DOMINIC SANDBROOK: Rape has always been the cruellest weapon of war

Rape has always been the cruellest weapon of war: As evidence emerges of bestial abuse of Ukrainian women, DOMINIC SANDBROOK details how it’s a common tactic, from the Romans to medieval warlords and Isis fanatics

There are some tales so harrowing that, try as you might, you can never forget them. 

Perhaps you shouldn’t. The ordeal of Natalya, a Ukrainian woman, is such a story. 

Until recently, Natalya – not her real name – lived in a rural cottage not far from Kyiv, with her husband Andrey and their four-year old son Oleksii.

On March 8, Russian troops entered their village. Natalya hung a white sheet outside their house to show that a harmless family lived there.  

But the next morning her nightmare began. First, the Russians shot the family dog; then they shot Andrey, leaving his body by the gate. 

They shut Oleksii in the boiler room and told him they would kill Natalya if he came out. 

Then they raped Natalya, one after the other. They left, then returned, and raped her again. 

By the third time they were so drunk they could barely stand. 

Pictured: People gather outside the Ukrainian embassy in Yerevan, Armenia to mourn civilians found dead in the town of Bucha, to the northwest of Kyiv, on April 4, 2022

That gave Natalya her chance to escape, she told a British newspaper last week, ushering her terrified little boy past his father’s body, out of the gate and down the road to safety.

Even amid the horror of Russia’s war in Ukraine – where new images of atrocities and devastation emerge every day – Natalya’s story makes heartrending reading. 

It is said that the country is now a giant crime scene. 

On Sunday, Human Rights Watch revealed it had found evidence of war crimes being committed by Russian troops in Ukraine, including rapes and summary executions.

Mass executions are alleged in Bucha and other towns. Across Ukraine, crimes such as those committed against Natalya’s family are, sadly, likely to be all too common. 

Sources in the country have reported dozens of women being gang-raped by Russian soldiers, from young girls to pensioners. 

Some have allegedly been executed afterwards; others have taken their lives. 

War is hell, said the US Civil War general William Sherman. He was right, but sadly the most terrible circle of that inferno is often reserved for people who least deserve it – women and children caught up in the conflict.

Rape and war have always gone hand-in-hand. In one of the first written works of history, Herodotus’s Histories, the author describes how the Phoenicians and Greeks kidnapped their enemies’ wives and daughters, turning them into chattels. 

Similarly, one of the foundational moments of Roman history, recorded by the historian Livy, was the Rape of the Sabine Women. 

The story goes that the Romans had run out of young women of their own so they kidnapped virgins from neighbouring cities. 

For generations, people thought this a wonderfully entertaining subject, fit for small boys’ Latin lessons. 

It was so popular with painters that there are numerous celebrated versions, from Rubens and Poussin to Degas and Picasso. 

Once again, though, it’s worth considering what this event actually involved. 

The screaming, the terror, the brutality and the trauma would be only too familiar to millions of women in human history. 

Some of the worst atrocities are so dreadful that you shrink from picturing them.

When the central Asian warlord Timur the Lame – better known as Tamerlane – burst out of the steppes in the late 14th century, his troops became notorious for their violence to women. 

Sacking Aleppo in the autumn of 1400, for example, his Tatar soldiers herded all the female citizens into the courtyard of the Great Mosque and gang-raped them for hours on end. 

Then they slaughtered them, piling their heads into pyramids of skulls. 

Where does violence like this come from? Is it an inevitable part of war? 

Or does it reflect something deeper, more primal, some terrible evolutionary impulse? 

In essence, there are really three schools of thought. 

The first is that wartime rape is a form of male bonding, tying soldiers together through violent rituals. 

By humiliating their enemies’ wives and daughters, young men build a stronger group identity of their own. 

The second is that rape is basically political – a deliberate, coldblooded policy of breaking the enemy’s morale, destroying their sense of identity and, in the long term, replacing one gene pool with another. 

And the third – and perhaps most disturbing – is that rape is rooted in masculinity itself. 

Sickening: A woman lies dead in Bucha where hundreds of civilians were massacred 

This was the argument of the US feminist writer Susan Brownmiller, who suggested that ‘war provides men with the perfect psychological backdrop to give vent to their contempt for women’.

‘Men who rape,’ she wrote, ‘are ordinary Joes, made unordinary by entry into the most exclusive male-only club in the world.’ 

Perhaps the answer is some combination of all of them, depending on the circumstances. 

But to the victims – dehumanised, humiliated, brutalised by the ultimate demonstration of male power over women – the effect is the same, whatever the cause. 

In case you’re wondering whether some races have been worse than others, by the way, the answer is no. 

Europeans, Africans and Asians are all as guilty as each other. 

I’ll come later to the horrific atrocities carried out by the Red Army in Germany in 1945, but it’s worth emphasising that this wasn’t the first time such things had happened on central European soil. 

Europe’s history is littered with outrages such as the Sack of Magdeburg in 1631, when the troops of the Holy Roman Empire rampaged unchecked for four days, gang-raping thousands of women and children. 

Afterwards they slaughtered their victims without the slightest pity. 

To prevent disease, their commanders ordered them to dump the bodies into the River Elbe, but there were so many that it took them two weeks. 

Beforehand, the population of Magdeburg had been 25,000. Afterwards, it was 449.

The centuries go by; the terrible stories pile up, from French and, yes, British atrocities during the Napoleonic Wars to assaults by Union and Confederate soldiers alike during the American Civil War.

But the most detailed and horrific accounts in war come from the 20th century, the age of the world wars. 

Entirely understandably, we remember the Second World War as a noble crusade against the forces of evil. 

But it’s worth stressing that no army was entirely innocent. 

We rarely remember that British soldiers raped local women in liberated Italy, Belgium and Holland or that French colonial troops were accused of raping 7,000 women after the battle of Monte Cassino. 

Nor do we remember that American GIs are estimated to have raped 11,400 women and children in occupied Germany. 

But the most notorious acts of rape in wartime Europe were carried out by the Russians. 

When the Red Army tore into Hitler’s Germany, their commanders ordered them to show no mercy and treat the vanquished as ‘wild beasts’ – and they did. 

Reading the historian Antony Beevor’s account of the fall of the Third Reich, the shocking thing is the unbridled impunity with which the Soviet forces raped their way through Germany.

‘Soldiers don’t believe in “individual liaisons” with German women,’ one Soviet major wrote in his diary. ‘Nine, ten, 12 men at a time – they rape them on a collective basis.’ 

In Berlin, writes Beevor, ‘nuns, young girls, old women, pregnant women and mothers who had just given birth were all raped without pity… Sometimes the greatest danger came from one mother giving away the hiding place of other girls in a desperate bid to save her own daughter. Older Berliners still remember the screams every night.’ 

Some women attached themselves to individual Russian soldiers in a desperate attempt to escape the mobs. 

But when their protectors were on patrol, the women were hauled out of their hiding places for collective torture. 

The figures are truly horrifying. Estimates of rape victims from Berlin’s two main hospitals range from 95,000 to 130,000. 

A German doctor worked out that perhaps 10,000 Berlin women died afterwards. 

Some died from internal injuries, but most died by their own hand, such was their trauma and shame. 

‘Altogether,’ says Beevor, ‘at least two million German women are thought to have been raped, and a substantial minority, if not a majority, appear to have suffered multiple rape.’ 

Afterwards, in Russia, there was a widespread sick joke about a Red Army officer who came home after the war, but couldn’t perform in bed. 

The punchline was that he was only cured after his wife put her clothes on and began to fight back. 

Volunteers unload from a van bags containing bodies of civilians, who according to residents were killed by Russian army soldiers, after they collected them from the streets to gather them at a cemetery before they take them to the morgue, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in Bucha, the Kyiv region

Yet even now the Kremlin denies the rapes happened at all and the Russian authorities ban books that argue otherwise.

As this week’s story from Ukraine suggests, things haven’t changed. 

A basic rule, I think, is that the more chaotic and undisciplined the army, the more cruel and bullying its officers, the more likely it is that its soldiers will descend into barbarism. 

In her harrowing book Our Bodies, Their Battlefield, the war correspondent Christina Lamb recounts the stories of rape victims in more recent conflicts. 

During the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, for instance, there were hundreds of rapes every day, with the victims’ ages ranging from two to 75. 

Behind each of these statistics was a real person, abused and humiliated. 

Lamb kicks off her account with the appalling story of a Yazidi girl called Naima, who was captured by ISIS in Iraq just after she turned 18. 

Taken to the city of Mosul, Naima was bought in a grotesque auction by a fat 60-year-old man with a ‘vicious curl to his lips’ who paid $200. 

For the next few weeks, the fat man raped her. Then he sold her to another Iraqi, who also raped her before selling her on. 

By now, the price had reached $8,000. On and on it went. In all, Naima passed through the homes of 12 men, all of whom raped her. 

She tried to kill herself, swallowing a vial of tablets. ‘But still I woke up,’ she says. ‘I felt even death didn’t want me.’ 

In this case, there was an obvious ideological dimension. 

For these ISIS fanatics, rape was a way of dehumanising the Yazidis, stripping them of their honour and impregnating them with future Muslims. 

But when you survey the landscape of 20th and 21st century warfare, the disturbing thing is that there isn’t an obvious pattern. 

Before war began, many rapists had been perfectly ordinary civilians. 

But when the shackles were off, they yielded to their basest impulses, as if the experience of battle had unleashed some dormant beast. 

The Norwegian scholar Inger Skjelsbæk studied the cases of soldiers accused of rape in Bosnia in the 1990s. 

By and large, they generally considered rape ‘something normal that happens in war’. 

Some thought they had behaved chivalrously because they had let their victims live. 

Others quite seriously claimed their victims had been in love with them. 

None of this, of course, excuses the behaviour of Vladimir Putin’s barbarians. 

Taught to hate and trained to kill, the Russians have behaved in Ukraine with appalling ferocity, making a mockery of their flimsy claims to Slavic brotherhood.

One day, I hope, Putin’s killers will face justice alongside the bullies and kleptocrats who threw them into battle. 

And I pray that one day Natalya finds peace after her dreadful ordeal. Yet the deeper lesson is more disturbing. 

Most historians agree that war is an indelible part of the human condition. Yet at the same time most believe rape is a grimly inevitable element of war. 

So what does that tell you about the nature of man? I wouldn’t go as far as the radical feminist Marilyn French, who famously claimed that all men were rapists. 

But, as Antony Beevor once remarked when discussing the Red Army’s crimes in Germany, it’s only too easy to point the finger at the atrocities of others. 

Can any of us be certain, beyond any possible doubt, that if we were similarly brutalised and exhausted, far from home, with a gun in our hands and our comrades urging us on, we would turn and walk away? 

Given what we know about so many people in human history, can we be sure that we’d do the right thing? 

That, surely, is the most frightening thought of all.

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