Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2019-053
14 June 2019
Review by Adrian R. Lewis, The University of Kansas
Crimes Unspoken: The Rape of German Women at the End of the Second World War
By Miriam Gebhardt
Trans. Nick Somers. Malden, MA: Polity, 2017. Pp. vi, 252. ISBN 978–1–5095–1120–4.
Descriptors: Volume 2019, 20th Century, World War II Print Version

Crimes Unspoken[1] is a long overdue study of the rape, abuse, and assault of German women at the end of World War II and the early days of the Allied occupation by victorious British, American, Russian, and French soldiers. The book comprises five chapters: 1, "Seventy years too late"; 2, "Berlin and the East—chronicle of a calamity foretold"; 3, "South Germany—who will protect us from the Americans?"; 4, "Pregnant, sick, ostracized—approaches to the victims"; and 5, "The long shadow."

Little has been written on these subjects, for several reasons. The Germans started the war, were defeated, and then occupied. As usual, the victors wrote the histories. In addition, most people felt the Germans had gotten what they deserved; their army's crimes against humanity in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were unprecedented in human history. As you sow, so shall you reap. However, as generations pass, history is reexamined and, often, rewritten. German journalists and historians like Miriam Gebhardt[2] (Univ. of Konstanz) have started to reassess Allied actions in World War II, with particular attention to the bombing of civilians with napalm and high explosives. Gebhardt warns us that

the lens through which we look at this time is in urgent need of cleaning [and the] legitimacy of the recollection of the events that took place after the arrival of the Allies is still questioned…. A considerable number of those affected have never been recognized as victims. According to my calculations, at least 860,000 women … were raped after the war. At least 190,000 of them, perhaps even more, were assaulted by US soldiers, others by British, Belgian or French. Nothing has been said about these victims. (1–2)


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She estimates that Soviet soldiers raped two million German women[3] during and after the war (20, 51), to the point that, in Berlin "rape was so common in spring 1945 that women are said merely to have asked one another, 'How many times have they done you?'" (13). Compounding the suffering of these victims, the men who brutalized them, even during the occupation, went unpunished. Moreover, government agencies refused the women any sort of compensation, even when their rapes produced children.

This is an important study, but it inevitably only scratches the surface, since few of the victims Gebhardt describes are still alive. That said, she has duly combed government documents and records of institutions that helped women, children, and refugees, as well as letters, memoirs, and other sources. That scrupulous research has led her to the following conclusions:

• The narrative Americans have adopted in books and films regarding US soldiers and German women needs significant revisions.
• The Allies cannot claim the moral high ground: throughout history, victorious armies have raped, pillaged, and burned, and twentieth-century Allied armies were no different.
• Even some members of the so-acclaimed "Greatest Generation" committed horrible crimes.
• White women fared no better than Asian women in occupied countries.
• The much-discussed fears of Wehrmacht soldiers in the East stemmed in part from their guilty knowledge of the atrocities they committed in the Soviet Union and the consequences they and their country would suffer if they were defeated.

Gebhardt also points out that German rape victims who became pregnant for the most part kept mixed-race babies, disproving "the thesis that rape victims seeking abortion did so mainly for racial reasons …. Even with half-caste children of African American or North African soldiers and members of the occupying authorities, the proportion of children in homes and with foster families was only slightly higher than with white children" (142).

The chief contribution of Crimes Unspoken is its recognition of victims who endured enormous physical and emotional torments, even if it comes almost too late. Most victims and perpetrators have, seventy-some years on, taken their stories to their graves. But much more remains to be written on this subject and Miriam Gebhardt has done a valuable service in leading the way.

[1] Orig., Als die Soldaten kamen: Die Vergewaltigung deutscher Frauen am Ende des Zweiten Weltkriegs (Munich: DVA, 2015).

[2] Her previous work includes Die Angst vor dem kindlichen Tyrannen: Eine Geschichte der Erziehung im 20. Jahrhundert [The Fear of the Child Tyrant: A History of Education in the 20th Century] (Munich: DVA, 2009).

[3] See, further, Keith Lowe, Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (NY: St. Martin's, 2012) 53–57, 75.

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