ugg cardigan boots The rape of Berlin
The USSR’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany World War Two 70 years ago is seen as the nation’s most glorious moment. But there is another story of mass rapes by Soviet soldiers of German women in the dying days of the war.
Some readers may find this story disturbing.
Dusk is falling in Treptower Park on the outskirts of Berlin and I am looking up at a statue dramatically outlined against a lilac sky. Twelve metres (40ft) high, it depicts a Soviet soldier grasping a sword in one hand and a small German girl in the other, and stamping on a broken swastika.
This is the final resting place for 5,000 of the 80,000 Soviet troops who fell in the Battle of Berlin between 16 April and 2 May 1945.
The colossal proportions of the monument reflect the scale of the sacrifice. At the top of a long flight of steps, you can peer into the base of the statue, which is lit up like a religious shrine. An inscription saying that the Soviet people saved European civilisation from fascism catches my eye.
Vladimir Gelfand, a young Jewish lieutenant from central Ukraine, wrote with extraordinary frankness from 1941 through to the end of the war, despite the Soviet military’s ban on diaries, which were seen as a security risk.
The so far unpublished manuscript paints a picture of disarray in the regular battalions miserable rations, lice, routine anti Semitism and theft, with men even stealing their comrades’ boots.
In February 1945, Gelfand was stationed by the Oder River dam, preparing for the final push on Berlin, and he describes how his comrades surrounded and overpowered a battalion of women fighters.
“The captured German female cats declared they were avenging their dead husbands,” he writes. “They must be destroyed without mercy. Our soldiers suggest stabbing them through their genitals but I would just execute them.”
It gets worse.
One of the most revealing passages in Gelfand’s diary is dated 25 April, once he had reached Berlin. Gelfand was whirling around on a bicycle by the River Spree, the first time he’d ever ridden one, when he came across a group of German women carrying suitcases and bundles.
In broken German, he asked them where they were going and why they had left their homes.
“With horror on their faces, they told me what had happened on the first night of the Red Army’s arrival,” he writes.
“‘They poked here,’ explained the beautiful German girl, lifting up her skirt, ‘all night. They were old, some were covered in pimples and they all climbed on me and poked no less than 20 men,’ she burst into tears.
“‘They raped my daughter in front of me,’ her poor mother added, ‘and they can still come back and rape her again.’ This thought horrified everyone.
“‘Stay here,’ the girl suddenly threw herself at me,
‘sleep with me! You can do whatever you want with me, but only you!'”
By this stage, German soldiers had been guilty of sexual violence and other horrors in the Soviet Union for almost four years, as Gelfand had become aware as he fought his way to Berlin.
“He went through so many villages in which the Nazis had killed everyone, even small children. And he saw evidence of rape,” says his son, Vitaly.
The Wehrmacht was supposedly a well ordered force of Aryans who would never contemplate sex with untermenschen.
But the ban was ignored, says Oleg Budnitsky, a historian at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Nazi commanders were in fact so concerned about venereal disease that they established a chain of military brothels throughout the occupied territories.
It’s hard to find direct evidence of how the German soldiers treated Russian women many victims never survived but in the German Russian Museum in Berlin, director Jorg Morre shows me a photograph taken in Crimea from a German soldier’s personal wartime album. A woman’s corpse is sprawled on the ground.
“It looks like she was killed by raping, or after the rape. Her skirt is pulled up and the hands are in front of the face,” he says.
“It’s a shocking photo. We had discussions in the museum, should we show the photos this is war, this is sexual violence under German policy in the Soviet Union. We are showing war. Not talking about war but showing it.”
As the Red Army advanced into what the Soviet press called “the lair of the fascist beast” posters encouraged troops to show their anger: “Soldier: You are now on German soil. The hour of revenge has struck!”
In fact, the political department of the 19th Army, which fought its way into Germany along the Baltic Coast, declared that a true Soviet soldier would be so full of hatred that he would be repulsed by sex with Germans. But once again soldiers proved the ideologists wrong.
While researching his 2002 book, Berlin, The Downfall, historian Antony Beevor found documents about sexual violence in the state archive of the Russian Federation. They were sent by the NKVD, the secret police, to their boss, Lavrentiy Beria, in late 1944.
“These were passed on to Stalin,” says Beevor. “You can actually see from the ticks whether they’ve been read or not and they report on the mass rapes in East Prussia and the way that German women would try to kill their children, and kill themselves, to avoid such a fate.”
Another wartime diary, this time kept by the fiancee of an absent German soldier, shows that some women adapted to the appalling circumstances,
in order to survive.