Encountering the Russians

“On April 9 Hella Kinn was hiding in a cellar that had become home during the siege. Just as she was about to stretch out on a couch, someone called down “Ivan is here.” Moments later a neighbour rushed in. “They’re here. I shook hands with two of them. They said they wouldn’t hurt us.” Kinn ran upstairs. “Grete stood at the door and waved. ‘We’ve survived,’ she called out, and laughing and crying we fell into each other’s arms. ‘Thanks be to God,’ I said. ‘For us the war is over.’ We walked down the street. A Russian soldier stood outside the house next door surrounded by laughing, gesticulating people. Russians stood on the corners. All the houses had red and white flags on them. On some you could see the circle where the swastika had been cut out… And whatever may come now, we are free of this Führer and his creatures.”

Steyr, T. (2005) The setting of the pearl: Vienna under Hitler. Oxford University Press. p. 282.

Viennese civilians and Soviet soldiers

Viennese civilians and Soviet soldiers

Behaviour of Soviet soldiers

In recent years the behaviour of Soviet soldiers in raping very large numbers of German women has been brought to the world’s attention, in particular by Anthony Beevor who documented this in his 2003 book Berlin: The Downfall.

In Vienna, rape by Soviet soldiers was also very common, sometimes accompanied by other acts of appalling violence. Martin Herz, a American political officer in Austria, estimated that about 40,000 Viennese women were raped in April 1945. It is clear that alcohol and feelings of revenge fuelled this, coupled with a general problem of indiscipline in the Red Army, which led to many other acts of pillage and murder.

At the same time, individual soldiers were capable of great kindness and some were able to forge more ‘normal’ relationships with Austrian women (albeit tinged with the imbalance of power and differential access to food which characterised all sexual relations between allied soldiers and German or Austrian civilians).

Many Soviet soldiers were astonished at the affluence of the capitalist countries they had conquered. A Russian lieutenant said:

“In the country back home there was no electricity and there won’t be any, yet it exists here in every house. We will never catch up with, not to mention overtake, Europe. We haven’t managed to provide electrical lighting in the country, yet…here you can see chandeliers, luxurious houses, and elegant clothes, and back home my family suffers hunger and has nothing to wear.” (Quoted in Petrov, N. (2009) The internal troops of the NKVD in the system of Soviet organs of repression in Austria: 1945-1946, in Bischof, Gunter., Plasser, Fritz. (eds) 2009) New Perspectives on Austrians and World War II. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers. pp. 250-275)

Small wonder that Soviet troops were fascinated by gadgets of all kinds, including watches, light bulbs and bicycles, and would take them from Austrian civilians, sometimes violently, when they could.

It became clear to the Soviet political authorities, though, that the bad behaviour of many of their troops was alienating the Austrian population. This was a concern, as the Soviets hoped to win the hearts and minds of the Austrian people in elections they had planned. The NKVD - in addition to the many other tasks it was given in its role of ‘protecting the rear’ of the fighting troops - were tasked with improving matters. Draconian punishements, including execution, were used against soldiers committing misdemeanours. Nevertheless, acts of indiscipline continued for weeks and affected Austrian perceptions of the Soviets for ever afterwards.

Paul Sweet, another American political officer, wrote in July 1945 after a visit to Vienna:

"Once the firing had ceased, the behaviour of the Russian troops altered rapidly. Looting the residential areas, they came across large private stocks of wines and liquors which they consumed in abundance. Prolonged disorder inevitably ensued. For several weeks front line troops roamed the city drunk, forcibly entering and searching private houses, taking what pleased them, smashing what they left behind and all too frequently raping the female residents. Although the tales of rape now current are probably exaggerated, it is not unlikely that the actual number of incidents ran into the tens of thousands"

Yet the Americans were suspicious of the reports of atrocities from Austrian civilians at this time, believing many were motivated by a desire to sow discord between the Americans and their new-found Allies, the Russians. He also wrote, controversially and somewhat inexplicably:

"Many of these [reports] might be considered technical rape as there is evidence that a considerable proportion of the female population took less than reasonable precautions to protect themselves." (Sweet, in Rathkolb, p.285)

Rathkolb, Oliver (1985) Gesellschaft und Politik am Beginn der Zweiten Republik : vertrauliche Berichte der US-Militäradministration aus Österreich 1945 in englischer Originalfassung  (Hg.). Wien : Böhlau. [Society and politics at the beginning of the Second Republic. Confidential reports of the U.S. military administration from Austria in 1945 in the original English version]

 

 

Viennese women and Soviet tank soldiers

Viennese women and Soviet tank soldiers

"The inhabitants of the building were sheltering in the cellar. They then felt the vibration of a tank coming down their street. Soon afterwards, a draught of fresh air which made the candles flicker told them that the door had been opened. The first Russian word they heard was 'Stoi!' A soldier...armed with a sub-machine gun came in...." (Beevor A, Berlin: the downfall. p. 312)

 

Steps leading down to a cellar in Viennese apartment block

Steps leading down to a cellar in Viennese apartment block

 

 

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