Berlin 1961: The Legacy of Soviet Rape in Germany

Berlin 1961 Frederick Kempe

I first visited four of my elderly East German aunts as a college student in the late 1970s, they were willing to discuss almost anything except the final days of World War II and the first days of Soviet military occupation.  Only over time and in whispers, did one of my aunt’s share the story. She and her sisters, she said, had each suffered either rape or some other sexual abuse at the hands of troops that history recorded as their liberators and allies.

So when I began to reconstruct the atmosphere of Berlin in 1961, having chosen to illustrate it through vignettes of individuals throughout the book, I thought long about whether to include Marta Hiller’s own story of rape. Though the details were sensational, the story was sadly routine.

According to estimates extracted from hospital records, between 90,000 and 130,000 Berlin women had been raped during the last days of the war and the first days of Soviet rule – a soldiers’ expression of frustration and rage after a war in which some 20 million Soviets had died. Tens of thousands of others had fallen victim elsewhere in the Soviet zone. Hiller’s had expected her anonymously written book, “A Woman in Berlin,” to be welcomed after its publication in 1959 by a people who might want the world to know that they, too, had been the victims of war. Instead, Berliners responded either with hostility or silence.

The world felt little sympathy for any pain inflicted on a German people who had brought the world so much suffering. And Berlin women, who had lived through the humiliation, had no desire to recall it. Berlin men found it too painful to be reminded of their failure to protect their wives and daughters.  Hiller’s writing was too graphic for easy digestion:

Suddenly his finger is on my mouth, stinking of horse and tobacco. I open my eyes. A stranger’s hands expertly pulling apart my jaws. Eye to eye. Then with great deliberation he drops a gob of gathered spit into my mouth.
I’m numb. Not with disgust, only cold. My spine is frozen: icy, dizzy shivers around the back of my head. I feel myself gliding and falling, down, down through the pillows and the floorboards. So that’s what it means to sink into the ground.

Hillers would die at age ninety in 2001, never knowing that that her book would be republished and become a best-seller in several languages, including German, in 2003. It would be made into a major German movie in 2008, becoming a favorite of feminists everywhere.

Perhaps nothing could better capture the German attitude of 1961 toward their occupiers than Hillers’s book and Berliners’ aversion to reading it. The East German relationship to their Soviet military occupiers, who still numbered 400,000 to 500,000 by 1961, was a mixture of pity and dread, complacency and amnesia. Most East Germans had grown resigned to their seemingly permanent cohabitation.

Among the minority who hadn’t, many were fleeing as refugees.

Fred Kempe is president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. His latest book, Berlin 1961, will be available May 10. This blog series originally published by Reuters.

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