Tam Eastley reviews one of the most controversial and poignant books to emerge from Russian-occupied Berlin in 1945…
A Woman in Berlin (Eine Frau in Berlin) by Anonymous is a true diary account of the postwar city from April 20 – June 22 1945. Written by a well educated 34-year-old German woman and professional journalist alleged to be one Marta Hillers, the startlingly frank narrative is an eye opening chronicle of the fall of Berlin to the Russian Red Army.
The first 65 pages of the account are spent in frightened expectation of the Russian liberation during the last few days of the Allies’ bombing campaign. Rumours of Russian drunkenness and brutality are passed around the city in conversations at breadlines and whilst burying corpses.
The author and fellow residents of her near-demolished apartment building huddle in the basement, running outside only to collect food and news. The author calls herself and her neighbours “cave dwellers”, as their lives have begun to revolve around the basement, their only place of temporary safety.
As the bombings come to a slow and bloody end, the men of the Red Army storm the city, finding a capital in utter ruin. “Berliner Strasse looked desolate, half torn-up and barricaded off,” writes the author. Hasenheide was destroyed, “(o)ur own troops had felled all the trees to have a clear field for shooting. The ground was scored with trenches strewn with rags, bottles, cans, wires, ammunition.”
When planes weren’t swooping overhead and when bombs weren’t exploding, the city was eerily quiet, “(…) nothing but an oppressive silence broken by our own footsteps.”
The city was not only destroyed, it was also completely defenceless. As the Russians swooped into a Berlin completely devoid of men and protection, it was the women who bared the brunt of the soldiers’ violent anger and desire.
For pages, the anonymous woman describes rape after rape after rape; her own, and others’. The first time for her takes place on a crumbling staircase just beside the closed door of the safe basement, which was slammed quickly in her face by her fellow “cave dwellers” as she was trying to escape from the groping hands of Russian soldiers.
Some further sexual encounters are used to gain protection and food. It becomes obvious to the reader, and the author, that it is a time when one’s own survival quickly takes precedence over everything else.
In the introduction to the book, British historian and author Anthony Beevor states that “many (Russian) soldiers had been so humiliated by their own officers and commissars during the four years of war that they felt driven to expiate their bitterness, and German women presented the easiest target.”
Mass rapes occurred for the first few weeks after the take-over, and then slowly started to taper down by mid-May. It’s virtually impossible to discern how many women experienced such absolutely horrific abuse. Beevor estimates that between 95,000 and 130,000 women in Berlin alone were attacked. No one was exempt: the old, the young, the too young.
For many women, it happened more than once, and was particularly gruesome. The anonymous woman of the diary speaks in a matter of fact way about her numerous rapes, and about the rape of others.
After meeting friends for the first time in the wake of the destruction, they calmly ask each other “how many times” over coffee substitute. Rape became so normal that they learned to joke about it.
Even though the mass rapes eventually stopped, the after-effects had long-lasting consequences. Women feared they were pregnant and makeshift clinics were set up to test those who had been abused for sexually transmitted diseases.
Many remained fearful of leave their apartments, and rumours of further threats of rape from encroaching armies put the city on edge, leaving women in a constant state of resigned fear.
To add insult to injury, the famous re-building of Berlin had begun. As the author and others worked their fingers until they bled as Trümmerfrauen (“rubble women” in English), their work was supervised by the occupying Russians. For upwards of 12 hours a day, the women worked under uneasy and uncomfortable conditions, constantly looking over their shoulders, waiting for more abuse: ”…to the rest of the world we’re nothing but rubble women and trash…”
The husbands, fiancés or boyfriends who were present in Berlin at the time, are rarely portrayed in a positive light by the anonymous woman. These men are described mostly as cowards, unwilling to come to the women’s aid, and quietly leaving the room when the women got together to talk about their experiences.
She calls them “the weaker sex” and describes women’s collective disappointment as they see that “(t)he Nazi world – ruled by men, glorifying the strong man – is beginning to crumble, and with it the myth of ‘Man’.” As for the author, when her fiancé returns from the war, she hands him her diary, and after reading it, he gives it back to her without a word. He leaves her soon after.
The anonymous woman’s story is all the more heart-wrenching given the book’s publication history. After a German language publication in 1955 (five years after a US and British publication), controversy broke out, and the diary was accused of “besmirching the honour of German women.”
It wasn’t until it was republished in 2003 by a German publishing house that the book finally gained the attention it deserved. In the introduction, Beevor states that the reason for the late publication was that the author had passed away at the age of 90, and she did not want her diary to be published again in her lifetime due to the negative attention it had received 50 years earlier.
Soon after publication, the woman’s suspected identity was revealed, and the authenticity of the work was questioned. However, Beevor and other scholars of the period stand by their assertion that the diary is not a fabrication, stating that “(t)he truth lay in the mass of closely observed detail.”
A Woman in Berlin is a difficult read, but a rewarding one. The strong text, written by such an open minded woman who lived through the most difficult of times, is an ode to human strength and survival against the odds. She looks a horrific situation in the eye, observes its truth, and writes it down for future generations.
One of the key strengths of the book (which was made into a film in 2008) is that the author does not shy away from the unspeakable, but cries out for those to hear her. By doing so she lends the women of post-war Berlin a powerful, and incredibly valuable voice. One that, above all, should feel no shame.