Imagine yourself as a woman in a famished, besieged city. A rapacious horde of soldiers, hell-bent on revenge for the wrongs done to their country, is at the gates. When a drunken bunch of them grab you and take you to an empty apartment, what do you do? Do you resist, fight, and possibly get killed? Or do you resign yourself to your fate, and try to limit the damage by seeking protection from a higher-ranking soldier – who will still rape you of course, but might fend off the others and also bring you something to eat?
The anonymous author of “A Woman in Berlin” chose the latter. Although the internet knows who she was, here I will honour her wish not to disclose her identity, and stick with “Anonymous”, a woman in her early thirties, who, in her war diary, describes 1945’s Battle of Berlin from the ground.
As the Red Army approached Berlin and the city braced itself for the oncoming onslaught, the civilian population – mostly women since the men had long been sent to war and most of the children to the countryside – had long been in survival mode. Every night, air raid sirens would summon them to their basement shelters, and they were also used to coping with food and fuel rationing; after all, Berlin had been being steadily bombed by the US Air Force and the R.A.F. since 1942. But a new, even more terrifying prospect now awaited them.
Goebbels’ propaganda ministry had been spreading horror stories involving wholesale rape and murder about the advancing Soviet troops, which was probably meant to spur the remaining German defence troops into defending Berlin more valiantly; but when the Soviets arrived, some of those rumours proved to be true.
An estimated 100,000 women were raped. Although Anonymous, and some other women, were able to cope by resorting to macabre humour – “how many times?”, they’d ask each other when they’d meet at the water pumps, many more suffered permanent psychological damage. When comparing notes after the worst of the Russian onslaught was over, Anonymous found that only a few women in her block had managed to escape, by hiding in upstairs apartments (very unsafe in air raids, but the Russians, most of whom were farm boys unaccustomed to cities, hated climbing stairs).
“Anonymous”, a professional journalist, had travelled widely before the war, which is how she learned some Russian – a mixed blessing , as it turned out. On the one hand, she could translate herself, and others, out of critical situations; on the other hand, she attracted attention to herself – she became popular as a sex partner with higher ranking officers, one of whom even tried to recruit her for intelligence work.
When her diary, tracing the two months from late April to mid June 1945, was published in the 1950s, it attracted severe criticism in Germany. Although she took care to make specific persons and places unrecognisable (all you can tell is that she must have been somewhere around Berliner Strasse in the Wilmersdorf/Schöneberg area), her narrative was viewed as shameful to German women. It certainly was bad news for German men, who, like Anonymous’ own fiancé upon his return from the front, didn’t want to know about what their women had had to go through. Conversely, Anonymous describes how women had started viewing men differently: as the weaker sex, who after all their Nazi prancing, had lost the war and brought ruin upon themselves. In the after-war years German men were busy reasserting their manliness, and “A Woman in Berlin” brought an unwelcome message.
After the devastating criticism, “Anonymous” wanted to have nothing more to do with the book, and would allow a second edition only after her death.
When the reprint duly appeared in 2003, with a new English translation, the world had changed. Many other previously taboo subjects (such as Nazi collaboration in countries like France and The Netherlands) were now open for discussion, and the book received the critical acclaim that it was due – a chilling, honest and perceptive account of the atrocities of war in general, and of the Battle of Berlin in particular. The only criticism levelled against the book this time round was that it “must be fake because it is too well written”. A group of eminent historians however dismissed this theory: the diary is real, and the author’s evocative writing only serves to make it even more of a recommendation.
This article was originally written for the forthcoming book 100 Favourite Berliners, and edited by Paul Sullivan and Brian Melican.