The fall of berlin 1945, p.51
The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.51Antony Beevor
‘On the saw. Here, see?’ The address was written in indelible pencil on the blade.
Other soldiers bribed German women with bread to sew their booty up in a sheet to make a parcel. It was a matter of pride to distribute gifts of distinction to family and friends at home, such as hats or watches. The obsession with watches prized them above far more valuable items. Soldiers would often wear several timepieces, with at least one on Moscow time and another on Berlin time. It was for this reason that they continued to prod civilians in the stomach with their sub-machine guns, demanding, ‘Uri, uri!’ well after the surrender. And Germans would try to explain in the Soviet version of pidgin-German that their watches had already been taken: ‘Uhr schon Kamerad’ – ‘watch already surrender’.
Russian boys, some as young as twelve, turned up in Berlin to loot. Two of them, when arrested, admitted that they had come all the way from Vologda, well to the north of Moscow. Less surprisingly, foreign workers, in a carnival atmosphere, were responsible for a ‘considerable amount of looting’ in all liberated areas, a US Army report stated. ‘The men head for the wine cellars, the women for the clothing shops and both gather whatever food they can on the way.’ But ‘much of the looting attributed to foreigners is actually being carried out by the Germans themselves’.
The German loathing and fear of forced labourers were visceral. They were horrified when the Western Allies insisted that they should be fed first. ‘Even the Bishop of Munster,’ Murphy wrote to the Secretary of State on 1 May, ‘is quoted as referring to all displaced persons as Russians and demanding that the Allies should afford Germany protection from these “inferior peoples”.’ Contrary to German expectations, however, forced labourers were responsible for surprisingly little violence, when one considers how they had suffered after their deportation to Germany.
In Berlin, the feelings of the civilian population were very mixed. While embittered by the looting and rape, they were also astonished and grateful for the Red Army’s major efforts to feed them. Nazi propaganda had convinced them that they would be systematically starved. General Berzarin, who went out and chatted with Germans queuing at Red Army field kitchens, soon became almost as much of a hero to Berliners as he was to his own men. His death in a drunken motorcycle accident soon afterwards provoked widespread sadness and rumours among the Germans that he had been murdered by the NKVD.
Germans were surprised by a less altruistic form of food aid. Soviet soldiers turned up with chunks of meat and told housewives to cook it for them in return for a share. Like all soldiers, they wanted ‘to get their feet under a table’ in a real kitchen in a real home. They always brought alcohol with them too. Everyone would drink solemnly to peace after eating, and then the soldiers would insist on a toast ‘to the ladies’.
The worst mistake of the German military authorities had been their refusal to destroy alcohol stocks in the path of the Red Army’s advance. This decision was based on the idea that a drunken enemy could not fight. Tragically for the female population, however, it was exactly what Red Army soldiers seemed to need to give them courage to rape as well as to celebrate the end of such a terrible war.
The round of victory celebrations did not signify an end to fear in Berlin. Many German women were raped as a part of the extended celebrations. A young Soviet scientist heard from an eighteen-year-old German girl with whom he had fallen in love that on the night of 1 May a Red Army officer had forced the muzzle of his pistol into her mouth and had kept it there throughout his attack to ensure her compliance.
Women soon learned to disappear during the ‘hunting hours’ of the evening. Young daughters were hidden in storage lofts for days on end. Mothers emerged into the street to fetch water only in the early morning, when Soviet soldiers were sleeping off the alcohol from the night before. Sometimes the greatest danger came from one mother giving away the hiding place of other girls in a desperate bid to save her own daughters.
Berliners remember that, because all the windows had been blown in, you could hear the screams every night. Estimates from the two main Berlin hospitals ranged from 95,000 to 130,000 rape victims. One doctor deduced that out of approximately 100,000 women raped in Berlin, some 10,000 died as a result, mostly from suicide. The death rate was thought to be much higher among the 1.4 million who had suffered in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia. Altogether at least 2 million German women are thought to have been raped, and a substantial minority, if not a majority, appear to have suffered multiple rape. A friend of Ursula von Kardorff and the Soviet spy Schulze-Boysen was raped by ‘twenty-three soldiers one after the other’. She had to be stitched up in hospital afterwards.
The reactions of German women to the experience of rape varied greatly. For many victims, especially protected young girls who had little idea of what was being done to them, the psychological effects could be devastating. Relationships with men became extremely difficult, often for the rest of their lives. Mothers were in general far more concerned about their children, and this priority made them surmount what they had endured. Other women, both young and adult, simply tried to blank out the experience. ‘I must repress a lot in order, to some extent, to be able to live,’ one woman acknowledged, when refusing to talk about the subject. Those who did not resist and managed to detach themselves from what was happening appear to have suffered much less. Some described it in terms of an ‘out-of-body’ experience. ‘That feeling,’ wrote one, ‘has kept the experience from dominating the rest of my life.’
A robust cynicism of the Berlin variety also seemed to help. ‘All in all,’ wrote the anonymous diarist on 4 May, ‘we are slowly beginning to look upon the whole business of rape with a certain humour, albeit of the grimmer kind.’ They noted that the Ivans went for fatter women first of all, which provided a certain schadenfreude. Those who had not lost weight were usually the wives of Nazi Party functionaries and others who had profited from privileged positions.
Rape had become a collective experience – the diarist noted – and therefore it should be collectively overcome by talking among themselves. Yet men, when they returned, tried to forbid any mention of the subject, even out of their presence. Women discovered that while they had to come to terms with what had happened to them, the men in their lives often made things far worse. Those who had been present at the time were shamed at their inability to protect them. Hanna Gerlitz gave in to two drunk Soviet officers to save both her husband and herself. ‘Afterwards,’ she wrote, ‘I had to console my husband and help restore his courage. He cried like a baby.’
Men who returned home, having evaded capture or been released early from prison camps, seem to have frozen emotionally on hearing that their wife or fiancée had been raped in their absence. (Many prisoners who had been in Soviet camps for longer periods also suffered from ‘desexualization’ as a result of starvation.) They found the idea of the violation of their women very hard to accept. Ursula von Kardorff heard of a young aristocrat who immediately broke off his engagement when he learned that his fiancée had been raped by five Russian soldiers. The anonymous diarist recounted to her former lover, who turned up unexpectedly, the experiences which the inhabitants of the building had survived. ‘You’ve turned into shameless bitches,’ he burst out. ‘Every one of you. I can’t bear to listen to these stories. You’ve lost all your standards, the whole lot of you!’ She then gave him her diary to read, and when he found that she had written about being raped, he stared at her as though she had gone out of her mind. He left a couple of days later, saying that he was off to search for food. She never saw him again.
A daughter, mother and grandmother who were all raped together just outside Berlin consoled themselves with the idea that the man of the house had died during the war. He would have been killed trying to prevent it, they told themselves. Yet in reality few German men appear to have demonstrated what would admittedly have been a futile courage. One well-known actor, Harry Liebke, was killed by a bottle smashed over his head as he tried to sav
If anyone attempted to defend a woman against a Soviet attacker it was either a father or a young son trying to protect his mother. ‘The thirteen-year-old Dieter Sahl,’ neighbours wrote in a letter shortly after the event, ‘threw himself with flailing fists at a Russian who was raping his mother in front of him. He did not succeed in anything except getting himself shot.’
Perhaps the most grotesque myth of Soviet propaganda was the notion ‘that German intelligence left a great number of women in Berlin infected with venereal diseases with the purpose of infecting Red Army officers’. Another NKVD report specifically ascribed it to Werwolf activity. ‘Some members of the underground organization, Werwolf mostly girls, received from their leaders the task to harm Soviet commanders and render them unfit for duty.’ Even just before the attack from the Oder, Soviet military authorities explained the increase in VD rates on the grounds that ‘the enemy is prepared to use any methods to weaken us and to put our soldiers and officers out of action’.
Large numbers of women soon found that they had to queue at medical centres. It was small consolation to find so many in the same condition. One woman doctor set up a venereal diseases clinic in an air-raid shelter, with the sign ‘Typhoid’ written in Cyrillic outside to keep Russian soldiers away. As the film The Third Man illustrated, penicillin was soon the most sought-after item on the black market. The abortion rate also soared. It has been estimated that around 90 per cent of victims who became pregnant obtained abortions, although this figure appears extremely high. Many of the women who did give birth abandoned the child in the hospital, usually because they knew that their husband or fiancé would never accept its presence at home.
At times it is hard to know whether young Soviet officers suffered from cynicism or a completely blind idealism. ‘The Red Army is the most advanced moral army in the world,’ a senior lieutenant declared to a sapper officer. ‘Our soldiers attack only an armed enemy. No matter where we are, we always set an example of humanity towards the local population and any displays of violence and looting are totally foreign to us.’
Most frontline rifle divisions demonstrated better discipline than, say, tank brigades and rear units. And a wide range of anecdotal evidence indicates that Red Army officers who were Jewish went out of their way to protect German women and girls. Yet it would appear that the majority of officers and soldiers turned a blind eye to Stalin’s order of 20 April, issued through the Stavka, ordering all troops ‘to change their attitudes towards Germans… and treat them better’. Significantly, the reason given for the instruction was that ‘brutal treatment’ provoked a stubborn resistance ‘and such a situation is not convenient for us’.
A liberated French prisoner of war approached Vasily Grossman in the street on 2 May. ‘Monsieur,’ he said, ‘I like your army and that is why it is painful for me to see how it is treating girls and women. It is going to do great harm to your propaganda.’ This indeed proved to be the case. In Paris, Communist Party leaders, riding high on the crest of admiration for the Red Army, were appalled when returning prisoners of war recounted the less heroic version of events. But it still took a long time before the message began to get through to the Soviet authorities.
Many think that the Red Army was given two weeks to plunder and rape in Berlin before discipline was exerted, but it was not nearly so simple as that. On 3 August, three months after the surrender in Berlin, Zhukov had to issue even tougher regulations to control ‘robbery’, ‘physical violence’ and ‘scandalous events’. All the Soviet propaganda about ‘liberation from the fascist clique’ was starting to backfire, especially when the wives and daughters of German Communists were treated as badly as everyone else. ‘Such deeds and unsanctioned behaviour,’ the order stated, ‘are compromising us very badly in the eyes of German anti-fascists, particularly now that the war is over, and greatly assist fascist campaigns against the Red Army and the Soviet government.’ Commanders were blamed for allowing their men to wander off unsupervised. ‘Unsanctioned absences’ had to cease. Sergeants and corporals were to check that their men were present every morning and every evening. Soldiers were to be issued with identity cards. Troops were not to leave Berlin without movement orders. In fact, the order contained a list of measures which any western army would have considered as normal even in barracks at home.
Articles in the international press followed the subject throughout the summer. The effect on client Communist Parties abroad, then at the height of their prestige, clearly alarmed the Kremlin. ‘This scoundrel campaign,’ wrote Molotov’s deputy, ‘is aimed to damage the very high reputation of the Red Army and to shift the responsibility for all that is happening in the occupied countries on to the Soviet Union… Our numerous friends all over the world need to be armed with information and facts for counter-propaganda.’
Standards of morality had indeed taken a battering, but in the circumstances there was little option. On returning to Berlin, Ursula von Kardorff saw the scenes of impoverished people bartering near the Brandenburg Gate. She was immediately reminded of a line in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, ‘First comes food, then come morals.’
The Brandenburg Gate had become the main focus for barter and the black market at the beginning of May, when liberated prisoners of war and forced labourers traded their loot. Ursula von Kardorff found all sorts of women prostituting themselves for food or the alternative currency of cigarettes. ‘Willkommen in Shanghai,’ remarked one cynic. Young women of thirty looked years older, she noticed.
The need to survive had distorted more than just morals. The anonymous diarist, a former publisher, was approached by a Soviet sailor so young that he should still have been at school. He asked her to find him a clean and decent girl who was of good character and affectionate. He would provide her with food, the usual ration being bread, herring and bacon. The writer Ernst Jünger, when a Wehrmacht officer in occupied Paris, observed that food is power. The power, of course, becomes even greater when a woman has a child to feed, as so many German soldiers found in France. In Berlin, the black-market exchange rate was based on Zigarettenwährung – ‘cigarette currency’ – so when American soldiers arrived with almost limitless cartons at their disposal, they did not need to rape.
The definition of rape had become blurred into sexual coercion. A gun or physical violence became unnecessary when women faced starvation. This could be described as the third stage in the evolution of rape in Germany in 1945. The fourth was a strange form of cohabitation in which many Soviet officers settled in with German ‘occupation wives’ who replaced the Soviet ‘campaign wife’. Real wives back in the Soviet Union had been furious to hear of ‘campaign wives’, but their moral outrage knew no bounds when they heard of the new trend. The Soviet authorities were also appalled and enraged when a number of Red Army officers, intent on staying with their German mistresses, deserted once it was time to return to the Motherland.
After being approached by the young sailor, the diarist wondered whether she herself had become a whore by accepting the protection and nutritional largesse of a cultivated Russian major. Like most of his countrymen, he respected her education, while German men she knew tended to dislike women who had been to university. Yet wherever the truth lay between rape and prostitution, these pacts to obtain food and protection had thrown women back to a primitive, almost primeval state.
Ursula von Kardorff, on the other hand, foresaw that although German women had been forced to become even more resilient than German men, they would soon have to revert to stereotype on the men’s return from prison camps. ‘Perhaps we women,’ she wrote, ‘now face our hardest job in this war – to give understanding and comfort, support and co
Germany had fought on for as long and as bitterly as it did because the idea of defeat produced ‘a conviction of total catastrophe’. Germans believed that their country would be totally subjugated and that their soldiers would spend the rest of their lives as slaves in Siberia. Yet once resistance collapsed with Hitler’s death, the change in German attitudes surprised Russians in Berlin. They were struck ‘by the docility and discipline of the people’, having half-expected the sort of ferocious partisan war which the Soviet people had mounted. Serov told Beria that the population was behaving ‘with unquestioning obedience’. One of Chuikov’s staff officers ascribed this to an ingrained ‘respect for the powers that be’. At the same time, Red Army officers were amazed at the way so many Germans, quite unselfconsciously, produced Communist flags out of scarlet Nazi banners with the swastika cut out of the centre. Berliners referred to this turnaround as ‘Heil Stalin!’
This submissiveness, however, did not stop SMERSH and the NKVD from seeing every fugitive or incident as an example of Werwolf activity. Each NKVD Frontier Guards Regiment was arresting over 100 Germans a day in early May. Over half were handed over to SMERSH. Some of the worst denouncers to the Soviet authorities were former Nazis, perhaps trying to put their denunciations in before they themselves were revealed. SMERSH blackmailed former members of the Nazi Party into helping NKVD units hunt down SS and Wehrmacht officers. Squads with sniffer dogs were used to search apartments and allotment sheds, where many German deserters had so recently been hiding from SS and Feldgendarmerie detachments.
Soviet sabotage theories included the idea ‘that leaders of fascist organizations are preparing mass poisonings in Berlin through selling poisoned lemonade and beer’. Children found playing with panzerfausts and abandoned weapons faced interrogation as suspected Werwolf members, and SMERSH was interested only in confessions. The one sign of overt defiance appears to have been a handful of Nazi posters in Lichtenberg, proclaiming, ‘The Party Lives On!’ There was also one striking exception to the general pattern of submission. On the night of 20 May, ‘an unknown number of bandits’ attacked Special NKVD camp No. 10 and liberated 466 prisoners. Major Kyuchkin, the camp commandant, was ‘at a banquet’ when the attack took place. Beria was furious. After the NKVD’s strong criticism of senior army officers for their lack of vigilance, this incident was deeply embarrassing.
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