getting them “the fuck off of me.” I wasn’t overly strong. But somehow the anger I felt gave me superhuman powers to push the men I envisioned in my mind off of me through the act of pushing these nine people holding me down.
* * *
Thirty-five years ago, the scream was mostly an angry roar at the universe, an expression of my cynicism and profound sadness and betrayal. It was a scream that demanded the world or someone pay attention to me. But it also felt sardonic, acerbic, and out-of-control. Sometimes when I was intoxicated, the bitterness felt unmanageable. I was incognizant to any damage I inflicted onto myself as I drank more and more and moved closer and closer to oblivion. I had not been taught self-care and did not understand, in those intoxicated times, how I was dismissing myself as someone who did not matter. It wasn’t at all clear to me how sad it was to think I really did not care what happened to me.
* * *
When I quit drinking as an undergraduate, I fought for my life and sanity as repressed memories began to surface. This was when the pain and depth of my despair felt so crisp and sharp and deep. I often felt such rage, shame, loneliness, and sadness in my stomach, it would force my body to fold in half. Because I was already having black outs from drinking at age thirteen, much of the horror I felt in my sober twenties was from my childhood years. These were feelings I had never processed but had instead drowned in alcohol.
The depth of despair I felt and even once in a great while still feel at age fifty-two, is how I can relate to these soldiers’ despair at the horrors they witnessed, even though their traumatic experiences were different. I cannot begin to compare my peacetime agony with the trauma that tank warfare, genocide, mass starvation, gang rape, and other wartime tragedies caused soldiers and civilians alike during WWII.
But historically I dismissed myself as though I were unworthy to such a degree that I didn’t even recognize some of my assaults as rapes. Nor did I think I had any legitimate reason to be angry. I felt it didn’t matter to me or anyone else that I was raped. So I could understand that these men did not care about someone they intended to rape for their own sexual release. Because I had dismissed myself, I could feel how these soldiers could dismiss women and women’s rights to their bodies after what they had been through.
Trauma is hard to completely beat
Trauma stays with a victim for life. With help and work, though, one can break the cycle so the next generation is healthier. Today it usually feels I was never traumatized. Yet there are still times when it seems the sources of my agony happened yesterday. Even with modern EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) treatments, body work, and group and individual therapies, my trauma will always be a part of me, regardless of my continued self analysis any growing empathy. I will continue to heal to the day I die.
But I can have a positive effect on the world. At twenty-three, when I realized I had been raped as a teenager, I couldn’t say the word. I tried to explain to a friend, but could only mutter, “the R word.” She had to guess what I meant.
Yet I progressed from one extreme to another great limit. At first I couldn’t even say “rape” about one incident and I felt shame about my heavy drinking. Then I learned to sympathize with myself as a young girl who had no reason to be raped by men whether or not I was intoxicated. Finally, I ended up researching and writing about sexual violence and armed conflict. This kind of inner analysis can help us become more tolerant and empathetic toward others. Self analysis leads to empathy. In turn, this will help spread progressive political ideas that stem from an inherent understanding of all kinds of beings.
There is hope…
We can change the next generations and slow the spread of fearful politics. But we need to face our own emotional wounds, no matter how small. My politics as a young person were insensitive, because I was oblivious to my pain. This is partly why many otherwise kind, intelligent people support politicians who spew hatred and dismiss other people’s experiences as trivial. As I faced my anguish, my stance on issues shifted dramatically because I felt the trauma of others, including animals. This self analysis is how I experienced empathy for the rapists, despite my deep fear of angry men. I broke the generational cycle of trauma. I raised my children and encouraged others to not be victims and instead be strong individuals with a strong sense of self-worth and self-awareness.
The more people understand their own issues, the more deeply they can understand the experiences of others. This includes understanding the trauma rapists or mass shooters endure. Facing one’s own pain creates a less divided world. People will embrace candidates who bring us together, not tear us apart. Women will be less likely to dismiss #metoo stories as “this is just how it was back then! Men grabbed us! Big deal!” People will see that we cannot discriminate against Hispanics, Muslims, transgender people, etc.. They will learn to condemn hateful rhetoric mocking equality, women’s reproductive or prisoner rights, environmentalism, or whatever the issue.
In summary, we need to support and teach self-analysis because self analysis leads to empathy. I hope that explaining my empathy with these rapists will help even one person gain the courage to look inside and subsequently gain a greater sense of enlightenment. If that is the case, then I feel that bearing my soul will have been worth the effort.
* * * * * * * * * * *
* During WWII, Marshal Rokossovsky, Commander of the Stalingrad Front, issued Order #006, which became known as the Rokossovsky order. It was an instruction to officers to execute without trial soldiers who raped. It was more of a public relations stunt because in reality, Stalin had given his tacit consent to the soldiers to do what they wanted with civilians (see Milovan Djilas, Conversations with Stalin, trans. Michael B. Petrovich (New York and Lon- don: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1962), 110-111).
** A tiger was a German tank, and it isn’t clear why Kopelev writes that the soldier called the Polish woman a German. Still, I have maintained the nationality didn’t matter because the soldiers just wanted sex with a female. This was also true for the Germans who raped and sexually enslaved Slavs, Jews, and others who were supposed to be off-limits to their race because of their alleged racial inferiority.
*** Soldiers received a daily ration of vodka, and before attacks this apparently was doubled. For one source on this, see Djilas, Conversations, 52-53.
**** According to nationalww2museum.org, “[t]he Soviet Union suffered 21% more casualties than Americans in World War II. Most estimates agree the Soviet Union suffered the highest number of total deaths in World War II, between 22 and 28 million. The population of the Soviet Union was 194,100,000. This represents a total loss of 14.0% of its population.” China lost an approximate twenty million. In my dissertation, I used the estimate “approximately thirty million,” but the figure is inexact and depends on what and who you count. Do we include only deaths caused by the Germans or also deaths caused by the various armed forces fighting on the eastern front? For further discussion see, https://www.rbth.com/history/330625-soviet-citizens-died-world-war-statistics.
This essay about self analysis and empathy came bubbling up one morning in late spring, early summer of 2019. I woke up and suddenly understood and saw the larger picture and explanation of how I felt the empathy with the soldier rapists. I had help from many people who gave me various kinds of feedback. In the fall, I tried to get this essay published in more visible and well-known journals without success. With the pandemic and my subsequent struggles, it wasn’t relevant to what the world was reading at the time. In the later spring, I tried a few other places, but again, without success.
I feel it is an important contribution to the world, because of all the hateful politics now. People on both sides of the political divide can use self analysis and self empathy to become greater stewards of the earth and its inhabitants. I have so many people to thank and especially taiko. In the years since I started playing, I had more memories and realizations surface than I had maybe the decade prior. It has been an incredible journey so far, and I look forward to the next years of healing, joy, compassion, and sharing.
My explanations on self analysis and empathy were inspired because of this memoir: Lev Kopelev, No Jail for Thought, trans. Anthony Austin (London: Secker & Warburg, 1975), 50-51. Lev was a Stalin enthusiast who became an officer in the Red Army. Later he was a victim of Stalin and spent time in the Gulag, and even later a dissident.
I read his memoir while researching for my Ph.D. dissertation on sexual violence: “Victims, Heroes, Survivors: Sexual Violence on the Eastern Front During World War II.”