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Portraying mass wartime rape in the documentary: Befreier und Befreite and Calling the Ghosts.

Within the last two decades mass rape in wartime has received international attention. The phenomenon is nothing new: since the beginning of history, rape has accompanied war. Historians have long portrayed it as a "natural" consequence of war, as the price females pay for belonging to the conquered party. Feminist scholarship on rape in general and mass rape in wartime has specifically explored sociological, psychological, and political factors that perpetuate sexual assault against women as a strategic means of control, advancing in the process both discussion and awareness of wartime rape. Contributing to this discourse are two documentaries on mass rape in wartime that appeared in the 1990s. Through different lenses they offer complementing insights into feminist positions on wartime rape, and illustrate both advances in women's rights, as well as ongoing issues. Because the documentaries espouse different methodological approaches to their examination of wartime rape, they serve to summarize key arguments in feminist scholarship on wartime rape that evolved in the nineties, owing in part to a critical examination of the mass rapes in the Balkans.

The first, Helke Sander's groundbreaking film BeFreier und Befreite (The Liberators Take Liberties) (1991), documents the 1945 mass rape of German women and girls by the advancing Soviet army. The second, Mandy Jacobson and Karmen Jelincic's award-winning documentary on the Omarska (Bosnia) death and rape camp entitled Calling the Ghosts (1996) focuses on the mass rape of Muslim and Croatian women and girls by Serbian forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992.

The mass rape of German women in 1945 and of Bosnian women in the early nineties as represented by these documentaries interrelate in many ways. Both deal with mass rapes in European wars separated by only half a century. At the time Sander's film on the rape of almost two million German women and girls was being shown and discussed, the systematic rape and torture of an estimated 20,000 Bosnian women and girls--approximately 10% of the Muslim population of 2.2 million--had begun (Gutman xii). These documentaries remind us of the historical span from Nuremberg to The Hague, the first international war crimes tribunal of the twentieth century and the first international war crimes tribunal after World War II, respectively. Whereas in Nuremberg, rape crimes were mentioned but not prosecuted, the Bosnian rapes became the first rapes to be tried as crimes against humanity in an international tribunal. They also signify the progress made in public awareness of women's rights. Whereas the rape of almost two million German women was virtually silenced, the mass rapes in the former Yugoslavia captured international attention. BeFreier und Befreite is a testimony to the fact that rape crimes against women have historically been neglected: it demands public recognition of the collective rape experience of German women in 1945; Calling the Ghosts also documents rape crimes; moreover, it seeks justice, aiming to bring perpetrators to trial. While Sander endeavors with her documentary to break fifty years of virtual silence on the subject of the mass rape of German women, Jacobson and Jelincic submerge themselves in a contemporary battlefield, giving voice to women still struggling to piece their lives together. The directors of both documentaries underscore that rape is not unique to their war: it is in every war.

What causes men systematically to rape in war? Calling the Ghosts particularly asks how such evil can lurk beneath the appearance of an ordered and cultured society. Both documentaries point to the widespread regularity of rape crimes in war, and question to varying degrees "the culture of violence that allows this kind of male behavior to happen in wartime" (Lewis). Feminist discourse on wartime rape is relatively young, spanning merely a couple of decades. It has understandably been heavily influenced by work on rape in general which began in the seventies. Susan Brownmiller and others have emphasized the misogynistic roots and political agenda of domination that underlie the violence of the act. Exploring the causes for mass rape unveils the complexity of the issue. Analyses on the cause and function of wartime rape reveal diverse, and sometimes antagonistic positions, that disclose as much about the historical, cultural, and ideological perspective of the scholar as they contribute to a broader understanding of the issue.

Sander approaches the phenomenon of mass rape in war as an expression of violence toward women in general, suggesting that male sexuality is inherently aggressive and antagonistic toward women. With clips of grinning soldiers reveling in their masculinity interspersed with interviews of rape victims, BeFreier und Befreite advocates a position that examines mass rape less within the particular construct of wartime violence and more within the framework of the everyday war of the sexes. One symbolic clip in the film shows a men's chorus singing Goethe's Heidenroslein, a eighteenth-century poem that describes the forced "plucking" of a young beautiful rose by a boy who insists he must take it. The rose's only defense is to "prick" the boy; but the rose succumbs nonetheless to the taking and dies. This scene has nothing to do with either the Red Army or German women in 1945; it does, however, communicate the idea that women are perpetual targets of male sexual aggression. Ruth Seifert has hypothesized that rape stems from a culturally rooted contempt for women lived out in times of crisis (65), and Brownmiller argues that women are raped not because they belong to the enemy camp, but because they are women and therefore enemies (62). The rape of a Jewish woman by the Soviets, as reported in BeFreier und Befreite, or the brutality of specific acts of sexual violence during rape, such as sexual mutilation, as documented in Calling the Ghosts, would point, as Seifert puts it, to the misogyny that "exists to varying degrees beneath the fragile surface of our societies" (65-66). The fact that cases of domestic violence rise dramatically during wartime-workers in women's shelters in Serbia and Croatia noted a 100% increase since the beginning of the war (Sander xix-xx)-substantiates this theory.

This thesis points to a pattern of male domination that marks women as both the symbolic and the physical conquest of the vanquished army because it reduces them to the level of male property. Brownmiller asserts that rape by the victors destroys among the conquered men their last illusions of power and property. Through rape, the vanquishing army degrades its male opponents by mocking their inability to protect their women. Moreover, as Ingrid Schmidt-Harzbach adds to the argument, relegating women to war booty devalues them as potential male property (31). Both documentaries include testimonies of men divorcing, ostracizing, and even killing their wives after learning about their rapes because their male honor had been damaged.

Simultaneously, albeit not conversely, recognition exists that women have an essential value in perpetuating the existence of a population, not only through reproduction, but also because they "keep the civilian population functioning and are essential to its continuity" (Copelon 345). Seifert eloquently states that "the female body functions as a symbolic representation of the body politic": the rape of women in a community can be regarded as the symbolic rape of the body of the community (63-64). The narration in Calling the Ghosts asserts: "Destroying a woman is the essence of destroying a nation."

The issue of women as representations of their gender and representations of culture and ethnicity begins to intersect at this point. It is precisely here that divisions arise between feminists who, as Obrad Kesic details, see rape as "a universal problem of violence against women that needs to be identified and combated as such," and those who place mass wartime rape within the larger context of racist and ethnic aggression (194). Feminist scholars argue whether mass rape in wartime can be both an attack on culture (ethnicity and religion) and sex specific (attacks on women) or whether ethnic and gendered attacks are mutually exclusive (Copelon 344, MacKinnon 188).

The mass rapes in former Yugoslavia have prompted feminists to explore the complex interrelationship of gender and ethnicity and the gendering of national identities and ideologies (Rejali 26, Enloe 51). While the topic has received increasing attention among scholars in the last decade, some see research of the problem as still in its infancy. Darius Rejali asserts that "American feminists have a rich understanding of gender formation, but their analysis of ethnicity is remarkably impoverished. American feminists, like the popular press, view ethnic identity as a property of individuals, assuming it is somehow inherited or readily visible." But ethnicity, as separate from race, can be hard to distinguish, he states, even though it can be quite pronounced, as is the case with ethnicities in the Balkans (29).

Calling the Ghosts makes clear that the women in the Omarska death camp were imprisoned, tortured, and raped because of their ethnicity. The thirty-seven women held in sexual and physical bondage were Muslim and Croatian intellectuals imprisoned by the Serbian forces that had occupied their town, Prijedor, in Bosnia. While director Jacobson stated in an interview, she wants the audience to respond to the women in her documentary as individuals rather than as ethnicities (Lewis), the role rape served as a method in so-called "ethnic cleansing" in the Bosnian war is unequivocal in the documentary. In contrast to BeFreier und Befreite's juxtaposition of laughing, robust male soldiers with rape testimony, Calling the Ghosts, conjoins the pictures of emaciated and tortured men from the Omarska death camp with testimonies of the female rape and torture survivors. The message is clear: the sadistic rapes of the women and the gruesome torture and killing of the men sprang from the same fountain of ethnic hostility. Jacobson and Jalincic do not ignore the gender specifics of rape. They include references by victims to their degradation because they are women. But the struggle to find meaning and make sense of the horror of systematic rape and torture is placed squarely within the historical and cultural framework of the Balkan ethnic conflict.

A difficulty in recognizing ethnicity and nationalism as causal factors of wartime rape is that feminist scholars themselves belong to a given ethnic or national group. While they may strive to be objective, the filter of ethnicity or nationalism often unconsciously colors the argument. This clearly comes through when the raped women belong to the "wrong" side, to the aggressor side in the conflict, as did the German women in 1945, and the Serbian women who were raped in the former Yugoslavia. Atina Grossmann admits that Sander's film BeFreier und Befreite highlights her dilemmas as a German Jewish child working as a feminist historian of modern Germany. While she knows that "feminist discourse on rape ... validates and publicizes the voices of women who speak of sexual violation," she emphasizes the need to marry it with an historical discourse on Germany's Nazi past (162-63). Of BeFreier und Befreite she says: "this is not (yet another) 'universal' story of women being raped by men, as Helke Sander would have it, but of German women being abused and violated by an army that fought Nazi Germany and liberated death camps. Mass rapes of civilian women also signaled the defeat of Nazi Germany" (165). According to Grossmann:</p> <pre> Sander's eagerness to integrate German women into the international transhistorical sisterhood of victims of male violence leads to a problematic historical slippage and displacement in which German women seem to become the victims primarily of National Socialism and the war, rather than of the failure of National Socialism and defeat in the war. (166) </pre> <p>Sander's attempt to present wartime rape as a specific manifestation of general gender warfare secondary to a specific historical and political context has come under attack from many comers. Particularly criticized has been Sander's uncommented inclusion of Nazi news-reels on the threat of Soviet rapes, which were released to feed the racial propaganda of the Nazi war machine, or her failure to reflect on racist comments made by women about Soviet rapes that reflect Nazi ideology. "No war, even World War II, is in all its consequences solely a war of the sexes," wrote a reviewer in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, observing that BeFreier und Befreite takes place in an apolitical vacuum (Fisher; my translation).

Director Jacobson was fully aware of the potential to create a documentary that demonized men in general and Serbian men in particular (Lewis). Her efforts to differentiate between good and evil regardless of gender or ethnicity are perceivable when she shows footage of a woman denying to journalists the existence of women prisoners in Omarska or the unwavering support given to survivor Nusreta Sivac by her Muslim husband, or when she includes fleeting recognition of the fact that Serbian women have been raped as well. By focusing on the testimony of Croatian and Muslim survivors of a Serbian rape camp, however, Calling the Ghosts unwillingly aligns itself with the majority of journalistic efforts that decry the brutal mass rapes committed by the Serbian army and, from the standpoint of Serbian feminists, ignore the horror of rape as a crime committed against female individuals.

For Serbian feminists, gender rather than ethnicity, should be the focus of the public discussion on the rapes. Serbian feminists argue that "By focusing their attention on Moslem rape victims ..., the majority of feminist authors have, willingly or unwillingly, contributed to the male political and military game in which women are divided according to whether they belong to the 'good guys' or 'bad guys'" (Nikolic-Ristanovic 45). This means, Vesna Nikolic-Ristanovic concludes, female interest loses to the "interest of the women belonging to the side that was, according to the dominant political (male) assessment, the good side in this war." By subjugating gender to ethnicity, she argues, feminist scholars subjugate female interests to male interests (81). They adopt the male discourse, "which treats women as objects, as a part of male property and not as individuals" (45). One can argue that even rape as genocide buys into a patriarchal definition of ethnicity since the child is thought to inherit the ethnicity of the father (Turpin 5).

The battle over whether gender or ethnicity matters more in trying to understand mass rape in war carries over into arguments about progress made in trying rape at an international war crimes tribunal. While it is laudable that rape has finally been tried as a war crime in an international court of law, its definition as a crime against humanity obscures its nature as a crime against women, argue many women's rights activists. The international attention given to the trial of war rapists has raised general awareness of the problem of wartime rape, and certainly authenticated in the public arena the personal and social devastation wreaked by the crime. Some women's rights activists maintain, however, that women remain invisible within human rights law as long as gender is excluded from the concept of crimes against humanity (Copelon 344-45, Bunch 11-12). Catherine MacKinnon says, "What is done to women is either too specific to women to be seen as human or too generic to human beings to be seen as specific to women" (184). We must be careful not to exaggerate the distinctiveness of genocidal rape and obscure the atrocity of common rape, warns Rhonda Copelon (342; see also Thomas and Ralph 207). Serbian feminist Nikolic-Ristanovic points outs that when rape is understood in the international court as a crime against a particular ethnic community, it is not understood as a crime against the female body, against the woman as an individual (79). Copelon argues that "from a practical as well as a moral perspective, ... all rape, and not only mass or genocidal rape, [should] be subject to the most severe condemnation and punishment" (340).

Diverging, even antagonistic, standpoints point to the complexity of factors involved in understanding the impetus for mass rape in wartime, particularly as feminist scholars move toward a deeper understanding of the interrelationship between gender, nationalism, and ethnicity. Public and scholarly discourse on mass wartime rape in the nineties, to which the documentaries BeFreier und Befreite and Calling the Ghosts greatly contributed, also makes clear that issues of nationality and ethnicity bear on scholars themselves as they work within cultural, political, and historical frameworks that can either consciously or unconsciously influence their investigation of mass rape. Differences notwithstanding, feminist scholars unitedly agree that open discussion breaks the silence that has historically allowed wartime rape to fade from historical consciousness. BeFreier und Befreite and Calling the Ghosts, by giving voice to women's experiences, and by bearing witness to the emotional and physical scars left behind by sexual violence, provide documentary authentication of the lasting devastation of wartime rape. The fact that they chronicle horrific mass rapes in two wars separated by half a century, that they acknowledge mass rapes in wars between, reminds their audience of the long way to go in combating the problem.

Jadranka Cigelj, the Croatian lawyer who tells her story of survival in Calling the Ghosts, says: "I was an ordinary woman, just interested in my home, my family, with new household appliances when the old ones broke down." Director Jacobson attacks the myth that "it could never happen to us" (Lewis). The black-and-white images of World War II footage in BeFreier und Befreite in some way create historical distance from the events, despite interviews with survivors fifty years later that remind us of their lasting effects. The colored details of footage in Calling the Ghosts, similar to the pictures broadcast on network news on American television, create immediacy to the events. The words of rape camp survivor Nusreta Sivac resound, when she asks: "Is such a thing still possible in this century?"

A review of Calling the Ghosts says it "challenges audiences to question their roles as witnesses, through the reality of televised genocides." "How do we as an audience bear witness to these stories in such a way as to promote healing? What responsibility does that imply?" it asks (Forum). Continuing the discourse is only a start.


BeFreier und Befreite: Krieg, l'ergewaltigungen, Kinder. Dir. Helke Sander. Bremer Institut Film/Fernsehen. 1991.

Brownmiller. Susan. Against Our Willl: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Bantam. 1975.

Bunch. Charlotte, "'Transforming Human Rights from a Feminist Perspective." Women's Rights, Human Right's: International Feminist Perspectives. Ed. Julie Peters and Andrea Wolper. New York: Routledge. 1995. 11-17.

Calling the Ghosts. Dir. Mandy Jacobson and Karmen Jelincic. Bowery Productions. 19%.

Copelon. Rhonda. "Surfacing Gender: Reengraving Crimes against Women in Humanitarian Law." Women and War in the Twentieth Century: Enlisted with or without Consent. Ed. Nicole Ann Dombrowski. New York: Garland. 1999. 332-59.

Enloe. Cynthia. "All the Men Are in the Militias. All the Women Are Victims: The Politics of Masculinity and Femininity in Nationalist Wars." The Women and War Reader. Ed. Lois Ann Lorentzen and Jennifer Turpin. New York: New York UP, 1998. 50-62.

Fischer, Eva-Elisabeth. "Vom Krieg der Manner gegen die Frauen: Helke Sander's Film BeFreier und Befreite." Rev. of BeFreier und Befreite. Soddeutsche Zeitung 11 Dec. 1992. Lexis-Nexis: NonEnglish Newspapers. Gettysburg College Musselman Lib. 16 Get. 2002.

Forum. Film Festival Berlin 1997. February 1997 <htlp://>.

Grossmann, Atina. "A Question of Silence: The Rape of German Women by Soviet Occupation Soldiers." Women and War in the Twentieth Century: Enlisted with or without Consent. 162-83.

Gutman, Roy. "Foreword." Trans. Marion Faber. Mass Rape: The War against Women in BosniaHerzegovina. Ed. Alexandra Stiglmayer. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1994. ix-xiii.

Johr. Barbara. "Die Ereignisse in Zahlen." BeFreier und Befreite: Krieg, Vergewaltigungen, Kinder. Ed, Helke Sander and Barbara Johr. Munchen: Kunstmann, 1992. 46-73.

Kesic, Obrad. "Women and Gender Imagery in Bosnia: Amazons, Sluts. Victims. Witches, and Wombs." Gender Politics in the Western Balkans. Ed. Sabrina P. Ramet. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1999. 187-202.

Lewis, Katherine. Interview with Mandy Jacobson. Forum. Film Festival Berlin 1997. February 1997 <>.

MacKinnon. Catherine A. "Rape, Genocide, and Women's Human Rights." Mass Rape: The War against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 183-96.

Nikolic-Ristanovic. Vesna. "Sexual Violence." Trans. Borislav Radovic. Women, Violence and War: Wartime Victimization of Refugees in the Balkans. Ed. Vesna Nikolic-Ristanovic. Budapest: Central European UP, 2000. 41-77.

Rejali, Darius. "After Feminist Analyses of Bosnian Violence." The Women and War Reader. 26-32.

Sander. Helke. "'Prologue." Trans. Marion Faber. Mass Rape: The War against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina. xvii-xxiii.

Seffert. Ruth. "War and Rape: A Preliminary Analysis." Trans. Marion Faber. Mass Rape: The liar against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 54-72.

Schmidt-Harzbach, Ingrid. "Eine Woche im April: Berlin 1945: Vergewaltigung als Massenschicksal." BeFreier und Befreite: Krieg, Vergewaltigungen, Kinder. 21-45.

Thomas, Dorothy Q, and Regan E. Ralph. "Rape in War: The Case in Bosnia." Gender Politics in the Western Balkans. 203-18.

Turpin, Jennifer. "Many Faces: Women Confronting War." The Women and War Reader. 3-18.






(1) This number applies to the estimated number of German women raped as the Red Army advanced westward: Sander and Johr estimate the number of women raped in Berlin alone to be over 110.000. The comparison volume to the film, also entitled BeFreier und Befreite, devotes a chapter to rape statistics (Johr 46-73).
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Title Annotation:The Evolution of War and Its Representation in Literature and Film
Author:Cohen-Pfister, Laurel
Publication:West Virginia University Philological Papers
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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