German women have come forward after 50 years to speak of their appalling treatment at the hands of Soviet soldiers, who raped their way across Germany for four years from 1945. Their ordeal has been revealed thanks to Antony Beevor, whose book Berlin: The Downfall 1945 came out in the UK to great acclaim last month.
In his book, Beevor, a Sandhurst recruit turned writer, uses previously unpublished material from Russian archives in Moscow to describe vividly the horrific suffering of an estimated two million German women and girls who were gang-raped by drunken Soviet soldiers as they made their way across the country with the aim of forcing the Nazis to retreat.
Among the victims were women who became prominent figures, including Hannelore Kohl, wife of the former Chancellor, Helmut. Mrs Kohl, who committed suicide last year, was raped along with her mother at the age of 12 as they failed to escape on a train bound for Dresden.
Beevor's book has unleashed an emotional response from scores of victims, mainly living in Britain, and their relatives, who have contacted him to express their gratitude that the story of an entire generation is finally being told.
'I was carrying out orders to bury some dead Hitler Youth boys when they found me,' Martha Dowsey says gently and slowly with a heavy German accent. 'Six Red Army soldiers with blackened faces held me down on the ground close to the graves and raped me one by one.' She repeats over and over: 'I'm not lying, I'm not, you must believe me.'
The housebound 81-year-old is understandably nervous about telling her story, not least because it has taken decades for her to find anyone either in her adopted home of Britain or Germany who would believe her experiences of life in post-war Berlin as Stalin's troops marched in. For years the Red Army soldiers were seen as the heroes who freed Germany from the shackles of the Nazis.
But for Martha, and hundreds of thousands of others, they were anything but. 'They were destructive and evil and almost ruined my life. I never told my children - they would not have understood - and my husband knew something terrible had happened to me, but was kind enough never to ask,' she says from her home in Clapham Common, south London.
Only now has Martha Dowsey née Schröder gathered the courage to speak, thanks to Beevor's book. The victims - considered by the Russians, Beevor says, to be 'casual rights of conquest' in return for crimes committed by the Wehrmacht in Russia - were as young as 12 and as old as 80 or more. Thanking him for his book, one woman living in Little Hampton, West Sussex, said: 'I have so many memories. I'd thought of writing an autobiography, but people would not believe the things I have survived... I think I was a little insane afterwards.'
Beevor said he had been stunned by the response. 'A lot of these women have obviously barely talked about this maelstrom of horror they experienced, and suddenly they've been plunged into discussing things they haven't even been able to tell their closest family members,' he said.
One German woman, Jutte from Preston, wrote to him: 'Often I was tempted to talk about it, but I realised that no one would believe me or would interpret my story as excessive self-pity. What you have written is a way of showing how suffering can be endured.'
A woman whom Beevor visited in Berlin told him she had garrotted a soldier with his gun as he had tried to rape her mother. 'Only later,' said Beevor, 'did I realise that she was the one who had been raped and had invented the story because she was so traumatised and was desperate for it to be true.'
In their letters the women confirmed the accounts in Beevor's book of how, rather than befall the same fate as their neighbours, many tried to kill themselves and their children by cutting their wrists. Others hanged themselves. Reports say classrooms of schoolgirls committed suicide en masse.
Beevor details the horrific consequences of events that resonated for years, affecting women's attitude towards sex and causing huge social problems between men and women.
By the late 1940s - the rapes went on for three years or more - the Soviet troops had left behind them a broken people. According to some reports, 90 per cent of Berlin women were infected with venereal diseases, while Beevor cites one doctor who said that, of the 100,000 women estimated to have been raped in Berlin, a tenth of them died, mostly from suicide. The mortality figures for the approximately 1.4 million raped in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia, he says, are believed to have been much higher.
Of those who became pregnant, an estimated 90 per cent had abortions. Those who did give birth often gave their children up for adoption because of the shame. In 1946, 3.7 per cent of children born in Berlin had Russian fathers. Even now, says Helke Sander, a German left-wing activist and author of The Liberator and the Relieved, an extensive 1992 study of women who were raped, the consequences are still felt.
'There are women who have never been able to talk about it and whose husbands forbade it. There are their children, who are finding out for the first time that they are the product of rape, and there are those who attempt to look in vain for their fathers.'
Beevor has shed considerable light on a chapter in German history, the extent of which has remained largely unknown outside Germany and which in the country continues to be a taboo subject.
In Russia, Berlin: The Downfall has been thoroughly denounced. Its ambassador to Britain called it 'an act of blasphemy'. When it is published in Germany in the autumn, Beevor has been warned it is likely to cause a storm. The daily Die Welt has already described it as 'an epic shock' that reveals 'a previously unknown chronicle of the rape atrocities which took place as the Red Army made its way from East Prussia to Berlin'.
Having already been denounced in Russia, Beevor is prepared for the diplomatic row the book is capable of unleashing between Berlin and Moscow. 'This is a subject of huge delicacy, and there's tremendous reluctance on the part of the German government to bring this up and thus upset the new relationship with Putin and the Kremlin,' he says.
But it will also hit the market as Germany finds itself in the thick of a 'normalisation' debate in which it attempts to take a broader approach to its history. Die Welt says that after 'half a century of inner chill', during which Germany has attempted to reflect on and atone for its Nazi past but has paid scant regard to the way ordinary citizens suffered, Beevor's book is proof that to move forward Germans need to reassess themselves not just as persecutors, but also as victims.
Now the question is will Russia seek a apology for this monster act and will it compensate its victim and punish those war criminals