Sexual Violence and WWII, General

Submitted to ABC-CLIO encyclopedia Atrocities, Massacres, and War Crimes: An Encyclopedia, 2013.

World War II, Sexual Violence During

For decades after World War II, the widespread sexual violence that occurred was viewed as an inevitable side effect of war. Perpetrators, officials, and historians treated victims with disdain, used words such as “comfort women” and “whores,” and dismissed the brutality inherent in rape. As information emerges and international law evolves, sexual crimes increasingly are being uncovered, and more respect is given to the victims.

The number of children born in occupied territories reveal an extremely high number of sexual encounters. It is unlikely that these were all without coercion. Wartime sexual violence includes sex in exchange for food or other necessities, prostitution on streets or in brothels, rape, and sexual slavery. Power differentials between occupier and occupied tempt soldiers or administrators to coerce desperate people to have sex. Similarly, females and males were forced to work on streets or in houses of prostitution.

Without penicillin, syphilis and gonorrhea threatened military powers. Treating soldiers could take months. Despite the rubber shortage and the rhetoric against prostitution and licentiousness, leaders provided soldiers with condoms and required venereal disease examinations. American, German, and other forces arrested and forced women to undergo gynecological examinations. Studies reveal the extensive involvement and acquiescence of state, military, and other institutional forces involved in controlling sexual activities, including the organization of sexual slavery.

Germany and Japan engaged in sexual slavery. Germany has never acknowledged these widespread human rights abuses, despite the worldwide discussion of Japanese forced prostitution. Beginning in 1931, the Japanese forced up to 200,000 poor, rural Korean and other females to serve soldiers. The women were beaten, gang raped, and kept in seclusion. Approximately ninety percent died in captivity. Until 1993, the Japanese government denied coercion of the women. Despite recent acknowledgment of these crimes, the government has issued no individual compensation.

It is a myth that Germany’s racial laws prevented sex with Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, and Africans. The German state organized a minimum of 500 brothels for the Wehrmacht, SS, forced laborers, and camp inmates. Tens of thousands of females of all nationalities slaved, abducted from throughout the Reich. Provided with unlimited females, the pregnant or sick were murdered.

Americans arranged brothels wherever they fought, often with separate brothels for blacks and whites. General Patton considered setting up a system similar to Japanese sex stations. To prevent American rapes of Japanese, which occurred at a rate of up to hundreds daily, the Japanese government organized destitute Japanese to service the occupying Americans. Americans raped in England, Wales, Ireland, and Germany, in numbers similar to other armed forces. In France, for example, it is possible that American soldiers raped over 3,500 French women from June 1944 to June 1945 (Lilly 2003).

Hitler’s 1941 Commissar Order gave instructions to treat the Slavic population with complete ruthlessness. Women, sometimes pregnant, were gang raped, commonly mutilated, and killed. The numbers are unknown, but accounts come from a wide variety of sources across the Reich revealing widespread rape. The Main SS Court Office (Hauptamt SS-Gericht) declared that the rapes should not be punished severely, considering the extenuating circumstances of the soldiers’ lack of sexual intercourse and the large amounts of alcohol consumed (Gertjejanssen 2004, 287).

Well publicized are the mass rapes in Nanking, China. The Japanese violated and mutilated tens of thousands of females. Whether the Red Army mutilated their victims as Germans and Japanese did is unknown, but countless died from gang rapes as they headed west. German stories of Soviet mass rape appeared first in the world. Scholars and reporters racialized the Soviets, fueling the myth of western moral sexual behavior in contrast to an alleged eastern bestial nature.

Another myth was that the Red Army raped only Germans, encouraging the debunked feminist theory that wartime rapes are rapes of national revenge, only having to do with desire for revenge, power, and destroying the enemy. In reality, Soviet soldiers raped Russians, Ukrainians, Balts, Poles, Germans, and others, indicating these rapes stemmed more from a sense of sexual desire and a sense of a soldier’s right to rape.

Although the shame of sexual violence was great for all females alike, certain stories were publicized before others, and only recently have stories and analysis of German or American sexual atrocities begun to emerge. The silence has served perpetrators and armies well.

Wendy Jo Gertjejanssen

See also: Brothels; comfort women; forced prostitution; gender violence; prostitution; sexual slavery; rape; venereal disease; World War II.

Selected Bibliography 

Beevor, Antony. The Fall of Berlin 1945. New York: Viking Penguin, 2002.

Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. New York, Basic Books: 1997.

Gertjejanssen, Wendy Jo. Victims, Heroes, Survivors: Sexual Violence on the Eastern Front During World War II. PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 2004.

Hicks, G. The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.

Lie, John. “The State As Pimp: Prostitution and the Patriarchal State in Japan in the 1940s.” The Sociological Quarterly 38:2 (1997), 251-263.

Lilly, Robert. Taken by Force: Rape and American GIs in Europe in World War II. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Seidler, Franz. Prostitution, Homosexualität, Selbstverstümmelung: Probleme der deutschen Sanitätsführung 1939-1945. Neckargemünd: Kurt Vowinkel Verlag, 1977.