Europeans this week celebrate the 57th anniversary of the end of World War II. It is traditionally a time for reflection and the remembrance of heroic deeds. But noted British writer and historian Antony Beevor, author of a new book about the fall of Berlin in 1945, says not all victorious soldiers were heroes. Beevor, drawing from period archives, sheds light on troubling facts about the behavior of many Soviet liberators of Germany. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten spoke to Beevor about his new book.
Prague, 8 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As Europeans mark the 57th anniversary of the end of World War II this week, much will be said in upcoming days about the heroic deeds of Red Army soldiers who liberated half of the continent from Nazi oppression.
Many of those words of praise deserve to be repeated. But there is another side to the Soviet liberation of Europe, and in particular Germany, which is rarely told. It is a story of frenzied violence and mass rape committed against civilian populations that was often approved or, at the very least, tolerated by all levels of the Soviet command. British historian and writer Antony Beevor, in his exhaustive new book entitled "Berlin: The Downfall, 1945," tells that side of the story.
To be fair, as Beevor points out, only a small part of the book's 500 pages deals specifically with the issue of mass rapes committed by Red Army soldiers. But the revelations, gleaned from Soviet archives that include detailed accounts written by agents of the NKVD secret police, are so explosive that they have garnered the greatest attention. RFE/RL spoke to Beevor about this aspect of the Soviet occupation of Germany.
Beevor, in describing sources for his latest work, mentions Natalya Gesse, a Soviet war correspondent and close friend of former scientist and later dissident Andrei Sakharov. Gesse described Soviet soldiers in Germany in 1945 as "an army of rapists."
Beevor says an examination of Soviet archives confirms Gesse's allegations. He describes where he got his source material.
"A certain amount from the archives of the Ministry of Defense, a large amount from the Central State Archive -- and this is very significant because one has reports from the NKVD chiefs of the army groups of the front advancing on Germany and into Germany reporting back to [NKVD chief Lavrentii] Beria, and these reports are then passed to Stalin stating that Germans interrogated by the NKVD say that virtually every woman left behind in East German territory is being raped by Red Army troops. There is no indication, there is no comment on this. There is nothing to say that this is slander or a lie or anything like that. This is presented as fact."
Beevor notes that this documentation has been openly available to Russian historians for years. Why, then, does the issue of mass rape continue to be overlooked in the monographs and popular histories of the war that are frequently written in Russia?
"It's very striking the way that, obviously, Russian historians do find great trouble in facing up to the facts, or assessing them, even. For example, I think the striking point is that the victory in Berlin is seen as almost a sacred event. It was the crowning point of the sacrifice and the undoubted bravery and heroism and appalling sacrifice of Red Army soldiers during the fight back against the Nazi invasion. The trouble is that anything which undermines or casts dark shadows across this is a very difficult subject for Russian historians to tackle."
Beevor says the mass rapes committed by Soviet soldiers were not limited to the German population.
"From a Russian point of view, the most shocking thing perhaps that we came across was this very detailed report by the deputy chief of the political department of the first Ukrainian front -- basically one is talking about one million men on the Ukrainian front -- reporting back to the Central Committee of the Komsomol on the widespread rapes of Russian and Ukrainian and Belarusian women and girls who'd been taken to Germany by force by the Wehrmacht for forced labor, slave labor. And these young women, who had been praying after two or three years of appalling treatment in many cases -- had been praying for liberation by the Red Army -- then found themselves being raped and abused by Red Army soldiers."
The abuse was unrestrained, with many Soviet soldiers displaying few inhibitions.
"They used to go 60 at a time to the dormitories where these liberated women were held and just literally charge in and rape them."
The archives do record several instances of commanders attempting to restrain their men. Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky, commanding Soviet troops in East Prussia (now Kaliningrad), even issued a written order at the start of 1945 admonishing Soviet soldiers to redirect their "feelings of hatred at fighting the enemy on the battlefield." But such orders had little effect. Aggression, once unleashed, was hard to rein in. In any case, Soviet leader Josef Stalin did not seem to care about his soldiers' actions as long as military goals were achieved. Beevor says the archives indicate a surprising lack of control on the part of local commanders.
"Stalin, one can tell, thought -- partly in the remarks made to [Yugoslav military and political leader Miloslav] Djilas -- that troops should be allowed to have their 'fun,' and there was no question of interfering in that as far as he was concerned. And you can see from all the reports -- it's a question of seeing the reports in all these different archives and getting an overall impression of the attitudes of not just the people reporting but even the people they were reporting to. One gets the general impression that basically, one is dealing with an army that -- despite all of our impressions of Soviet society and how controlled it was -- was out of control. Alcohol was one of the major problems, and in fact, what one finds is that many Red Army soldiers really needed to get themselves fueled up before they went out raping in the evening -- it was almost as if they needed the courage to do it, in a curious way."
As the Soviet advance progressed and news of the behavior of Soviet soldiers spread westwards, attempts were finally made by the Kremlin to re-instill discipline. On 11 April, a new order went out from Moscow. Beevor explains, "New orders were issued and instructions saying that, 'As Comrade Stalin has always said, Hitlers come and go but Germany goes on forever and we must remember that our enemy are the Nazis and not innocent German civilians.' But of course, by then, it was far too late -- it was too little and too late because the 11th of April was only a few days before the assault from the Oder to Berlin. And many of the political officers found that not only did officers and soldiers refuse to listen to the message -- some of them actually said: 'This is ridiculous.'"
Some officers who tried to enforce the Kremlin order, Beevor says, were denounced by their own men.
"There were also cases -- as [Lev] Kopelev and other writers note -- where officers who tried to impose discipline were either shot down by their own troops or even were accused of bourgeois humanism and pity for the enemy, which was almost tantamount to treason."
Incidences of looting and rape in the closing days of World War II were, of course, recorded among the ranks of other Allied forces. But nothing remotely compares to the mass scale of the Soviet actions, according to Beevor, which continued long after Victory in Europe Day.
The discipline and control exercised by British officers on their men in uniform, for example, largely prevented such actions.
"The very fact of actually knowing exactly where every [British] soldier was and the sergeants and the corporals keeping such tight control meant that there was very little chance of soldiers getting out of control. And the striking thing is that when [Marshal Georgi] Zhukov -- again in August, because the rape and looting was still carrying on in Berlin past the victory -- Zhukov imposed new orders to prevent all of this still continuing. His instructions are in fact -- reading them from a Western military point of view -- astonishing. These 'new measures,' as they are called, would be absolutely basic for any Western army for their troops in barracks in their hometown, let alone on operations or exercise in a foreign country."
In the final analysis, it has to be recognized that not all Soviet soldiers took part in the barbarism outlined by Beevor. Those who did had often been brutalized themselves and witnessed Nazi atrocities their colleagues in other Allied armies could only imagine. But 57 years after the end of the war, Beevor says, it is time Soviet veterans and especially post-Soviet Russia acknowledges this unpleasant chapter of its war-time history -- a chapter that is all too well-known in Eastern and Central Europe but remains taboo at home.
But as he admits, we may have to wait a few more years. The Soviet veterans Beevor and his team of researchers interviewed were in no mood for self-examination.
"Of course, the vast majority refused to acknowledge that anything like this ever happened. There was the odd one who would suddenly -- to one's astonishment -- boast about it, but that was definitely a rarity. They would say, 'You know, all the German women lifted up their skirts for us. We fathered over two million children in Germany,' and so forth. But the vast majority, with a straight face, would say, 'Oh no, nothing like that ever happened.'"
"Berlin: The Downfall,1945" comes out this month and is published by Viking Penguin. A Russian translation is due out next year.