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Conduct on the Eastern Front

LAURENCE REES: This contrast between the Red Army and the Western Allied forces also extends to the way in which critics of the Red Army’s actions were made to suffer, doesn't it?

WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: These are very different kinds of institutions, the Allied Armies versus the Red Army. Criticism of superiors, criticism of the mission and criticism of the military objectives is simply not acceptable in the Red Army. Again, the point of bashing into Germany was not simply to liberate the German people but in part to destroy them, to destroy the fascist ideology that they had supported for so long. So to criticise the occasional act of sexual violence, or occasional atrocity, and thereby to bring into question the ideological mission of destroying the fascist beast in his lair would naturally have brought down intense punishment upon your head. So I guess the way they perceived the mission of entering into Germany was quite different in the East and in the West. In the East there was a sense that the Germans had to pay and that it was perfectly legitimate for them to pay and that women would pay and grandmothers would pay just as old men would pay and children would pay. There was a sense that the country as a whole had to be crushed and had to feel the kind of intensity of violence that the Germans had visited upon the Soviets in their period of occupation.

So, there’s not much room for dissent in the Red Army and even though it would seem that it’s bad occupation policy to commit horrible acts of violence against civilians that’s not how the Stalinist Regime saw it at the end of 1945. They saw this as a moment of allowing Red Army soldiers to have, as Stalin put it, a moment of fun with a girl, and that any criticism of the overall mission was unacceptable.

LAURENCE REES: It’s clear, isn’t it, from remarks that Stalin made that this kind of behaviour was absolutely accepted by the Soviet state. So it isn’t just a case of people being out of control?
WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: Clearly not. I think that it’s not that we have the smoking gun that shows the memo that says all Red Army officers are instructed to command their men to rape every female they can find. We don’t have that smoking gun. What we do have is the testimony of hundreds of thousands of German women who suffered this treatment at the hands of the Red Army. Now the trick for a historian is to be sure that you can maintain a certain level of critical distance from these accounts, because of course it became politically expedient to claim victim status for Germans in the East just as they were claiming victim status for themselves in the West as a result of the bombing by the Allies.

So claims of sexual violence have always been read through a lens of a certain scepticism by historians, and I think as we get further away from it, the passions of that period in a sense have died down. We’re able to go back to read those records against the grain, to compare them, and to be a little bit more scientific and come up with an image that is very nasty indeed and that basically supports the original claims that were made; that sexual violence was state policy as far as the Red Army was concerned.

We’ve got piles of evidence, we’ve just been reluctant to take it at face value. But I think since, particularly the early 1990s and the end of the Soviet Regime, we’ve gone back into some of those sources and they demonstrate that sexual violence was just not seen as a particularly big issue for the Red Army. Occupation and destruction of the German infrastructure and some sense of punishment was the objective.

LAURENCE REES: And the legitimisation of looting to a large degree.

WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: Ship it all back home on a train, that’s right.