WMC Women Under Siege

Secret Holocaust files may finally see the light of day

We know that thousands of women were raped during the Holocaust. We also know that rape was never part of any charges against anyone responsible for the era’s atrocities. In a thrilling new turn of events, files long locked away at UN headquarters in New York have revealed details of investigations into the use of rape by Nazis. Could this lead to justice for women brutalized in other wars?

British and American researchers, as well as the U.S. Holocaust Museum, are pushing for public access to the files, which rest in an archive that was part of the United Nations War Crimes Commission. Allied countries established the commission in 1943 to look into charges against 37,000 people accused of war crimes. A year after it was shut down in 1948, the UN Secretariat decided to only allow access to governments on a confidential basis, according to The Associated Press. Then, in 1987, limited access was given to researchers and historians.

But it’s taken until now to bring to light documents that lay out potential legal precedents for rape as a war crime. AP reports that among the reels and reels of microfilm stowed in the archive’s metal cabinets are minutes from 1947 committee meetings that “document cases in Greece and Poland involving rape and mass murder. Another document, signed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Allied Commander in the Pacific, details the conviction of a Japanese commander for permitting or inciting his troops to rape a woman.”

To have such specifics is invaluable in trying to build legal precedents for the prosecution of rape as a crime against humanity or a war crime. While tribunals on genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia introduced the use of such charges in the late 1990s, these previously unexamined files could help solidify legal precedents that would allow courts to go after governments that use sexualized violence as a tool of war today.

Some of the faces of those who died in the Holocaust, at the Jüdisches Museum Berlin. (Corinne Cavallo)

“The Nuremberg trials only constituted one percent of the post-World War II prosecutions,” British academic Dan Plesch, director of the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, told AP. “A first look at the UN War Crimes Commission archive of the other 99 percent shows a gold mine of precedent and practice that can help hold modern-day war criminals to account. It must be made open without delay.”

With the recent indictment of former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and rape as a war crime in that country’s 36-year civil war, there appears to be mounting international political will to pursue such charges. But it took more than political will in Guatemala’s case—it also took years of careful archival documentation, of picking through yellowed papers. I’m crossing my fingers that Plesch and his fellow researchers get this archive fully opened, and soon. What better base could we have to prosecute atrocities than using legal and investigative details from one of the most twisted, carefully orchestrated genocides the world has ever seen?

(To read Women Under Siege's analysis of how sexualized violence was used as a tool of war in the Holocaust, click here.)



More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: War, Criminal justice, Sexualized violence, Genocide
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Lauren Wolfe
Director, Women Under Siege
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