Academic journal article German Quarterly

Philomela's Legacy: Rape, the Second World War, and the Ethics of Reading

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Philomela's Legacy: Rape, the Second World War, and the Ethics of Reading

Article excerpt

And that deep torture may be call'd a hell, When more is felt than one hath power to tell.

-Shakespeare, "The Rape of Lucrece"

During the last two decades, the German book market has been flooded with publications that highlight the victimization of Germans in the wake of the Second World War. Bill Niven claims that the interest in German suffering "has taken on an obsessive dimension" (8), while Anne Fuchs points out that these works are often presented as a "triumphant recovery of unofficial private memories of the Nazi period" (7). Such increased attention, however, does not imply that these works have lost their controversial character. In particular, stories about the rape of German women by Russian soldiers remain ethical minefields. Told from the perspective of the perpetrator, these stories turn coercion into consent. Told from the perspective of the victim, they are likely to recycle Nazi narratives, according to which the Russians are beasts; the Poles, murderers; and the German soldiers, saviors.

In the following, I will discuss representations of the mass rape of German women during the end of the Second World War when the Russian army advanced West. So far, scholars have focused mostly on filmic representations, in particular on Heike Sander's controversial Befreier und Befreite? or honed in on a narrow corpus of texts, such as Eine Frau in Berlin. In contrast, I perform a detailed analysis ofliteraiy texts and memoirs that have received little or no critical attention. Moreover, unlike previous analyses, I juxtapose texts by Russian and German authors because I believe that a bi-national perspective is best suited to illuminate the ethical complexity and uneven nature of these texts.

As I will show, stories ofwartime rape do not fit the categories that define classic narratives of war, and there is no established discourse that does justice to these stories (see Rogoff265, Dahlke 212). They defy established power structures, they challenge traditional concepts of victimization and agency and of silence and discourse, they are uneven and contradictory, and they are insolubly tied up with the body. Rape is, as Sabine Sielke maintains, "a dense transfer point for relations of power" (2). When wartime rape is made to serve an ideological agenda, as it often is, the experience of the victim, her trauma and pain, threaten to disappear amidst the noise of justifications, metaphors, and political deployments.

My reading of literary texts and memoirs of rape victims suggests that there is a dilemma inherent to this form of victimization.2 Typically, rape, a crime that is strongly associated with shame, is referred to and evoked in quasi-formulaic language, but not narrated extensively. Consequently, narratives of rape are often suspended halfway between silence and discourse. Although many rape victims consider public acknowledgment of the trauma of rape to be therapeutic, they often do not perceive elaborate narrations of rape as conducive to their healing process. But this partial silence, intended to avoid a réinscription of the original trauma, also contributes to a corresponding silence in public discourse.

In order to elucidate the narrative and ethical complexity of rape narratives, I introduce in the first section of the article the historical context and theoretical framework of my analysis. In the second section, I discuss the fiction of "consensual" rape in Deutschland Tagebuch 1945-46 by the Red Army soldier, Wladimir Gelfand, and contrast Gelfand's account with representations of rape in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Prussian Nights (1974) and in Lev Kopelev's memoir, To Be Preserved Forever (1976). In the third section, I focus on memoirs of German rape victims, in particular on Gabi Köpp's Warum war ich bloß ein Mädchen. There, I show that, in these accounts of rape survivors, the trauma and shame of rape obstruct the effort of narration, in such away that the experience of rape is often elided. …

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