We have detected that you are using an older version of Internet Explorer and to have access to all the features on this site, you will need to update your browser to Internet Explorer 8. Alternatively, download Mozilla Firefox or Chrome.

Red Army atrocities

LAURENCE REES: So the Red Army go ahead with the attack on Berlin and it’s a horrendous battle. And in the aftermath of the battle the Red Army commit the most terrible atrocities, and there can be no doubt, can there, that these atrocities were sanctioned at the highest level?

ANTONY BEEVOR: I think that the whole history of atrocities, particularly against women and children in the advance out of Russia into Central Europe, has got to be looked at quite carefully. To say that they were sanctioned from the top is partly true but it was much more that they were simply never condemned from the top. Stalin accepted it with the famous statement, 'why can’t they have a bit of fun', and that was generally his attitude. Beria, a mass rapist himself, was certainly not going to show any squeamishness on this particular point. But one must be careful not to generalise too much, I mean, not every Red Army soldier just because he had a Red Army uniform was a rapist, there were many loyal communists who were simply appalled at what was happening and deeply shocked, and there were officers who tried to stop it, but unfortunately that was not enough and they were probably in the minority. The point was, was it a war crime? I think is a difficult one. There were many, many criminal acts, but was it actually a policy of terror like, for example, in the Spanish Civil War when the army of Africa deliberately raped with the encouragement of its officers to create an atmosphere of terror. I don’t think that was necessarily the case. And, in fact, they suddenly changed the line at the end, just before the attack on the Oder (I think it was on the 14th of April). The party line suddenly changed and the implications were, no, not all Germans are evil, but it was much too late to have a real influence. In the case of the actual mass rapes themselves, I think one’s got to look at several things. It was very interesting talking to Russian women, whether as Russian soldiers or journalists, who’d actually been with the Red Armies as they advanced. They noticed that the attitude of Red Army soldiers changed even towards Russian women as soon as they were across the Soviet frontier. So in Poland they were foreign women, fair game, ditto in the Baltic States. We know the horrors in Hungary, even in Yugoslavia, basically with a large communist resistance organisation and so forth. And in Germany there was the added element. But the traditional feminist definition of rape is that it’s not an act of anything to do with sex, it’s purely an act of violence, well, that was true in most of the acts of rape in East Prussia. It was mutilation, it was any woman seized at random whether a grandmother or a tiny girl, and that was an act of appalling violence. But by the time they got to Berlin it was sexual opportunism with a gun. There they were going up and down the air raid cellars selecting their victims deliberately. So you cannot say that that was not sexual, it was sexual opportunism, it was not just pure violence. So this pattern had changed.

Then, after the battle, there was that grey area of war time prostitution, of women who had to survive, who had to find food for their children and the only way was actually by having a relationship with a Soviet soldier, and also to protect themselves from mass rape from other Soviet soldiers. So they had to offer themselves up almost as mistresses. So there were, if you like, changing patterns, which doesn’t mean that one can actually say it was a war crime like, say, the Katyn Massacre or other massacres or deliberate mass rapes like in Bosnia. So it is a slightly grey area but I think there is no doubt now about the scale. I think that the initial figures which came out of Germany in the eighties were obviously an estimate, but if one looks at the figures it seems some two million German women were raped, and many of them were mass raped or gang raped. When one starts looking at the Soviet files, one realises that certainly in East Prussia the figures were simply horrendous and hardly any woman escaped rape on a constant basis. Ditto in Pomerania. You can also imagine in Silesia, the women who were caught on the treks; and by the time they got to Berlin one’s got a pretty good idea of figures there, simply because of the hospital records.

So the fact that the Russians today are in complete denial about that because it undermines the sacred element of the victory, is actually deeply disturbing. One can come up with a number of reasons why Russia has more problems dealing with its past than, say, Germany had in facing up to its own past. And I think its alarming that there’s even talk now of a law against anybody who criticises the Red Army in the period of victory. So this state of denial that Russia is in about this aspect is largely because, as the Russian Ambassador here said, the victory is sacred, and that is because so many generations of Russians suffered not just death in famines or death in the Gulag or executions, but their whole families suffered. Their lives were wrecked in every direction, not just over 12 years like in Nazi Germany, but over 70 years. It’s almost inevitable that a society has to find something to hang onto, and for them 1945 is what they hang onto, and why the victory in Berlin over Nazi Germany is sacred and therefore cannot be touched.