Systematic Rape by the German Military: Did it happen or not?

Recently, news bastion CNN published a lengthy (for CNN) article on allegations of rape by the German military during World War II. There can be no question as to whether any level of rape occurred during WWII in the European theater. Rape occurs in every war. I think it’s lost on people that the principal victims of every war are not soldiers, but common individuals including women, children and the aged. I never got why we have these grand celebrations for soldiers and not for all the nameless victims of senseless warfare.

Maybe I do get it.

It has always been interesting to me that the issue of rape has been so widely downplayed in commonly published historical accounts of the Holocaust. Accounts of systematic rape, particularly in Nanking, China are common in discussions of the Japanese occupation of East Asia during the early half of the 20th century. To be fair, it was not until the late 20th century that it became a major issue in Japanese politics and discussions of its wartime past. It continues to be the subject of contentious debate amongst conservative war revisionists and groups that seek to minimize the strong right wing presence in Japanese politics.

I am absolutely certain that rape and sexual abuse occurred in German concentration camps. I cannot really see how it couldn’t happen under conditions which promoted the total dehumanization of a particular group of people. Rape as a tool of war is as old as war itself. Every group on earth has practiced it in every conflict that has ever occurred. Some, though, were more skilled than others.

In my opinion, there are two possibilities. First, rape by the German military in World War II was not systematic, only sparsely occurred, the result of a few “bad eggs.” Second, rape by the German military was, in fact, systematic, was encouraged or intentionally overlooked by military planners and was an important tool in the complete obliteration of Jewish people, culture and identity.

If the first case is true, as has been implied by critics of the allegations in the CNN article, then there is a story to tell, but one in which the German people and the German military have nothing to answer to. We should be familiar with this scenario. This is the option that the Bush admin would have us believe about military scandals such as Abu Ghraib. Bush and Company really only followed a tradition of other American Presidential administrations which covered up military complicity in scandals such as the Mi Lai massacre and a host of other atrocities: that the crimes committed by soldiers are of their own accord and are the actions of only a few rogue soldiers. Not only is this convenient for the military administration, but it is also convenient for all of us, collectively.

Clearly, such a narrative is far too easy, and it should be noted that the major proponents of such a message are those with the most to lose.

Obviously, assuming that rape occurred (of which I am certain), the second possibility is the most likely. German military authorities knew that the conditions for rape were there, and intentionally chose not to enforce policies which would have reigned the reprehensible behavior of its soldiers. Shades of Abu Ghraib.

That millions of people were systematically killed simply for being member of a particular ethnic group is terrible, but (oddly) palatable to most. That women and children were sexually violated, raped and mutilated by low level soldiers who could be one’s sons, brothers, fathers or neighbors is quite another matter. It is of no surprise, therefore, that conversations of war are disturbingly muted on the subject.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

One response to “Systematic Rape by the German Military: Did it happen or not?”

  1. teacherpatti says :

    How do we teach men not to rape, under any circumstances?

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