Shane's Reviews > A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary

A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous
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A strictly observational diary covering two critical months in Berlin: from the fall of the city to the advancing Russian army, to the point where a modicum of normalcy is restored and the restoration begins. In these two months, Germans, especially the women, descended into a hellhole reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, for which they have only their blessed Fuhrer to thank.

The writer of this diary is titled Anonymous, although her identity became well known after the book was initially published, and her life story makes for interesting reading. Yet, in this book, she is a nameless 34-year old journalist whose publishing company has closed down, just like most businesses in Germany did as the war wound to its close. In dispassionate terms she goes onto describe—each chapter being a day’s events—the bombing, the loss of water, food and civil order, the advancing enemy, and the talk by German women as they hunker in their bunkers about the “impending humiliation,” being under no illusions that what the German soldiers did to women in captured Russian territory would not be visited upon them.

I guess one must mention the rapes for it is central to this book. In Berlin, a city of 2 million survivors, between 95,000 to 130,000 women were estimated to have been raped at the end of WWII. Rape was an instrument of war, an expression of revenge, and no woman of any age was spared. Our narrator was raped by about four different men, and, because she couches these incidents in veiled language, there could have been more. The Red Army soldiers are portrayed as underpaid, overworked, and undisciplined, with their eyes set on plunder and rape, shitting and pissing everywhere; they are sexually starved beasts who can only approach a woman after consuming large quantities of alcohol. Some are 15-year old adolescents with unbroken voices, pleading for a deflowering that would turn them into men. The German women in turn become wily after the first wave of rapes sweep the city; they take on “protectors” — soldiers of rank who can keep the riff-raff at bay. Our narrator moves up the ranks from a sub-lieutenant to a major for protection, providing sexual favours in return. She unabashedly confesses to becoming a prostitute, trading her body for protection and for something to eat.

The graphic descriptions take you to a place where people have no privacy, live without electricity, have to scrounge for food, line up for a trickle of water, have no work or money, have no news about what is happening around them other than for rumours pouring out of anecdotal grapevines, have to make unfamiliar and temporary relationships for survival, and who are waiting for the next assault on their bodies, being too tired from the many already exacted upon them. New terminology like “plunder wine,” “coal filching,” “rape shoes,” and “my major’s sugar” enter the vernacular. Two women meeting at the communal water tap may open a conversation with, “And how many times were you raped?” with the response being, “Four—and you?”

As April goes into May, glimmers of light, revelation, and hope emerge: the Soviets ban their soldiers from consorting with German women (a few still break the law with impunity), the survivors are organized into work teams to clear away the rubble, and a few entrepreneurs start new businesses to capitalize on the reconstruction that is to come. News filters in about the Fuhrer’s death, and the deaths or capture of his inner circle members; the horrors of the concentration camps come to light, and so does the crushing realization and humiliation that Germany has fought two world wars and lost them both.

Given that this was a diary written in the moment, there are some limitations in it. It lacks the drama of this dark period as the writer is trying to mask the horror while describing the events. Continuity is lacking in places where people filter in and out without their motivations or purpose being described. Some chapters are short and others long, depending on how much time the author had to document the day’s events. With the view being so narrow—the author’s sojourn in her apartment building and the surroundings she travels to for work and foraging, all located within the Russian sector of Berlin—we don’t get a picture of what was happening in the larger Germany during this crucial period.

Much was done to discredit this book after it was initially published in 1954. Germans, still smarting from their defeat, were affronted that their women would conduct themselves in such a way with the enemy in order to survive. The author therefore withdrew the book until after her death in the early 21st century, and this version was published posthumously to critical acclaim from a younger, more enlightened and unaffected audience in Germany.

This is essential reading for those interested in the lesser documented events of WWII. It is also a brilliant testament to the indomitability of the human spirit.

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December 14, 2019 – Shelved
December 14, 2019 – Finished Reading

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