The Forgotten History of Sexual Crimes in World War II

German military brothel during World War IIInterview by Luka Pejić about sexual crimes in WWII, civilian’s coping methods, and the social consequences after the war.

Wendy Jo Gertjejanssen is an American historian from Minnesota who received her PhD in 2004 with the dissertation “Victims, Heroes, Survivors: Sexual Violence on the Eastern Front during World War II.” In doing this research, she worked with material available in archives in the US, Germany, Latvia, and Estonia. In addition, for the purposes of her dissertation, she spoke with more than thirty women and men from the territory of Ukraine whose life experiences were an important source for a fuller understanding of the problems of sex crimes during the war events in the east of the European continent in the 1940s. Although, after completing the nearly 400-page text, she temporarily gave up historiography, because of the trauma she had experienced from going deeper into the topic of her own research. In the last few years she has returned to academic work, the focus of which is gender and social history.

You wrote that the Germans developed an “extensive system of sexual slavery” during World War II. What exactly do you mean by that?

Germans, Soviets and others perpetrated sexual crimes in WWII against people of all nationalities, including Jews, Africans, Slavs, etc. The German racial laws were forgotten when it came to sex crimes.
Author of “Victims, Heroes, Survivors: Sexual Violence on the Eastern Front During World War II,” 2004.

The German leadership recognized the dangers of venereal diseases to their armed forces and the reality that men, married or single, were having sexual intercourse with local women they met on the street, in local brothels, or elsewhere. Without antibiotics to fight syphilis and gonorrhea, soldiers became ill and eventually were unable to serve because of their unsafe sexual practices. To save the health of their soldiers, the Germans established brothels in concentration camps and across the areas they fought and occupied. Sanitation officers required a strict cleansing routine before sexual intercourse for the soldiers. The workers also were required to be clean, and doctors routinely checked them for disease. Females who engaged in prostitution during the war were starving or had limited options/chances for survival. Germans also forced girls and women at gunpoint to work in brothels where they could serve more than thirty men a day. This is sexual slavery.

Could you elaborate how the spread of prostitution in Eastern Europe during the war was economically conditioned? What were the consequences of this phenomenon?

During the war people had a hard time finding food, medical services, and other necessities. The Germans viewed Slavic people as Untermenschen and planned to starve them and eventually inhabit their territories in the east. Not only were people starving because of typical war conditions, the Germans purposely confiscated any food they could find. With the arrival of sex-craved soldiers who had essential food items, as well as chocolate and liquor, prostitution spread.

The consequences were many. The German army began arresting women and forcing them to undergo medical examinations to see if they were infected with venereal diseases. Venereal diseases spread through both the local populations and the German forces. This in turn led to Himmler insisting on establishing brothels, even if the females were Untermenschen. The spread of prostitution of course probably enabled some to bring food to their starving families, and maybe in some cases there were happy endings with love and romance. I’m sure that women forced into prostitution also were injured by sadists, which was traumatic beyond the pain of having to sexually service strangers.

Brothels existed even in the concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Dachau. How do you explain establishment of places like these in those locations? What were the living conditions there?

There were two different kinds of brothels, one for the prisoners and one for soldiers and officers. The prisoners had an incentive program so that they would work hard and behave themselves. One of their rewards was a visit to the camp brothel. This is something that is rarely talked about in Holocaust discussions. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., the outdoor Berlin museum, Topography of Terror, as well as the museum underneath the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, all do not mention that camp prisoners visited camp brothels where women and girls worked. Even if a female prisoner volunteered to work in the brothel despite the fatal risk of pregnancy or of injury and death by multiple rapes, this likely was NOT because she wanted to have sex with multiple men a day, but because she thought perhaps she would have a place to sleep and possibly more food. This is another layer of victimhood, where a victim victimizes another in the camps. While the topic of layered victimhood has been widely discussed in regards to arranging food, jobs, and services in the camps, museums and textbooks need to include in their discussions how sex, prostitution, and rape were bartered just as bread or indoor jobs were. Sometimes the SS would visit the camp brothels, and there is also testimony attesting to SS brothels just outside of camps.

Sexual Crimes in WWII includes the expansive German system of forced prostitution


In one chapter, you mentioned the various forms of “camouflage” undertaken by the female civilian population under German occupation for the purpose of avoiding rape. Could you tell us more about that?

Camouflage seems to have been a common phenomena. Several people told me about this, and you can read about it in various memoirs or testimonies. In one memoir, a family goes to extraordinary efforts to camouflage the teenage girl as being ill when the Soviet soldiers reentered the Crimean town of Feodosia in December 1941. Ukrainian women I spoke with also told about trying to make themselves look old or contagious. They would limp, cough, and cover or smear dirt or coal on their faces to make them look dirty.

Did you come across any specific information regarding sex crimes and prostitution during the 1940s in the area of former Yugoslavia?

Yes, the Chief Sanitation Officer in Poland argued that a brothel visit was not a social relationship, but a “material and economic kind,” and therefore such sex with Poles, Greeks, Yugoslavians, and others, was allowed. This infers, as another scholar pointed out, that there is evidence of Yugoslavians in brothels. Additionally, historian Danijel Jelaš found a document for me from 1941 in the Osijek archives that discusses the plans for multiple brothels in Osijek and the sanitation procedures required. I suspect there were others in additional cities in the former Yugoslavia. We need further research to ascertain how many brothels there actually were and what kinds of sexual violence people endured.

In the thesis, you also analyzed crimes of the Red Army. Moreover, you point out that in Berlin alone, more than 90,000 women visited doctors’ offices because of sexual abuse perpetrated by the Soviet soldiers. What were the causes of these mass rapes committed by Stalin’s troops? How did the dictator perceive reports on this type of crime when they had reached him?

There are several points: The first concerns motivation. The Soviet soldiers did not rape en mass as a political act to degrade the German enemy. They raped females of all nationalities and cultures. The Red Army consisted of soldiers from across Europe who raped Ukrainians, Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Yugoslavians, Jews, Christians, etc. The primary motivating factor in rape is sexual desire (not power or politics), and rapists use their power to obtain what they want, which is sexual satisfaction. Similarly, sexual desire motivated men to visit German brothels and have sexual intercourse with females who were not there to enjoy their afternoons.

Secondly, the desperation men and women felt as they went into battle or continued to fight is something we can barely begin to understand. Imagine the trauma of seeing Germans carting off women and girls to serve in Wehrmacht or SS brothels, of seeing entire Slavic towns disappear to mass graves, and knowing their own families were malnourished and dying at home. The soldiers were living in a surreal and horrifying alcohol-infused nightmare. They had seen corpses of men, women, and children, murdered, raped, or otherwise violated and mutilated, not to mention the carcasses of cows, horses, cats, and other animals, and all the destroyed (bombed or burned) trees, houses, farmyards, outbuildings, etc. Their desperation does not excuse their actions, but it does put the rapes into their horrific context.

Thirdly, historians and the media have long ignored the sexual crimes of the Germans and other western forces and instead have highlighted the rapes and other crimes against humanity by the Red Army. They have depicted the Slavic men as an Asian horde of rapists. While the mass rapes are inexcusable and horrifying, even unimaginable to most, so are the extensive sexual crimes of the German forces.

The Germans spent an enormous amount of resources in the establishment of their extensive system of brothels that enslaved thousands of females, and likewise, Stalin was unconcerned about the welfare of civilian females. There are mixed reports, however, about the issue, because as more diplomats became aware of the raping, there was a Soviet attempt to show that an effort was being made to control the soldiers’ behavior. One of these attempts was the Marshal Rokossovsky Order #006 by which a soldier would be executed for raping. However, various diplomats report meetings with Stalin who dismissed the sexual crimes. Even Yugoslavia’s Milovan Djilas wrote about how Stalin completely ignored the issue and acted angrily when Djilas asked about the conduct of the Soviet soldiers, who were not only raping Germans, but also Yugoslavians. I too acknowledge the horrors the Red Army experienced and the soldiers’ heroism pushing back the Germans, but unlike Stalin, I don’t believe that a soldier was entitled to “have fun with a woman or take some trifle” (Djilas).

Military brothels were for the SS, Wehrmacht, other military forces, and even concentration camp prisoners who could earn a visit to a brothel. Women and girls of all nationalities were forced to serve dozens of men a day. The main purpose of this was to try to prevent the spread of venereal diseases. This is just part of the picture of sexual crimes in WWII.
German military brothel during WWII

What social consequences did victims of sexual abuse have to deal with when the war ended? You mentioned that some abused women were referred to as “German whores” upon return to their hometowns and that their children, who were born after rape, were also victims of discrimination.

Because of patriarchy and cultural norms, local people abused those who had been raped or had suffered prostitution. People condemned and shamed females as whores for consorting with the enemy, regardless of the circumstances, and society did not condemn those who had abused their power to obtain sex. Even in Germany, but more so in the more conservative Slavic countries, there was silence surrounding the rapes, and victims were unable to obtain counseling. One Ukrainian family I interviewed suffered for generations because a Polish man drugged the mother and raped her. When she came home her townspeople called her a German whore. She bore her rapist’s child, who in turn was bullied and called a German bitch (even though the rapist was Polish). Furthermore, many people in conservative societies did not view exchanging food for sex as rape, even though probably in most cases, the female normally wouldn’t have sex with the person who had the food. Instead of blaming the person with the food who used their power to obtain sex, both men and women blame the victim. Even my Ukrainian translator thought this particular woman wasn’t raped, since she was sleeping, but the man drugged her, and of course, a sleeping person cannot consent to sex.

How is it that, despite the abundance of available materials (official documents, testimonies, memoirs, etc.), such topics remain historiographically neglected? Have you noticed any progress on this issue in the last ten years?

Simply answered – shame, silence, and patriarchy. If someone is attacked, people ask what the victims were wearing or if they were intoxicated, none of which is relevant because the perpetrator is to blame. Women and men hold these institutionalized patriarchal views, and thus victims feel shame and do not speak out. Male and female victims need to talk, analyze themselves and heal, so they can heal their children and students. Historians need to tackle these topics so we can better understand why people rape, whether during peacetime or war. Because of these persistent views, professors may discourage graduate students from tackling sexual violence. One educated Croatian woman asked me why I had chosen my topic because it was a “man’s topic.” This kind of archaic view hampers progress toward raising awareness of sexual violence, which is a gender-neutral human rights topic that affects males, females, and transgender people.

When I presented my research in Cherkasy, Ukraine, it was momentous occasion because many people in Cherkasy had not yet spoken publicly about their trauma. It was as if my talk about sexual violence gave them permission to also start discussing and sharing. When we break the silence and fight the shame to honestly face our own trauma, we can better understand the trauma of others, the complexities of victimhood, war, and violent sexual and other crimes. It is extremely difficult to openly admit and discuss one’s own rape or the rape of a family member. Despite the difficulties of recovery and healing, war- and peacetime survivors of sexual violence can help us understand other trauma if they face their own pain. I was only able to do the research I did and to continue to write because for the last twenty-nine years I have faced my own complex trauma of sexual abuse and other childhood familial issues. It has been extremely challenging at times, but well worth the effort because I have changed the world for the better in small, but meaningful ways—by writing, talking, and raising children who will be less likely to be victimized as I was. Understanding our complicity in crimes around the world or the motives behind mass shooters or rapists in the US can help us better teach our children and students to not engage in such violence. Similarly, the more Croatians better understand their personal and societal traumas by breaking the silence and shame, they too can help Europe and the world grow toward a more peaceful and healthy society.

And yes, now there is much more written on the topic of WWII sexual violence than when I first tackled it. However, the general public still is not aware of the widespread system of brothels the Germans established nor how much the drunken Axis soldiers raped, yet a larger portion are acquainted with the extent of the rapes by the animalistic Red Army. This needs to change.

Sexual crimes in WWII came in all forms: rape, forced prostitution in military and camp brothels (sexual slavery), and prostitution on the streets due to starvation.
Camp Brothel

This interview was published in Vox Feminae, a Croatian magazine, with the help of Luka Pejić:  https://voxfeminae.net/pravednost/zaboravljena-povijest-seksualnih-zlocina-u-drugom-svjetskom-ratu/.

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