In February 1945 the attic apartment at Richthofen-Straße 13 was reported as being „relatively undamaged“ by actress Bruni Löbel who lived there during her relationship with Hans Wolfgang Hillers and became a lifelong friend of Marta. Shortly after, she left for Prague. Films were still being produced and offered the best of all opportunities for cast and crew to sit out the end of the war far away from beleaguered Berlin: In Prague, Bavaria, or Austria.
Advancing from the South, it was the 8th Guards Army (8-я гвардейская армия) under the command of General Chuikov and the 1st Guards Tank Army (1-я гвардейская танковая армия) that seized Tempelhof Airport on the evening of April 26; the first units to occupy the city district. Chuikov established his headquarters a stone’s throw away from Manfred-von-Richthofen-Straße 13 in Schulenburgring 2.
It is reasonable to assume that all the „honoured enemies“ who went in and out of the house during the first days and nights belonged to these two units: Anonymous‘ horse grooms, the jaundiced soldier, the three unknown rapists, the unhelpful officers, the Siberian Petka and his buddies, sub lieutenant Anatol from Ukraine (later transferred to Chuikov’s staff), schoolteacher and sergeant Andrei with the icy-blue eyes, sixteen-year-old Vanya, the vicious lieutenant with the pale blond hair and the hiking pole, the Georgian, the persistent baker, saintly Stepan and his friends, the major and his Uzbek and all the many others. Both units had taken part in the battle of Stalingrad which fits Marta’s report, many of „their troops“ had fought at Stalingrad and wore a special medal.
On April 29, most likely the same troops occupied the near St. Joseph’s hospital. St. Joseph’s served as a reserve military hospital during the war, while the regular military hospital lay to the south, on Metz-Platz. In one of the two hospitals both the major and the sullen lieutenant were treated, while it was probably in the civilian St. Joseph’s that an examination station for raped women was established later on. Two days after the occupation of St. Joseph’s, on May 1, a fighter plane crashed into the building. The pilot, a nurse and two doctors died.
The pattern of what followed after occupation is consistent in nearly all reports. The first search of Red Army soldiers was for alcohol and watches; later, in the afternoon and evening, the hunt for women and girls began.
People say they like that. Fat means beautiful, the more woman there is, the more her body differs from that of a man.(1)
In reality, the preferred „prey“ of Soviet soldiers were girls and very young women. Gabi Köpp, in 1945 a fifteen-year-old girl trapped without her family in an Eastern Prussian village, wrote in her memoirs of the downright terror used on the captured women to hand over young girls day after day. Ms Köpp, as one of the few girls available, suffered a multitude of brutal rapes.
Russian documents (for example Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Prussian Nights or Vladimir Gelfand’s diary of his time as a Red Army officer in Germany) mention the general preference of young victims as well. Marta Hillers experienced this herself: Faced with the choice between her and the widow, the soldiers usually chose Marta; when however she and her fellow laundresses were „courted“, the soldiers first tried their luck with nineteen-year-old Gerti. Another victim even recalled a systematic classification of the women present according to age, the groups of which were raped in ascending order, starting with the very youngest.(2)
However, there might be some truth in Marta’s reflections on corpulent women. An established presentation of heroines (be it love interest or good mother) in Russian cinema was – apart from politically motivated productions such as the works of Sergei Eisenstein – that of the plump woman. In the generation saga of the film Sibiriada (1979) this image is referred to in the character of Nastya, the buxom and very young „lover of the past“. Even in The Romanovs of 2000 it appears once more in the character of the Tsarina, though typical movie heroines in Russia today are slender like everywhere else.
All of a sudden around ten o’clock we heard some shouting and a Russian voice, ‚Woman, come! Woman, come!‘ A command that’s been all too popular. In a flash all the women disappeared, hiding behind doors, crawling under carts and piles of rubble, squatting to make themselves as small as possible. But after a moment most of them, including me, re-emerged. ‚Surely they’re not going to…? At least not here, in the middle of the street. […]‘(3)
Sadly, the sceptics were mistaken, as there are eyewitness accounts of women and girls indeed being seized in the open street and publicly raped. In these cases, the last inhibition had fallen, the social taboo of public sex, existing in all cultures of the earth.
The easiest target presented, as always, the weak and helpless. Hungarian and Polish women, even female Russian slave labourers became victims as well; a few courageous voices even spoke about sexual assaults on female Red Army soldiers throughout the war.
For those reasons the explanation often pleaded by „later-borns“, of „rape as revenge“, can safely be considered as wrong. Accounts suggest that most Red Army soldiers were not hostile to German women in the literal sense – indifferent, contemptuous, unsympathetic and even gleeful, no doubt about that. But these women and girls were less an object of hate than a rightful booty that had to submit to whatever fate awaited them, that deserved to be taken by force. If there happened to be some element of revenge in it, they served as the means to an end: Revenge on German men, namely German soldiers who were punished and mocked by the rape of „their“ women. Women as „true“ (because equal) enemies never entered the equation – their resistance and cries for help were simply seen as annoying. Some accounts even suggest that the rapes were not looked upon by the perpetrators as something very bad, but at most as basically a not unpleasant peccadillo.
Which fits an aspect often neglected in discussions on the topic: that many of the young soldiers (like their whole generation worldwide, really) had never been told the facts of life. They learned half-truths and correct as well as incorrect „facts“ from more experienced comrades in the barracks tone of a community of men. Could they know what damage they did – in a purely physical sense, leaving the psychological aspect altogether out of it? Did they realise why women and girls died during rapes that went on for hours and were repeated day after day?
The unwillingness or incapacity of officers to prevent assaults makes them doubly guilty on account of their young subordinates. Young men, then just as now, liked to run riot, especially in a group of peers, had not yet developed good judgement nor the courage to swim against the current. Add to that superiors who did not perform their task of being role models, brutalisation by four years of war, the idea of having the right to punish the „bad guys“ by dint of being part of the „good guys“, and not least the freely available alcohol mentioned in every account, the extent of the assaults is not surprising.
It is estimated that up to two million German women were raped in 1945, many of them multiple times. The most reliable numbers exist for Berlin where, in contrast to rural communities or the war-ravaged eastern provinces, medical facilities were available. According to the records of the two leading hospitals, between 95.000 and 130.000 victims were raped (again, many of them multiple times).
Crimes perpetrated by German troops, whether by SS or Wehrmacht, which Soviet propaganda exploited in the same way that Nazi propaganda exploited crimes perpetrated by the Red Army, were, of course, convenient grounds to stifle any existent scruples in potential rapists.
But perhaps one does not to need to go very far for explanations. Is it unimaginable that most of these crimes happened for a very simple reason: Because the perpetrators could and would do it? Women have become the victims of sexual violence for thousands of years, and to look for particular explanations in a special case in the documented history of mankind seems nonsensical. The question ought to be why sexual assaults happen at all. The respective „disguise“, the trappings and circumstances, is only of superficial significance.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend the lawless time around war’s end from a modern point of view. Therefore it is not surprising that with the distance of time and against the background of a civilised society, but above all in face of the still existing taboo of criticism of the Soviet army in Russia, few former Red Army soldiers have been willing to remember the mass rapes since the fall of the Iron Curtain – oh, yes, they had heard of a few isolated incidents, but…
Soviet documents and the statements of some respectable voices as well as those of a handful of diehard braggarts who, even forty or fifty years later, boasted openly of the events – among familiar faces these „anecdotes“ are widespread anyway(4) – refute the weak attempt at pretended ignorance. As does Marta’s acquaintance with sub lieutenant Nikolai who broaches the subject very early on. These „amoral occurrences“ were so well known that the officer understandably wondered whether the same had happened to his friendly companion who, apparently fearless and unconcerned, walked the streets of Berlin alongside a Red Army soldier.
While his request to forget all that has happened sounds like the worst of cynicism (for which victim of rape would not have liked to forget if she had but been able to?), it was that very strategy of repression that enabled the victims to live on: In addition to their feelings of shame a not unwarranted reason for the decades-long silence on the mass rapes.
A noticeable fact in any case is that the events of ’45 took all shapes: Complete units that acted correctly as well as complete units that took part in the rapes. The famous love of Red Army soldiers for children in contrast to soldiers who beat children because they refused to tell where their mother had hid herself. Those who raped nine-year-olds, others who, having gone on for hours already, paused in their rape to allow the tortured woman to nurse her baby; Soviet soldiers who escorted a pregnant woman safely to a hospital and checked on her and her new-born daughter in the following days, as well as those who raped pregnant women or women in childbed. Those who ignored the pleas of mothers to rape them instead of their daughters, those who granted those pleas, those who shot mothers trying to protect their daughters, sometimes shooting the girls as well. Officers who looked the other way, officers who took part in the rapes, officers who paid attention that none of their subordinates abstained from rape, as well as those who destroyed alcohol where they could find it, those who prevented rapes with good words or drawn weapons, those who court-martialled and executed rapists.(5)
Marta Hillers wrote about a tiny part of those facets of the mass rapes after her personal experiences. But the main point of her notes are not simply the rapes; it is the keen observation of the behaviour man vs. woman in general. The downfall of the „myth of Man“ on German, the victorious strengthening of this myth on Russian side, the practical considerations of women who have little use for pathos and therefore are able to deal with a fall much better than men. In many ways it is a feminist book.
Yet it goes even farther than that. For the author sums up the real conclusion of her experiences in a single sobering realisation: Homo homini lupus – man is a wolf to man (after Plautus).
She herself did the best she could in a horrible situation. One bright spot in it was the short relationship to her protector, the major, whom she – according to her diary and her statement to a friend– liked very much as a human being and as a man.
[…] there is a knee-high mound strewn with greenery, marked with three wooden posts painted bright red and affixed with small handwritten plaques – edged paper under glass. I read three Russian names and the dates of their death: 26 and 27 April, 1945. […]
They’re mass-produced according to a pattern, with a white star on top […].(6)
(1) Anonymous, 2005, p. 70
(2) Münch, Ingo von: „Frau, komm!“. Die Massenvergewaltigungen deutscher Frauen und Mädchen 1944/45. Graz: Ares-Verlag, 2009, p. 107
(3) Anonymous, 2005, p. 248
(4) Among others: Interview with Evgenij Sidikhin in Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin. Die Dokumentation (ZDF History, 19.10.2008), interview with Aleksandra Kulikova in the making of Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin (DVD special features), interview with Max Färberböck (DVD special features), interview with Nina Hoss in Emma, 287/2008.
(5) For refusing to obey an order. By May 1945, rapes had been forbidden by at least two decrees.
(6) Anonymous, 2005, p. 169