Understanding Shaming’s Place in History: The Story of Germany’s Victims

It can be difficult for those who have never experienced sexual violence to understand and address the pain of survivors. From the women who’ve chosen to come forward and report instances of abuse in the entertainment industry as part of the #MeToo Movement, to less publicized cases in which women make the brave choice to speak up about sexual abuse in smaller communities, we see countless examples of poor reactions to survivors telling their stories. All too often, rather than assuring victims that they’re not to blame for their abuse, we ask them what they were wearing, how much they’d had to drink at the time of their attack, and other deeply insulting questions. This kind of reaction can inspire a profound fear of coming forward to report instances of sexual violence, as women and men alike are so often shamed for enduring trauma, though typically for vastly different reasons.

An extreme example of such shaming came after the mass rapes that occurred in Germany following World War II. As Germany fell to the Allies, German civilians on the homefront were left vulnerable and alone, unprepared to face the influx of battered soldiers. As Mary Louise Roberts has shown, Allied forces were often promised European women as their ‘prize’ for surviving war.1 European women were portrayed as ‘easy’ or ‘promiscuous,’ so when Allied soldiers arrived at the Western front and found this untrue, instances of trading sexual favors for rations, or rape when a woman refused this kind of trade, began to increase. These all too common situations were often excused by public and military officials as they were, and sometimes still are, simply considered side effects of war. In the final days of the war and for nearly a decade after, women and girls faced rape, abuse, and even murder at the hands of the Allied soldiers.2 In the anonymously published diary, A Woman in Berlin, the narrator describes the types of abuses that she and other German women endured.

Book cover of A Woman in Berlin. (©Picador/Amazon)

From this anonymous diary, we can learn a lot about the experience of sexual violence, as well as the way it affected victims. The fact that this famous work was published anonymously serves as evidence that the author, though brave enough to detail her experience in writing, did not feel comfortable attaching her real name, now known to be Marta Hillers, to the work.3 Hillers’ choice to publish her beautifully written diary anonymously teaches us something a bit frightening about the way women are treated when they speak openly about sexual violence. Today, women are often shamed for coming out about their experiences with sexual violence, and doing so often makes them targets for hatred fueled by rape culture. In the recent and heavily publicized case of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Dr. Ford’s allegations of sexual assault were dismissed, and she was ridiculed for having waited over 30 years to report an instance of sexual assault at the hands of now Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The case of Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh serves an example of the kind of recriminations that German women, abused by Allied soldiers, might have faced after going public with their stories. In historian Miriam Gebhardt’s Crimes Unspoken she shows how women who spoke up about their abuse experiences to their religious leaders were denied support if they were considered promiscuous or were from the wrong ‘kind of family’.4 Taking these examples, we can begin to understand better the shame that Marta Hillers would have felt, but also the extreme urge to tell her story to the world, so that others might better understand what it means to be a survivor of sexual violence.

Hillers’ diary shows us an intimate side of the experience of European women post-war that historians Gebhardt and Roberts are simply unable to reach with their analyses. Similarly, the film Liberators Take Liberties utilizes the personal accounts of women like Hillers to tell the story of those who were victimized by the Allies.5 Wiltrud Rosenzweig’s account was particularly difficult to share, as she notes in a 1995 October Magazine feature:

I was nervous, worried about what all the many people, women as well as men, who had known me through political activities, work, or privately for a long time (I had been in the student movement, in SDS, and had worked actively and publicly for years in the women’s movement) would say and think when they learned of my ‘origins.’6

Most western students have been taught a black-and-white narrative of the World Wars, in which the Germans were the sole perpetrators of violence, racism, and genocide. In that interpretation, it is difficult to acknowledge that Germans might also be the victims of sexual violence. Yet, as sexual assault survivors and their advocates have asserted for the last few decades, a person’s actions, clothing, or ideas do not ever justify sexual violence. Additionally, a person can be both a perpetrator as well as a victim of violence. Gebhardt estimates the number of rapes during this period to exceed 860,000, though the true number will likely never be known.7 Echoing the shaming rituals all-too-familiar to a modern audience, those who did speak up were questioned about histories of promiscuity and accused of being willing to do ‘anything’ for a package of cigarettes or a bar of chocolate.

The situations faced by German women in the wake of World War II exemplify both a foreign and historic example of victim blaming. Publicly shaming victims of sexual abuse has been a common practice all over the world, including in the United States, and has been allowed to continue time and time again. A world that resists societal evolution has and will continue to allow rape culture to thrive. Rather than perpetuating the patterns exemplified in the case of the mass rapes which took place in post-war Germany, we should use our knowledge of them to break the cycle of shaming victims of sexual violence and begin to change the narrative.

Notes

  1. Mary Louise Roberts, What Soldiers Do, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). Return to text.
  2. Miram Gebhardt, Crimes Unspoken (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017). Return to text.
  3. Anja Wieden, “Writing Resistance: Anonyma’s Narration of Rape in A Woman in Berlin,” Women in German Yearbook (2016) 25. Return to text.
  4. Gebhardt, Crimes Unspoken. Return to text.
  5. Wiltrud Rosenzweig and Stuart Liebman, “Some Very Personal Thoughts about the Accusations of Revisionism Made against Helke Sander’s Film ‘Liberators Take Liberties,’” October 72 (Spring 1995) 79. Return to text.
  6. Rosenzweig and Liebman, “Some Very Personal,” 79. Return to text.
  7. Gebhardt, Crimes Unspoken, 19. Return to text.

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