BERLIN (AFP) – One of the long-ignored chapters of World War II hit German screens this month with a harrowing account of the mass rapes of German women by Russian soldiers as the Nazi regime crumbled around them.
"Anonyma - A Woman in Berlin" stars A-list German actress Nina Hoss and has returned a victim's anonymous diary to the forefront of an extremely tentative debate about German suffering during and after the war.
"There were tens of thousands (of rape victims) -- that is for certain. Perhaps even hundreds of thousands," US historian Norman Naimark, director of the Center for European Studies at Stanford, told German weekly Die Zeit.
"Some estimates go up to two million if you include all the Eastern European territories with German populations."
While the horrors inflicted by Nazis troops across the Soviet bloc are well documented, the price German women paid for the revenge taken by Russian soldiers was long unspoken here -- overshadowed by the overwhelming guilt of Hitler's followers.
The new film by Max Faerberboeck, 58, was inspired by the intimate journal a Berlin woman kept from April 20 to June 22, 1945 in which she recounts the excruciating hunger and repeated violations she suffered in the vanquished German capital.
The nameless author bears witness in a laconic tone, with searing insights into the apocalyptic world around her.
The chilling journal was first published in the United States in 1954 and then in several other countries before arriving in West German bookstores in 1959 thanks to a small Swiss publishing house.
It was an era in which no one cared to hear about German suffering after the horrors wrought by Nazi troops -- least of all the guilt-wracked Germans.
And in communist East Germany, a Soviet satellite, a blanket of silence suffocated any public discussion until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
The diary disappeared into obscurity for nearly half a century until noted writer Hans Magnus Enzenberger had it re-released in 2003. It became a bestseller in Germany.
The author appeared to have been in her 30s, well-educated, with a passion for photography and a basic knowledge of Russian picked up on her extensive travels before the war.
The daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung claimed to have unmasked her in 2003 as Marta Hillers, a journalist who made a name for herself with pro-Nazi propaganda -- the prevailing theory to this day.
Although researchers such as Naimark and Britain's Anthony Beevor have documented the enormous scale of sexual assaults of German women at the war's end, such first-person accounts are extremely rare in the historical record.
The University of Greifswald in northeastern Germany has just launched what it says will be the first scientific study of the rapes of German women at the end of the war.
The study will focus on Berlin, the surrounding state of Brandenburg and the northeast of the country near today's Polish border.
It will concentrate on the long-term psychological effects suffered by the affected women, all of whom, if still alive six decades on, are elderly.
The research team is advertising a telephone number for volunteers, just as the film has whipped up renewed public interest in the story.
"Anonyma" itself has received mixed reviews despite a riveting performance by Hoss in the lead role, with critics incensed about the introduction of a love story to the plot.
The journal recounts the woman's decision to seduce a high-ranking Russian officer so he will protect her from the other soldiers -- "packs of wolves", as she calls them -- preying on her and her neighbours.
There was no mention of love.