BBC reframes WWII ally’s troops as 'rapists'

Sam Gerrans
Sam Gerrans is an English writer, translator, support counselor and activist. He also has professional backgrounds in media, strategic communications and technology. He is driven by commitment to ultimate meaning, and focused on authentic approaches to revelation and realpolitik. He is the founder of Quranite.com – where the Qur’an is explored on the basis of reason rather than tradition – and offers both individual language training and personal support and counseling online at SkypeTalking.com.
© Fabrizio Bensch
As tensions mount between the US and Europe on the one hand and Russia on the other – and sanctions hurt both sides – the battle for the future is beginning to require the reframing of the past.

The BBC’s World Service recently produced a radio piece for international consumption focused entirely upon newly-aired allegations of sexual crimes by Soviet soldiers against German women at the close of WWII.

@bbcrussian @US_progress  What do you mean by this title, are you on drugs?

The piece was called The Rape of Berlin and aired on May 2nd 2015. The teaser for this engagingly entitled radio presentation was an article of the same name written by Lucy Ash of BBC News Berlin, published on May 1 on the BBC’s website.

A howl of protest erupted on social media sites after the piece was translated into Russian and released by the BBC on September 24.

World War II. 3rd Belorussian front. The first German city, Stallupoenen (currently renamed Nesterov) entered by the Soviet Army. 1944. © Mikhail Savin

Her article begins by warning that some readers may find what follows disturbing, which all but guarantees that they read on.

The bulk of the piece comprises a litany of sexual crimes ascribed to the Red Army in Berlin, the main source for which is the unpublished diaries of one Vladimir Gelfand.

Gelfand is described in the piece as “a young Jewish lieutenant from central Ukraine [who] wrote with extraordinary frankness from 1941 through to the end of the war, despite the Soviet military's ban on diaries, which were seen as a security risk.”

The source for much of the remainder of the piece is an anonymous author, who despite the crushing devastation in Berlin at the close of the war, is “[…]like Vladimir Gelfand, brutally honest, with razor-sharp powers of observation and occasional flashes of gallows humor.”

The piece lingers somberly at a memorial in Treptower Park on the outskirts of the city where rest 5,000 of the 80,000 Soviet troops who fell during the Battle of Berlin.

There is a respectful paragraph break before the conclusion to the introduction is felled like a tree upon an unwary cyclist: “But some call this memorial The Tomb of the Unknown Rapist.”

Soviet troops occupy Konigsberg. © Sergey Kosyurev

If true, the rapes by Soviet soldiers against German women, which Gelfand and our anonymous humorist describe, are indeed crimes of the highest order. And certainly, the graphic and gripping description of depravity and violence the piece delivers is enough to leave any right-thinking individual appalled.

However, before we turn the lights out and go home, there are a few other points any right-thinking individual might also like to consider.

These are unpublished diaries. The question of who besides Lucy Ash, the author of the piece, has had access to these diaries and what confluence of circumstances created the tectonic shift which caused them to surface at this precise moment is not touched upon.

Nor is it possible to say on the basis of the article whether anyone besides Ms. Ash has had the opportunity of verifying the authenticity of the manuscripts themselves.

@bbcrussian @Darifma Citing Goebbels? The violence was committed by your American friends

In legal terms the foundation for the article is hearsay. It is the equivalent of the prosecution presenting its case based on evidence the defendant has no chance of reviewing let alone verifying and answering.

By Ms. Ash’s own admission, the Soviet military command had a ban on diaries. Yet the gallant lieutenant managed both to find the time to make regular, detailed entries cataloguing the despicable and criminal actions of his comrades unmolested, and to keep this growing body of evidence from either suspicion or detection from 1941 through to the end of the war in conditions in which men shared rooms, barracks, trenches and even latrines.

READ MORE: Russian social media seethes as BBC describes Soviet WWII monument as 'memorial to unknown rapist'

Some might question the honor or veracity of such a man. But while I certainly have questions, one must grant that his words – at least, as they are presented by Ms. Ash – may be true since one cannot demonstrate otherwise.

So I am not questioning the veracity Gelfand’s claims. At least not yet. Since they remain largely a secret it would be foolish to try.

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Ms. Ash also briefly cites Vera Dubina, “a young historian at the University of Humanities in Moscow” whose research, we are given to understand, broadly supports Gelfand’s claims, although to what extent is not specified. Dubina’s sole quote in the piece decries what she regards as the aggressive reaction of Russian media to her research.

While this is an interesting snippet of information, the claimed reaction of Russian media by a single junior researcher in itself proves nothing, especially given the fact that Ms. Dubina is not a sufficient authority for her findings to compel attention.

Documentation is provided in the form of abortion records, which broadly correspond to the time and place in question. However, this proves nothing. Ms. Ash’s anonymous diarist herself acknowledges that relations for her became consensual, even if they did not begin that way.

Parade of Soviet troops in Berlin on the Victory Day. The Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. Reproduction. 1945.

The diarist confides: "By no means could it be said that the major is raping me. Am I doing it for bacon, butter, sugar, candles, canned meat? To some extent I'm sure I am. In addition, I like the major and the less he wants from me as a man, the more I like him as a person."

Overall, the BBC’s article lacks both teeth and weight. This doesn’t mean that its claims are incorrect. But the case as presented is thin and relies heavily on inference to appear to align its central claim of the large-scale brutal rape by Soviet soldiers in Berlin as presented by Comrade Gelfand with what it would have us see as corroborating statements.

If personal accounts are to form the sum and substance of such historical revision, I am surprised that there are not more to draw upon given that the Berlin Wall has been down for 26 years and Russia is an oil-rich country keen to have good relations with Germany.

What the objective facts are, I don’t know. I didn’t know before reading this article. I don’t know now. If its argument were that experts of countries including Russia should properly investigate this question, I would support that. But as it stands, we have little more than an attempt to reframe history based on hearsay.

And despite the fact that Ms. Ash does not strongly argue in favor of proper research, I have no issue with her. She has produced a well-punctuated piece, which pulls together such information as she has in a readable format.

Rather, I question the wisdom of an editorial policy that sanctioned the presentation of serious and damning allegations against a wartime ally on the basis of what currently amounts to hearsay.

@bbcrussian Do they have similar monuments to Brits -  the liberators in India or in Ireland? How do they call them?

I find it both significant and troubling that the BBC could find no better time to bring this issue to light than the very day Russia was marking the 70th anniversary of the close of WWII. That war was bloody, senseless and horrific on all sides. But it was also one in which total Russian losses were between 27 million and 40 million souls.

I am also concerned that – leaving aside the questions of historicity and authenticity which remain to be decided – no broader context is provided in the piece. That context should have driven home with a steam hammer the revolting but undeniable fact that rape of civilians in wartime by occupying soldiers is as old as war itself.

Looking beyond the framework of this individual article, it is difficult given where ultimate editorial responsibility lies not to see a broader and subtle conflict, one in which former allies feel the need to reframe the past in order to support present and future concerns.

Truth is known to be the first casualty of war. But the reality is that it may also be the last.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.