Sexual Violence in German Memory since 1945:
Metaphor, Metonymy and Political Discourse

Dr Katie Stone

The UN ‘Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict’ (2014) confirmed that understanding and preventing wartime rape remains an international priority. This matter also generates a great deal of public outrage, as attested by the 31,000 people who follow the American media project ‘Women Under Siege’ on twitter. As political and social interest focuses on present conflict zones, however, previous cases of wartime rape (especially during World War II) remain under-researched. Redressing this gap in knowledge is crucial. The more we know about the legacy of mass rape, the better we will be able to respond in the future. This project seeks to analyse evolving cultural and political discourses surrounding wartime rape in Germany, where hundreds of thousands of women were assaulted by Allied soldiers in 1945. Due to Germany’s status as perpetrator nation, the mass rapes were not the topic of sustained public discussion until the twenty-first century. The project will address the thorny moral and political issues raised by this topic, which complicates terms such as ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ that are often treated as mutually exclusive concepts. It will thus extent recent scholarly efforts to ethically refine the concepts that have traditionally defined German memory discourse.

Drawing on a wide range of cultural material, this project will examine how and why discourse about mass rape in Germany has changed since 1945. Dominant political discourses will be compared with autobiographical, fictional, and film engagements with the mass rapes of 1945. My expertise on post-war literature and film will allow me to reveal new sources on the evolving public memory of wartime rape, showing how it has circulated in fragmented and distorted ways throughout the post-war period — and in ways not captured by political and historical discourses.A focus on cultural works also enables reflection on the gaps between political and private memory as well as the areas where they overlap in their understanding of wartime sexual violence.The reception of wartime rape in the German context is especially thought provoking because the mass rapes functioned as a powerful political trope in the post-war era, even though they were long ignored as a topic in their own right. For example, conservative politicians in occupied-Germany cited the mass rapes to evoke the threat of communism. More recently, revanchists have used the mass rapes to emphasize the unjustified suffering of innocent Germans during the war, purposefully glossing over the German crimes that precipitated it. Such tropes obscure the personal meaning of wartime rape. Indeed, limited support was offered to the victims — despite the fact that politicians exploited the rhetorical power of their experiences. Accordingly, this project will also probe the assumptions underlying metaphorical and metonymic uses of mass rape in political discourse and investigate their social and ethical implications. Due to their openness and formal complexity, creative engagements with the past are uniquely positioned to illuminate and challenge political uses of memory that privilege clear-cut arguments over historical and ethical complexity.

The use of mass rape as a metaphor in political discourse manifests an on-going reluctance to take sexual violence seriously. The urgency of this project derives particularly from the prevalent use of rape as a metaphor in contemporary vernacular and political discourse. Examining a variety of cultural works in their historical contexts, this project seeks to contribute to international popular debate about the social, political and historical implications of metaphorical narratives about sexual violence.