“Red Army soldiers don’t believe in ‘individual liaisons’ with German women,” wrote the playwright Zakhar Agranenko in his diary when serving as an officer of marine infantry in East Prussia. “Nine, ten, twelve men at a time – they rape them on a collective basis.”
The Soviet armies advancing into East Prussia in January 1945, in huge, long columns, were an extraordinary mixture of modern and medieval: tank troops in padded black helmets, Cossack cavalrymen on shaggy mounts with loot strapped to the saddle, lend-lease Studebakers and Dodges towing light field guns, and then a second echelon in horse-drawn carts. The variety of character among the soldiers was almost as great as that of their military equipment. There were freebooters who drank and raped quite shamelessly, and there were idealistic, austere communists and members of the intelligentsia appalled by such behaviour.
The word “Auschwitz” has become a metonym for the Holocaust as a whole. Yet the vast majority of Jews had already been murdered, further east, by the time that Auschwitz became a major killing facility. Yet while Auschwitz has been remembered, most of the Holocaust has been largely forgotten.
Rebecca West, the acclaimed British writer, covered Nuremberg for the New Yorker. In August 1946, as the case entered its 10th month, she wrote, “[T]he courtroom is a citadel of boredom. Every person attending it is in the grip of extreme tedium.” How could a trial for some of the most ghastly and massive crimes ever committed—crimes that continue to horrify and fascinate us—be dull? The answer lies in a most deliberate prosecutorial strategy, one to which we all owe a debt of gratitude today.