Passers-by often stand for a long time at the corner of Birkenstrasse and Bremer Strasse in Berlin’s Moabit neighbourhood to gaze at a bronze statue erected there in late September 2020. It depicts a girl in a traditional Korean hanbok sitting in a chair. She gazes sedately ahead, but her hands in her lap are clenched into fists. Next to her is an empty chair which invites viewers to sit beside her. But just three days after the statue was unveiled, on 1 October, Japan’s foreign minister Motegi Toshimitsu spoke with his German counterpart Heiko Maas and demanded that the ‘Statue of Peace’ be taken down. At the insistence of the Japanese embassy, the Berlin-Mitte district office has since revoked its approval of the statue and requested that it be removed.
The bronze statue by the South Korean sculptors Kim Seo-Kyung and Kim Eun-Sung commemorates the tens of thousands of women and girls from many Asian countries who were recruited with false promises, coercion and force during the Pacific War (1931–1945) and were raped and sexually enslaved by members of the Japanese military and their collaborators. Most of the women came from Korea, a Japanese colony at the time. They were referred to as jugun ianfuor the army’s ‘comfort women’ – a euphemism. Military commanders used them to provide their soldiers consolation, sexual satisfaction and a break from battle in order to increase their fighting power. But for the women, this entailed rape, enslavement and extensive physical and psychological injury. Those who survived found it impossible to lead a normal life after the end of the war in 1945.
Decades of silence
In the mid-twentieth century, there was no space for these women to talk about their fate. Sexual violence was considered an ugly but unavoidable and ultimately natural side effect of war. This is clear from the post-war trials in Japan and Germany, during which sexual violence was barely addressed. Although the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo (IMTFE, 1946–1948) codified rape as a war crime, the ‘comfort women’ system was not examined in any detail. In two subsequent trials in the former Dutch colony of Indonesia, nine Japanese soldiers and a bar owner were sentenced for rape and forced prostitution, but the women themselves were never questioned. And only 35 of the 100 to 200 cases involving white Dutch women were tried, even though several thousand Indonesian women had also been raped and sexually enslaved. Power political interests were clearly the main driving force behind these the convictions. At the time, there was little awareness that sexual violence is a crime. Moreover, soldiers with the Allied forces also perpetrated acts of sexual violence at the end of the war and in the post-war years – in both Asia and Europe.
Just after the end of the Cold War, on 14 August 1991, 67-year-old Kim Hak-Soon from South Korea became the first survivor to speak publicly about her fate. Hundreds of women followed her example, leading to a type of #MeToo movement for the Pacific War. Japanese scholars subsequently searched archives and found historical documents verifying the establishment of ‘comfort stations’ for Japanese soldiers and attesting to the Japanese Army’s shared responsibility for this. Nataly Jung-Hwa Han, chairwoman of the Korea Verband, the association that arranged for the sculpture’s installation, said: ‘The statue honours the courage of the survivors to break their silence, and it stands in opposition to sexual violence in armed conflicts worldwide.’
The 93-year-old survivor Lee Yong-Su, who was unable to attend the dedication ceremony in Berlin on account of COVID-19, shared her thoughts in a video message: ‘The Statue of Peace represents our life and our grief. As a witness to this history, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I want to ask you to please look after the statue. We also ask you to search for ways for our demands to be heard.’ The first version of the sculpture was installed across from the Japanese embassy in Seoul on 14 December 2011, during the 1000th ‘Wednesday demonstration’. Since 1992, survivors and their supporters have protested once every week – the 1,500th demonstration will be 2021. Very few of the survivors are still alive today, but the demonstrations continue. The protestors demand recognition of the ‘comfort women’ system as a crime, a formal apology to the women by the Japanese prime minister, and an assurance that these events will be taught and remembered in history books and through memorials.
But Japan is unwilling to acknowledge its historical responsibility. In what is known as the Kono Statement issued on 4 August 1993 by Kono Yohei, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary at the time, the Japanese government conceded that women and girls had been ‘recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc.’ and it expressed its ‘remorse’. However, it refused to recognise the women as victims of war crimes or to offer a formal apology and reparations. When a new government was formed in 2012, the re-elected prime minister Abe Shinzo and his party disputed the established facts in the Kono Statement and announced that it would be revoked. It was only under pressure from Washington that Abe abandoned this course of action.
More recently, Abe’s government tried to draw a line under the issue in 2015 with an ‘agreement’ negotiated behind closed doors with the South Korean government of the time. This deal involved a non-specific apology by Abe (who avoided acknowledging Japan’s responsibility) and a lump sum payment to Korea ‘to restore the honour and dignity and heal the psychological wounds of all former comfort women’ (which framed the survivors as pitiable old women instead of victims of crimes who had suffered a grave injustice). In return, South Korea declared that it would ‘refrain from accusing or criticising Japan’ on an international level in the future and would have the bronze statue of the girl removed from outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
As an expression of their protest, women’s and human rights groups have campaigned worldwide ever since for the installation of this statue and other monuments, and in doing so they have regularly triggered diplomatic interventions by the Japanese government. Nothing seems to have changed under Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga. ‘Japan wants to silence the transnational citizens’ movement, but we are not going away,’ Nataly Jung-Hwa Han said.
Indeed, while Japan treats the issue as if it were a bilateral problem with South Korea, the victims come from all of the countries that were occupied by Japan. This is what makes the bronze sculpture so powerful: it highlights the historical continuity of sexual violence against women in armed conflicts. It condemns rape and sexual enslavement, at all times and everywhere – not aggressively, not with a raised fist or a flag, burning torch or weapon in its hand. It condemns through its presence and persistence – and that is where its strength lies.
In this respect, it was only logical for political scientist Kien Nghi Ha to speak at the dedication ceremony in Berlin about the sexual violence committed by Korean soldiers during in the Vietnam War; today affected Vietnamese women are fighting for an apology and reparations from the South Korean government. It was also logical that many of the speakers at the ceremony, including Sara Fremberg from Medica Mondiale, mentioned similar violent crimes committed by the Germans during World War II. It is clear that Germany also needs to grapple with what the statue represents.
Sexual violence by German soldiers in World War II
During World War II, German soldiers committed acts of sexual torture and rape throughout the countries occupied by the German Reich. Based on military documents as well as personal accounts and interviews, researchers over the past 25 years have shown that crimes of sexual violence were a widespread phenomenon among German troops. To increase their soldiers’ fighting power, ensure their loyalty and hinder the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, the leaders of the German armed forces established military brothels in France and the Netherlands as well as the Soviet Union. Many of the women in these brothels were sexually enslaved. And regardless of their individual situations, they all experienced violence at the hands of soldiers brutalised by war.
This is a relevant topic at concentration camp memorials as well. Women imprisoned in the Ravensbrück concentration camp were recruited to work in brothels at ten other camps – not brothels for soldiers, but rather for male prisoners. As a performance incentive, ‘hard-working prisoners’ were to be ‘provided with women in brothels’ according to a plan concocted by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler in 1942. This idea was based on the notion that a bonus system – which involved alleviated imprisonment conditions as well as brothel visits – would boost the motivation of male prisoners to perform forced labour.
The female victims were rarely able to talk about their experiences. In the occupied countries, they faced the threat of being denounced as collaborators, and even female concentration camp prisoners were suspected of complicity after the war. The accounts written by former male concentration camp prisoners after their liberation reveal that they stigmatised the women as ‘anti-social’ and did not view violently coerced sex work as forced labour.
By contrast, Ruth Klüger, the literature professor and Auschwitz survivor who died recently, set the record straight in her speech on the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of National Socialism on 27 January 2016 in the German Bundestag: ‘This was not freely chosen work, despite the cynical accusations sometimes levelled at these abused women after the war. Even with the passage of time, prostitutes were not recognised as forced labourers and the survivors were not entitled to or didn’t attempt to claim restitution – reparations, in other words. Their families were even less inclined to do so, for they felt so ashamed. These women were never accorded the respect usually, if not always, given to camp survivors.’
This view of history only began to change when the survivors of the ‘comfort stations’ in Asia found the courage in the 1990s to share their stories and show their faces in public. These women shed a light on rape and sexual enslavement as a collective experience and systematic war crime. This development can also be attributed to the women’s and human rights groups who sought to raise international awareness of sexual violence in contemporary warfare. Their activities additionally drew attention to the violent sex crimes committed by German soldiers and the forced prostitution in the concentration camps. In 2017, a miniature version of the Korean Statue of Peace was displayed at the Ravensbrück Memorial. The Ravensbrück Memorial now addresses the subject in its permanent exhibition, and a memorial plaque is due to be unveiled in 2021.
A current example from the Sachsenhausen Memorial, too, shows that the issue has finally taken hold in memory culture. As part of an international work and study camp known as the Young Interventions project, a 20-year-old student from France created two life-sized female silhouettes, which she placed at the former site of the camp brothel and labelled ‘Les Oubliées’ – ‘The Forgotten’. Although this is probably only a temporary installation, one thing is apparent: even in Germany, the Statue of Peace is not alone. Hopefully she will be joined by many more sisters.
Social awareness of sexual violence as a crime seems to have grown in recent years. The topic is increasingly visible in the public sphere. Artistic practices can mediate between the historical and the aesthetic, and they can transform abstract knowledge into something concrete. This is precisely what the Statue of Peace does in Berlin-Moabit, where the neighbourhood’s residents have honoured the seated girl by leaving flowers. A public memorial space has been created that invites interaction and discussion.
At the statue’s dedication ceremony, Ute Müller-Tischler, head of the Department for Art, Culture and History of the Berlin-Mitte district, emphatically commended the sculpture’s message: ‘I am pleased that the Statue of Peace can raise awareness of this issue here in Berlin-Moabit. Because let there be no mistake: while the forced prostitution of Korean women and girls is the concern here, humiliation, extermination, abduction and rape are strategies found in nearly every war. Even today. For me, this sculpture represents all women who are objectified in wars, used as war material, robbed of their humanity, physically and psychologically destroyed. For these women, the sculpture breaks the silence and demands recognition.’ The fact that the Berlin district office caved in to pressure from Tokyo and called for the statue to be removed just a few days after this speech reveals how contested and fragile the approach to dealing with this subject continues to be in Germany.
During Germany’s tenure as chair of the UN Security Council in 2019, German foreign minister Heiko Maas said the prevention of sexual violence in conflicts was a central focus of Germany’s policy. On 23 April 2019, the Security Council adopted UN Resolution 2467, proposed by Germany, which aims to fight sexual violence in conflicts and strengthen the position of the victims. Just how serious the German government is about wanting to do justice to the victims of this form of violence will be measured in part by how it responds to Japan’s statement.
The Coalition for the Statue of Peace in Germany has since announced that it will take action against the decision of the Berlin-Mitte district office. The statue should stay put. It should stand as a symbol of opposition to sexual violence in armed conflicts, at all times and everywhere.
Addendum 15 October 2020
The Korea Verband, supported by the Coalition for the Statue of Peace in Germany, submitted an emergency appeal against the decision of the district office. The statute can now remain in place until the administrative court has ruled on the appeal. Meanwhile, the parliamentary groups for the SPD, the Greens and the Left in the district have issued statements calling on the district office to reverse its revocation of the approval it previously granted to the statue.
Translation: Jessica Spengler