Priestman had come here trying to find out what was expected of him. Now he knew: show the flag, act as a tripwire, and in the meantime be nice to the Germans. Maybe the bowler hat would have been better, after all.
“Let me tell you something about Berlin that may make it easier for you to understand the Berliners and adopt a more tolerant attitude towards them,” Waite suggested softly.
Priestman nodded stiffly, trying to get a grip on himself. A bowler hat was not an option. He was here, and he had to not only make the best of it but also turn it into something positive.
“First, Berlin was traditionally a ‘red’ city, a bastion of the socialist and communist parties. Hitler never won a majority of the vote in Berlin, and Hitler never trusted the Berliners as a result. He preferred Nuremberg for his rallies and withdrew to Berchtesgaden to relax. Berliners were notorious, even during the war, for making fun of their overlords — often at the price of their lives. Second, an estimated 125,000 Germans died in the final assault on Berlin, only 20,000 of whom were in uniform. Many of those in uniform were over sixty or under sixteen. Thousands of civilians were drowned when the Nazi leadership flooded the underground where they had taken refuge. When the city finally fell, I’m told there was widespread relief. There was little mourning for Hitler or his regime. The Berliners preferred, as they put it, a terrible end over terror without end.” Waite paused and then added soberly. “And then, in a city where women outnumbered men by as much as two to one, the rapes started. You’ve heard about this, I presume?”
“Yes, I understand the Russians were quite undisciplined.”
“That is an understatement. Even after we arrived in the city, hospitals in our sector were confronted with hundreds of rape cases every single night. Note, that this was in our Sector alone and we saw only those women who sought medical attention. The senior British medical officer believes the number of rapes per night easily exceeded 1,000 —”
“But—” Priestman cut himself off.
“Thousands of rapes per night over a six-to-eight-month period….” Priestman could not calculate the full magnitude much less fathom the impact.
“It comes to about one million rape victims, Robin, and many more instances since so many women were raped multiple times.” Waite met his eyes and forced him to confront what he was saying, “We saw women as old as eighty, girls as young as eight, mothers raped in front of their children, girls ravaged in front of their parents. Rapes often took place at gunpoint or in gangs — up to twenty times in a single incident. Women reported being raped repeatedly over days and weeks on end.”
Priestman was stunned. He found himself asking, “You said ‘we saw.’ Are you saying the Soviets crossed into our Sector to commit these crimes?”
“The first explosion of rape took place in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet capture of the city before we had arrived. It naturally spanned the entire city. After we arrived, we gradually asserted control, and the incidents tapered off. But, yes, in the first six to eight months of our occupation, the Russians still crossed over into our Sector, particularly into Charlottenburg, and sought victims after dark. Nowadays, that is rare, but not unheard of.”
Priestman was beginning to understand some of the “perks” he had been granted, most especially why the Station Commander’s wife was entitled to a car and driver.
“I think you will agree with me, Robin, that nothing the German Army did in the Soviet Union justifies the abuse of children, girls, mothers and grandmothers. Furthermore, and this is the most important point, sexual assaults on this scale over such a long period are not spontaneous acts on the part of undisciplined troops. The Soviet leadership does not hesitate to execute a man for telling a joke about Stalin. They could have stopped this behaviour with a single word. If Stalin or Zhukov or anyone in authority had wanted to stop it, they could have issued an order, shot some violators to set an example, and the orgy of abuse would have stopped. There would still have been the occasional case thereafter, but nothing on this scale. In short, the rape of Berlin was Soviet policy. It was condoned by Stalin himself. That tells you the character of our enemy.”
Waite paused and then added before Priestman could speak, “And before you mention the Concentration Camps, many are still operating — under Soviet direction and guards. As for Secret Police, the Soviet NKVD, as it is called, is more pervasive than the Gestapo ever was. Institutionalized murder? It is on a grander scale than anything Hitler imagined. Our intelligence reports suggest that under Stalin between ten and twenty million Soviet citizens have been killed.”
Priestman stared at him, his mind refusing to grasp or accept what Waite was saying. He didn’t want to believe this. The picture was too dark, threatening and frightening.
“Hitler has been defeated, Robin, but Stalin is a victor, more powerful than ever — and he is expanding his reach as far as he can. He wants control of Germany, the heart of Europe. It is not in the interests of anyone who believes in humanity or Christian values to let him have it. Stopping him means not giving in to his demands. It means not pulling back from Berlin. It means sitting here with 14 Spitfires to 1,400 Yaks, and it means trying to convince the Germans — one at a time — that one reign of terror was enough, that their future lies in working together with us against the Soviets.”
“I would have thought after what you just described, the Germans would have welcomed us with open arms. You mean they haven’t?”
“Yes and no. When we first got here, they were ready to see us as their saviours and protectors -- until we did nothing to protect them. The rapes continued, the thefts continued, the kidnappings continued, and the concentration camps re-opened. While Soviet propaganda enveloped them in lies about the worker’s paradise that their Soviet ‘friends’ would deliver, we insisted on ‘no fraternization’ and ‘collective guilt.’ In short, we have singularly failed to capitalize on their hatred for the Soviets.”
“I suppose our natural aloofness or inborn reticence played a role. Or maybe our all-too-obvious dislike of the Germans got in the way of better relations. Another factor, I’m sorry to say, was the bombing.”
Robin replied tartly, “As Air Marshal Harris so rightly said, they started the war with the childish notion that they were going to bomb everyone else and no one was going to bomb them. Are you saying they still haven’t grown up?”
“Let me answer with the following anecdote. Shortly after I arrived, the crew of a Dakota came to the rescue of a woman calling for help, chased off the Russians, and got her to a hospital, but when they stepped into the nearest tavern for a drink, all conversation stopped. Then one by one the other customers walked out.”
“I don’t understand.”
“They were dressed like you and me. An RAF uniform is to the people of Berlin much what an SS uniform is to us — a symbol of terror.”
“And you think there is something I can do to overcome those attitudes?” Priestman asked in disbelief. It sounded completely pointless to him.
It was Waite’s turn to draw a deep breath. “I admit, it is no easy task, but I’m saying you should try.”
Priestman thought about this for several seconds, stretching his imagination for something, anything, that he might do to alter people’s perceptions of the RAF. “Do you think we might do things like — I don’t know — soup kitchens for the hungry, or used-clothing drives for children, or air shows for entertainment?”
Waite perked up immediately. “I like your thinking!” he announced enthusiastically.
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