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Historians to reconsider Russian occupation of Eastern Europe

STANFORD -- Romanian, Bulgarian, Albanian and other East European historians who have been left out of formulating the recent history of their homelands will join Russian and Western historians March 29 to 31 in a reconsideration of the Soviet takeover of the region.

Organized by Stanford University's Norman Naimark and Leonid Gibianskii of the Slavonic and Balkan Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the conference in Moscow will bring together about four dozen historians who have been probing newly opened archives in the former Soviet bloc. They will compare notes and perspectives on the Soviet occupation from 1945 to 1950, immediately after World War II. The conference is funded by the U.S.-based International Research and Exchange Corp. and the Joint Committee on Eastern Europe of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council.

"We wanted to make sure we had people not normally represented at historical conferences" on the region, Naimark said, because "there is important new material and young scholars at work. We know more about Soviet motivations as seen through their archives, and we would now like to see how the new work in Russian and East European archives meshes."

Historians in most of the former Soviet satellite countries have until recently worked on earlier periods of history because of the difficulties of writing about the Soviet period under Communist censorship, Naimark said.

Archival sources have allowed historians of the region to better document events that were previously known to Western historians from less persuasive sources, such as memoirs, eyewitness and secondhand accounts, Naimark said.

In his own work on the occupation of Eastern Germany, for example, Naimark was astonished to find in the Russian Communist Party archives confirmation of widespread and brutal rapes of German women by occupying Russian soldiers and of the imprisonment of at least 100,000 young German men and women, one third of whom died in captivity.

The rapes of what appears to be at least hundreds of thousands of German women by Russian soldiers - estimates range up to 2 million - is now getting public attention in Germany, where it is the subject of a new movie and book. The archives indicate the rapes were not ordered or condoned from the top, Naimark said, but were instead fueled by "deep and complex desires for revenge" among the ranks.

In the archives, "you have reports from local Soviet officers in little towns of Germany complaining about the fact that the army camp has gone wild," he said.

Local Soviet political officers also sometimes complained about the disappearances of young Germans at the hands of the secret police, whom they could not control and who were largely unaccountable to anyone in the Soviet hierarchy, Naimark said. Eventually, the army was brought under tighter control and moved to isolated barracks and bases, where soldiers remained separated from the German populace until 1990 when the withdrawal of the troops started, he said.

American occupation forces also committed some rapes in their initial occupation of Western Germany, Naimark said, but it was not nearly so widespread in part because "prostitution was legal in the West, and there was lots of prostitution, semi-prostitution and informal liaisons."

Americans also may not have felt the need for revenge as much as the Russian soldiers, he said, because the Germans had not invaded America, and Germany was not as well-off as America. The Russian soldiers were shocked to find the superior living conditions in Germany compared to their own hardships at home, he said.

Confirmation of such occurrences as the rapes from the Soviet side is important to historians, Naimark said, because "I have interviewed people who have denied that these things happened, and until very recently, even West Germans had a lot of trouble talking about what happened in the occupation."

The Nazis had predicted rape and destruction of local communities in their efforts to keep the German populace fighting until the end, Naimark said. West German democrats may have felt that to talk about what happened in the war's aftermath would only confirm that the Nazis had been right.

Naimark said he was surprised to see in Communist Party archives that the Soviets had "strong differences of opinion" about what actions to take in Germany during the occupation. Some wanted to eliminate the so- called "bourgeois" parties of Germany, for example, while others felt they should be brought in as part of the ruling apparatus.

Although many of Stalin's communications are not yet available, Naimark said the archives that have been opening up to historians since 1990-91 leave the impression that Stalin did not control the occupation as directly as he controlled the party and state apparatus before the war.

"In this period, at least in East Germany, he is not the person behind the scenes telling everybody what to do. He is working on keeping his options open."

What may emerge from the conference of historians, Naimark said, is a consensus that the Soviets "had no central plan" for Eastern Europe. "The Russians meddled on all levels of decision-making, but there are many disagreements recorded in the archives," he said, "and the actions that were taken varied markedly from country to country."

For example, Naimark said, "I saw a document on the German Communist Party program of June 11, 1945, indicating that the Soviets insisted that the Germans allow big farmers to keep their land. They did not want to collectivize agriculture in Germany as they had done in Russia.

"One of the things we will discuss at this conference is how much local Communists could determine their own policies," Naimark said. Perhaps because the Soviets feared the West's reaction to their actions in Germany more than in other places, he said, "the Soviets often frustrated the plans of German Communist radicals. For example, the German Communist Party wasn't even invited to or told the date of early international party meetings."



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