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The Prussian Nights (Rape and War)

“It’s not been burned, just looted, rifled.

A moaning, by the walls half muffled:

The mother’s wounded, still alive.

The little daughter’s on the mattress,

Dead. How many have been on it?

A platoon, a company perhaps?

A girl’s been turned into a woman,

A woman turned into a corpse.

It all comes down to simple phrases:

Do Not Forget! Do Not Forgive!

Blood for Blood! A Tooth for a Tooth!

The mother begs, Tote mich, Soldat!”

-Prussian Nights, Captain Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Soviet Red Army WW2

“Things happen in war”, we are often told. It is a blanket that drapes across atrocities, one of those many “things” is rape. The seizing and taking of women and girls as an opportunity to satisfy sexual impulses or as an act of revenge, to punish the fighting men by having his mother, sister, daughter or wife. A brutal stab at the heart of a nation, race, religion or tribe. To rape the innocent is condemned as barbaric and savage, yet it is the conduct of civilised professionals the world over and throughout history. No one army or nation is better than another in this regard, the statistical scales may sway in one direction over another, to the victims the shame and pain, should they survive, linger long after academic debates. War is not about just the killing and seizing of territory or resources but also rape, starvation, looting and misery.

The 1990s were tarnished by clinical terms such as “ethnic cleansing”, a publicly accepted language for mass rape and murder. Serbian militias killing the men and raping the women in Bosnia with such wholesale brutality that it ensured one nation in the conflict became pariah above the others. Though mass rape and murder of the innocent were widespread by all factions during the Yugoslav civil war. Whether the Nazi German government, Ottoman Turks or Serbian nationalists the goal was to wipe out particular ethnic groups, this in turn led to genocide and in some instances attempts to breed them out. Rape is a weapon of war, it always has been but in recent conflicts across Africa it was deployed along with the mutilation of the victims, hacking breasts and limbs as a final act of violence.

I had been in Yugoslavia, and I too had burned villages, shot hostages, raped women. When my eyes were opened, what could I do? I became a partisan.” – Michael Burleigh attributes this quote to an Italian partisan during World War Two from his book, ‘Moral Combat’. To wage war against an enemy one claims the righteous cause by illustrating the crimes and atrocities committed by the foe, though pragmatism often secures allies who have done much the same or far worse. Not to mention ones own forces. To rape on such a scale becomes common when the enemy populace is dehumanised into a collective of inferior beings or tainted as an inherently evil race or culture. The rape and murder comes easier to those of such a mentality.

In the book “Ideologies of Forgetting: Rape in the Vietnam War”, Gina Marie Weaver explains that the rape of Vietnamese women and girls by the US military “took place on such a large scale that many veterans considered it standard operating procedure.” In her book she gives examples of the widespread rape and then murder. The execution to conceal the crimes, as dead victims tell no stories. The US allies such as South Korean forces in Vietnam were especially horrible in the treatment of civilians, many atrocities and rapes occurring by the ROK military. The civilian population props to fight over, winning their hearts and minds so to speak, while also appearing as an alien entity that is both dangerous and inferior. Some men, isolated from women and in a gang environment will act a certain way when they come across females, especially if a context allows them a position of power. One man once explained to me that, “blokes are just letting of some steam,” as an attempt to justify a rape that occurred, The victims an outlet to men’s needs.

The rape of Jews was forbidden by the Nazi government not out of any sense of morality rather due to ethno-bigotry. Despite that it occurred on a large scale and any Jewish victim had no recourse in German courts as their word was meaningless. When large amounts of Jews were placed in the Warsaw Ghetto’s, Stephan Lehnstaedt in his work on the Holocaust describes a culture of rape tourism, where German’s could pay to enter the ghetto to pillage, rape and murder without consequences. Men just letting of steam.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s poem Prussian Nights is based on what he observed while serving in the Soviet Army as it advanced into Germany. An onslaught as Manfred Zeidler claims a Red Army captain boasted, “the first echelon of Soviet troops steals the watches, the second wave raped the women and the third echelon made off with household goods.” The virtue of a woman’s dignity considered a property by which men can take. Hundreds of thousands of German civilians were massacred as reprisals by the Soviet military in the final days of the war and millions of women and girls were raped. Anthony Beevor in “Berlin: The Downfall 1945, describes it as the “greatest phenomenon of mass rape in history.” It was estimated that 1.4 million women and girls were raped in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia alone. The final numbers in Germany are unknown, the rape of German women and girls was not unique to the Soviet military, other allies participated also, just not on such a grand and open scale. Rape is only a war crime for some.

A girl’s been turned into a woman,

A woman turned into a corpse.”

Before the war, when the German government had failed to honour its Great War reparation payments to the French government, the French army was sent to occupy key regions on the border. In some incidences African colonial troops were deployed, some of the soldiers harassed and raped the civil populace, an act of punishment and indignity. Much of it spurring Nazi rhetoric in the coming years. Rape lingering between an act of punishment to inflict upon a belligerent populace while also one that is not officially condoned while occurring despite laws and regulations is the common culture of war.

For the ancient Roman’s rape was, “an expression of victory.” Tacitus in his retelling in their arrival at Cremona of forty thousand Roman soldiers where they tore women and children to pieces, including the sodomising of young boys. The Greek victory over Troy saw the depiction of taking Trojan women as a prize.

Therefore let none make haste to go till he has first lain with the wife of some Trojan” – Iliad

The Imperial Japanese militarise response to the mass rape and murder by its forces in occupied China, specifically in Nangking, led to the creation of the comfort women system. Where prostitutes were employed or most often press ganged into service so that the samurai Bushido warriors of the emperor may “let of some steam.” These women usually came from other Asian nations as ‘volunteers’, captured allied nurses and other women were enslaved to be raped. Many of the women living in terrible conditions, often being raped to death. Kathy Gaca, writes in her book, ‘Marital Rape of Girls and Women in Antiquity and Modernity’, that “the Athenians forcibly converted Miletus from the Carian city it used to be to the Greek city. They literally raped it into becoming, for the Athenian men brought no women with them on this colonizing expedition.” For all the technological progress and boasts of enlightenment, humanity has only expanded the brutality of war while paying lip service to codes that may govern it in a more acceptable manner.

I think that the rape was absolutely stupid. For the price they paid to rent the car they could have had a girl,” Commander of US Pacific Forces, Admiral Richard C Macke said in response to US marines beating and raping a 12-year old Okinawan girl in 1995. His remark was not that the rape was wrong, or that a victim had suffered by those in his command, rather it was an act of idiocy on his men’s behalf. The incident and other rapes of Okinarwan locals by US military personnel had sparked protests. The rapists safe from local justice, under US government agreements with the occupied territories. In his book, “Blowback”, Chalmers Johnson goes into detail on the rape culture that permeates from US military bases, especially giving detail to those suffered in Okinawa.

Rape occurs within the ranks of the military on a scale that defies most other institutions, the hierarchy and the traditions are perhaps part of the reason why victims remain powerless in many instances. The documentary, “The Invisible War”, makes claim that twenty thousand US military members are sexually assaulted annually, with just under eight thousand reporting the cases while three hundred and fifty see that the perpetrators are charged. Retaliation against those who report the assault is common. Most of the victims are women, but the use of rape to ‘harden up’ weak men so that they may be, “born again hard” as a process of bullying is also common as one victim explains his experiences during a 2012, “The Guardian” interview,. This is not unique to the US military, only that the American combat forces are one of the most prolific and active the world over so the numbers are better known. If warriors are willing to raping their brothers and sisters in time of peace, then what are they capable of doing to a populace of civilians in a war zone. History, has already told us.

Rape is one of the many terrible and intimate ordeals that an individual can suffer, especially under the blanket of warfare. The military is often given a super-moral status especially in time of war, all other norms of human decency and civility are disregarded. As though victory itself hangs in the balance if atrocities are not committed or become exposed. Often the myth of war is that moral righteousness is being imposed, it is a crusade for good, though the Holy Crusaders themselves were not above rape. A barbarian is one who would rape and kill your daughter, civilised is when you rape and kill all of their daughters. That is the base lesson of history, victims are meaningless before the glory of victory, things happen in war, whether a bloody bayonet or penis stabbing a girl. It seems to matter little for those who wish to wage war, everlasting. But it is everything to their victims.

August 2023

Published inAll Articles and EssaysWar, History and Foreign Policy