A Woman in Berlin

The victors were not picky when it came to claiming their booty. The Russian soldiers spared scarcely a single woman when they conquered Eastern Germany and Berlin in the spring of 1945—carrying out systematic mass rapes in order to humiliate the aggressors, finally at their mercy. Historians, sociologists, and psychologists have all dealt with this kind of war crime and the lasting trauma it engenders; they have argued about it and analyzed it. But, at the same time, given the overshadowing balance of work on German guilt, their studies have always had a rather marginal character.

Now Eichborn Verlag, in its series Die Andere Bibliothek (The Other Library), is making a unique document available once again, one that should attract a wide audience. Given the recent discussions of Germans as victims of the bombing campaign, it has a good chance of achieving the success it deserves. The book, Eine Frau in Berlin (A Woman in Berlin), is a collection of diary entries by an anonymous woman in her early 30s who narrates the events of her life in the last years of World War II and the first postwar years in bombed-out Berlin. Her manuscript—obviously the work of a highly educated woman with good connections to the Berlin publishing community—was initially circulated among a circle of friends, until one of them recognized its value.

Kurt W. Marek, the author of the bestseller Gods, Graves, and Scholars [under the pseudonym Ceram], was one of those friends. He realized its documentary importance and arranged for its publication. It first appeared in 1954 in New York in translation and then in 1955 in nine additional languages. But it was not until 1959 that the author finally consented to a German-language edition. The German edition seems to have had little impact: In any case, there is no real evidence that it was reviewed and read.

It is easy to imagine that the content of this diary of postwar society was too frank, too extreme, and too unsentimental for readers, in the face of the atmosphere of collective silence about the past and the determinedly stoic look-forward-not-back attitude pervasive during reconstruction.

Today, after the end of the Cold War and the old Federal Republic of Germany, the debate over the past is more open to hearing about Germans as victims—without engendering accusations of revanchism. Günter Grass’ novel Crabwalk and Jörg Friedrich’s book Der Brand on the bombing war are only the most prominent examples of this trend.

These anonymous extracts from a diary enlarge upon this literature by providing a decidedly female perspective, but one in which the writer never runs any danger of falling into the typical clichés about the fate of womankind. The writer is too reflective, too candid, too worldly for that. For women to keep diaries in the last days of the war, as the front drew closer, was not uncommon—what is exceptional and impressive about this book is that the author, even as she was being treated as booty, was able to see herself as part of history and come to independent judgments about her experiences. What befell her as a woman served to provide her with an eye to consider larger questions of morality and societal mechanisms—within and beyond the exceptional circumstances of the war and the Third Reich.

“My center is, as I write this, my belly. All my thoughts, feelings, desires and hopes begin with food.” The diarist insists that all her energy was devoted to organizing her survival amid the everyday life of wartime: standing in line when rations were distributed, stealing from other people’s homes and gardens, looting abandoned shops and warehouses, getting water—day after day, bucket after bucket—from the pump.

In the final months of the war, the writer—bombed out of her own home—moved into a high-rise apartment in an eastern part of Berlin belonging to a colleague called up to military service. But the heavy bombing attacks forced her and her neighbors to spend most of their time on the ground floor or in the basement. She reports laconically on the idiosyncrasies that develop in such situations and the new hierarchies that arise. “We were no longer governed. And yet, there was still some kind of order here, a system, in every basement. Mankind must have had something like this back in the Stone Age. Herd instincts, species-specific behaviors.”

Terrified by German propaganda, these “cave-dwellers” awaited their Russian conquerors in a state of panic. The fear of being raped was in the air. “Sometimes I wish it were already over. Exceptional times. People experience history first hand. Things that will later be sung about, told about. But, up close, they are merely burdens and fears. History is hard to endure.”

From German men, the women expected no protection—they seemed to be too shattered, and in need of defense themselves. They were losers, deserters, former officials. “They made us sorry, they looked so puny and weak, the weaker sex....The male-ruled world of the Nazis, with its cult of the strong man, was crumbling—and with it the myth of the ‘man.’ ” With an incredible feeling for the constructs of societal roles, the diarist depicted the alienation of women from men in a disintegrating society—a process that had begun before the enemy arrived, and which was intensified by the sexual violence that ensued.

On the night of April 27-28, catastrophe arrived for the people in the basement. The Russians came, and asserted their right as victors. The author was raped several times by the occupiers on this first night alone, and she was no exception. As a rule, the German men did not defend the women. The diarist noted an arrangement for survival: “No man lost face because he betrayed a woman—the neighbor’s wife, or his own—to the victors. To the contrary, he would be disliked if he made the Russians angry. Even so, the indelible shame remained.”

Which the author, with her vital pragmatism, immediately dismissed. “I laugh right in the middle of all this awfulness. What should I do? After all, I am alive, everything will pass!” And soon enough she developed a strategy to keep the worst of the men away from her, making use of her knowledge of Russian, acquired during her many trips around Europe as a college student. She looked around and found the highest-ranking officer in the neighborhood and made herself available to him, in hopes of getting some of his rations in return. The deal was called “sleeping for food.” Everyone was aware of the slippery slope leading to prostitution; it eroded her pride, made her physically ill. But morality was a major luxury in those days and gallows humor the only way to process such events.

The analytical acuity with which the diarist was able to understand her situation, coupled with a gift for irony and a worldly and self-conscious lust for life, con-stantly astonish the reader. The author is clear about her own robustness of character. Many times she depicts violations of other women so terrible as to be unspeakable, reflects upon the fact that more fragile women could be destroyed by such acts, and hopes—in vain—that the collective trauma of the rapes may be possible to overcome collectively, too.

She relies upon a subjective capability to sublimate her suffering, to see herself as part of a mass, which is one reason she insists upon her anonymity. She writes again and again of “we Germans,” and “the bitter defeat.” She remained in Germany, although she had opportunities to leave, and recognizes that she feels tied to the country, above all, culturally, and despite its government. “I read Rilke, Goethe, Hauptmann. It consoles me that they are part of us, and people like ourselves.” She is not really interested in politics in the narrow sense of the word, but at the same time has too sensitive a feeling for the truth not to discover her own share of guilt, and to be disgusted by the sanctimoniousness of her fellow Germans. “Everyone now is turning their backs on Adolf, and no one was ever a supporter. Everyone was persecuted, and no one ever turned anyone else in. Was I myself a supporter, or in the opposition? I was, in any case, here, and breathed in the same air, the air that surrounded us and affected us, even if we did not want that.”

In reading these entries, it is clearer than ever that the Nazi era cannot be satisfactorily understood using the current victim/perpetrator schema. The times were entirely too complex to be reduced to such categories. The diary offers us a perspective on how a modern bourgeois society can be deformed when put under unimaginable stress. It brings us face to face with how moral standards can vanish in the face of extreme violence, how the corset of civilization can burst open and people can become numb beasts, bent only upon power and survival.

The book is no tale of resistance, no report from either a Nazi fellow traveler or a tale of victims or perpetrators, but something else—a portrait of German life amid all that. We have the diaries of Anne Frank and Victor Klemperer and the observations of Sebastian Haffner. Now we have the entries written by an anonymous woman, which enlarge this canon by adding an important voice.

Because of her capacity for reflection, this woman finds it impossible to develop hatred for the occupation forces. “I hate the feeling that something happened to me that balanced an account.” When the defeated Germans, in the early days of peace, were given technology back as electric power was restored, they heard the first reports about the concentration camps on the radio. “I leafed through a volume of Aeschylus plays, and discovered The Persians. With its cries of the vanquished it seemed to fit our situation, yet it did not. Our German misfortune has aspects of horror, sickness, and insanity; it is not comparable to anything in history. Then came another radio report on the camps. The most terrible thing about all this is the orderly and thrifty nature of it all: Millions of people turned into fertilizer, mattress-stuffing, soap, and felt—Aeschylus never saw anything like this.”

Her incredible sensitivity to language, her unpretentious use of her education, her gift for precise observation, her intellectual acuity, her clear judgment—one should never stop praising this book, never stop urging others to read it. It is the unique testimony of a victim of violence who maintains her integrity and a consciousness of her historical situation. In its humanity and maturity it is a shocking yet constructive document of horror and shame, of the will to survive. The German reality of the Third Reich has been illuminated by a new light.