Women are raped at will in war zones, from Berlin to Darfur.  What does this tell us about male-female relationships?

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, September 8, 2009. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Why Men Rape - The Movie

Feminist theory (as represented cinematically in Thelma and Louise) is that men rape to assert control over women, to feel their own power. A more simple minded idea is that men, when in physical control of a situation, will exact sexual pleasure from the women available to them - a theory embodied "humorously" in cartoons of cavemen with clubs dragging women off by their hair.

Anonyma. Eine Frau in BerlinThe German film, A Woman in Berlin (directed by Max Farberbock and starring Nina Hoss), is the movie version of the cavemen theory, and the story doesn't bring a smile to one's lips.

As the Germans were defeated in World War, II, Russian troops occupied Berlin. There were few if any German men left in the city - and those who remained were likely to be shot. (An almost casual scene shows a man walking down the street holding a woman's hand suddenly being killed by an invisible gunman.)

In this environment, Russian soldiers raped whichever women they wanted. No female - whatever her age or family situation - was immune.  Social status remained in place, however, and higher-ranking officers "got" better women. Often, younger women "volunteered" to serve an officer - as Ms. Hoss's character does - in order to avoid being raped randomly.

Germans are not exonerated by the film, which includes stories of German atrocities witnessed by Russians and Germans. Russians use this brutality - when they bother - to justify their actions. Even the leading character has dues to pay, as she is shown in a former time toasting the Nazi regime's conquests.

Indeed, that is part of the horror of the film - the matter-of-factness of the evils conquering armies and societies perpetrate on the subjugated. Films like this give war a bad name!

The film raises the following questions.

Is this version of life true? The Russians refused to acknowledge their soldiers acted like barbaric animals, and the diary on which the film was based was originally suppressed by Germans, who considered rape victims to be dishonored. But no one now doubts the truth of the diary and the events it depicts.

Is rape by soldiers the rule everywhere? It is certainly widespread, in Asia and Africa as well as in Europe. And it continues into the present. The Japanese established whorehouses populated by local women in whichever countries and regions they conquered. Systematic rape imposed by a conquering country IS a form of power. In Africa, rape is a weapon, as analyzed in SUDAN Underlined: Rape in Darfur . And mass rape was employed by Serbs in Bosnian camps specifically set up for that purpose (just as Serbian women were raped by Muslims in that region of Europe).

Are Americans better? Americans also entered Berlin, and their reputation was more upright than the Germans' and Russians'. American soldiers were famous whorehouse habitués in Manila and in Saigon. But reported accusations of rape were relatively rare in Asia, and currently in the Middle East. Rape is taken seriously by the U.S. military now - and prosecuted vigorously. Even accusations that Americans have raped Iraqi women are limited to small numbers of women prisoners - a difference of scale , at least.

Are men animals? To some extent, it seems the answer is "yes." In moments of forced gaiety, the German women in the film mock sexual techniques by Russian men. One is shown shouting "I love you" to a woman he is raping. At the same time, some men - like Ms Hoss's character's protector - have sensitive sides. And, obviously, not all of the Russian soldiers were rapists, perhaps not even a majority, perhaps not even a large minority.

As several Russians point out, in addition to their self-justifications (the commandant's wife was hung by the Germans), they had been away from their homes and families, facing incredible deprivation, danger, and discomfort for months and years. In an organized society, where men and women have a chance to mingle and mate freely, men do not generally behave this way.

Yet this episode in history, and war at large, seem quickly to eradicate this thin social veneer.