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Sunday, August 7, 2005

Bearing and recording degradation

In 1945, an astute German woman faces hunger, rape and chaos

Reviewed by Edie Meidav

A Woman in Berlin

Eight Weeks in the Conquered City

By Anonymous; translation by Philip Boehm


Would you be noble if World War II began all over again in your neighborhood? Sadly, in our contemporary moment, you don't have to stretch your imagination that far to consider the question. So how do we make sense of our current moment? Given another half century, history might get some things right, but we live in the now. Whom are you supposed to believe, and what choices do you make because of your beliefs? Is that young feisty radio announcer right about our latest troubled zone, or is it better to trust that older academic historian, or what about the mainstream news pushed down the government-sanctioned cable pipeline?

Dante spoke of a season of false and lying gods. Living in such a season for at least a century, it becomes all the more a challenge to cleave to an ethos, to let whatever remains of our quiet inner voice find clarity amid our mucked-up zeitgeist.

"A Woman in Berlin" enters terrain others have travelled, but does so confidently through a singular consciousness, becoming a tract essential for our often morally fuzzy times. While it will not cause revolutions -- there have been books of its ilk issued and reissued in the past 20 years, including the diaries of Victor Klemperer, Etty Hillesum, Lucie Aubrac and others -- it is destined to be a classic, given its depiction of one woman's candid response to an unambiguously horrible season, the vanquishing of Berlin by the Soviets over eight life-changing weeks in the spring and early summer of 1945.

In contrast to many Holocaust diaries, its author was a woman lacking Jewish ties, a German journalist in her 30s who had traveled abroad and who spoke a bit of Russian, her relative fluency becoming both a burden and a privilege once the "Ivans" entered Berlin. "An orphan," she says of herself at one point, "a pale-faced blonde always dressed in the same winter coat." Written often in a basement air raid shelter or in an apartment sacked daily, on scraps and shreds, it was issued in Germany in the '50s, only to be met with a shaming reception, given the book's frank account of rape in war. Hence the author, who died in 2001, chose to remain Anonymous.

Because some of the author's most complex thoughts concern the nexus of gender and war, including the weakening of prewar ideas of German masculinity, the published diary was no naif's tale. The intelligent introduction by Anthony Beevor makes the useful point that rapes by Stalin's army were less often a terror tactic, as was the case in the Spanish Civil War and Bosnia, and more pertinently arose from what Russian psychiatrists have called barrack eroticism, "created by Stalinist sexual repression during the 1930s (which may also explain why Soviet soldiers seemed to need to get drunk before attacking their victims)."

Consider for a second the impulse to keep a diary. You may keep a diary as a way to order a swirl of emotions, your own or those of society: Art becomes the raid of the conscious on the inarticulate. And no matter the relative art or artlessness with which you piece together words on a page, some optimism always underwrites the enterprise. From Herodotus and Josephus to the next-door teenage blogger, from Boswell and Pepys to Alice James and Anne Frank, all keep a diary believing that such an odd little act will bring about some greater harmony, sanity or accurate account keeping. At the same time, not every diary makes the case, as "A Woman in Berlin" does so eloquently, for the authority of clear-eyed vision as a last precinct of the civilized, a sandbagged site of the individual, presenting history with an archetype of prevailing sanity.

Most diaries tend to present the reader with a dual sense of time, inherent narrative challenges and the construction or demolition of a persona. At once highly linear and chronologically sequenced, diaries tend to speak in cycles or spirals: All lives have recurrent obsessions and themes, making them cohesive, and such themes tend to return, however varied, sometimes to gripping, suspenseful effect and sometimes imparting a sense of the tedious, limited means available to the author. Anonymous edited her diary after the war (and what did she keep, and what did she change?), but chose to reveal both the repetition and suspense of life under daily siege.

Several sorts of archetypal scenes take place frequently, including the piecing together of a meal out of nothing, running down stairs to the shelter or volunteering in some useless, well-meaning effort. The most socially dense moments are those when Anonymous considers which of the conquering soldiers she should entertain at night: Who among them will act as a "single wolf to keep away the pack"? How can she prevent more of the gang rape she encountered early on? She is clever and survives, and later, after a calm settles in, wonders if she might not have been more clever and survived with greater feeling intact. "To the rest of the world we're nothing but rubble women and trash," she says later on. When she chokes on her own words, we understand that she feels more than she can write, and such moments sing out, among the most moving in an already gripping testament. When her long-lost soldier boyfriend returns, when she shows him her diary, she feels she has lost her connection to him. "For him I've been spoiled," she mourns. Early on, she has begun to dissociate, referring to her depleted self in the third person as "the walking machine."

Through it all, while she does not craft her persona as being especially noble, she holds tightly to gallows humor, especially when she discusses the demolition of older social mores and the instant crafting of new habits. Regarding theft: "Later [the widow] remembered the Ten Commandments and put the piece of clothing ... back where it belonged, claiming she had taken it 'by mistake.' " Her dry wit -- "the Ten Commandments" -- makes her a modern voice; her journalistic training keeps her clear-eyed even when noting hypocrisy or cowardice in herself or others, even when she has had far too many booted visitors in her bed. Her intelligence and humor bridge her lost self and the chimera of future understanding.

The translation is lucid, the heart of the writer unflinching. In this way, the diaristic impulse becomes a lone vote for the triumph of the personal in the face of mass terror. When at one point Anonymous speaks of spewing onto the pages, an unwitting echo of the spewing the war has performed on her, we have begun to feel, in contrast, the urgent necessity of her account. When Rome was sacked, as Anonymous notes, the manicured, perfumed ladies were sacked as well, but Anonymous uses her pen to fight against history's swords: The diary as an act of troubled conscience becomes one of the best ways for us to "find our way to each other yet."

Edie Meidav is the author of the forthcoming novel "Crawl Space" and is a director of the Writing and Consciousness master's of fine arts program at New College of California in San Francisco.



August 5, 2005

Raising her voice in war's aftermath

By Kai Maristed
Special to The Times

A Woman in Berlin : Eight Weeks in the Conquered City
Metropolitan Books: 262 pp., $23

WHEN "A Woman in Berlin" was first published in Germany in 1959, the gripping, intimate account of the Russian takeover of the city in spring 1945 sparked controversy. (The diary was first published in the United States in English in 1954; it is being reissued this month in a new translation by Philip Boehm.) Some German commentators accused its anonymous author of "besmirching the honor of German women," a charge that she, with her characteristic wry viewpoint, might have parried by pointing out that the fate of defeated Berlin's 2 million civilians — freezing, starvation and the mass rape of more than 100,000 women and girls — besmirched the honor of German men.

In the traumatized Germany of 1959, frustration and repressed shame fueled the vicious name-calling that greeted the diary and its author. (There were immediate attempts to identify her, using the few clues she provided — a thirtyish journalist who describes herself as "a pale-faced blonde always dressed in the same winter coat.") Anonymous doesn't blame her countrymen for failing to hold the line — war is war, after all. But one evening, while straining pumped water to remove wood splinters, she reflects on the mind-set of leaders who "went to such efforts to build barricades … but didn't give the slightest thought to … water stations for the siege."

Likewise, abandoned police barracks were found stuffed with goodies but no provision had been made to provide cows' milk for infants whose starving mothers couldn't nurse. Finally, she questions the wisdom of a Nazi order to leave all liquor for the advancing Russian troops, on the theory that drunken soldiers don't fight as well as sober ones. "Now that's something only men could cook up for other men…. I'm convinced that [without alcohol] half as many rapes would have taken place. These men aren't natural Casanovas. They had to goad themselves … had to drown their inhibitions."

The remark typifies her clarity, even when she was numbed by fear, hunger, pain or despair. She writes of the victims of the bombing and occupation reverting to looting and stealing, indifferent to the suffering of others.

They had, she writes, brought on their own unprecedented defeat: "Our German calamity has a bitter taste — of repulsion, sickness, insanity, unlike anything in history. The radio just broadcast another concentration camp report. The most horrific thing is the order and the thrift: millions of human beings as fertilizer, mattress stuffing, soft soap, felt mats — Aeschylus never saw anything like that."

Nor are the Russian pillagers all monsters: They melt at the sight of small children; some give food to their "prey." One talks politics, another plays "Il Trovatore" beautifully on a harmonica. A third, mid-rape, speaks tearfully of his "love."

Anonymous had traveled in the Soviet Union before the war, picking up enough Russian to communicate with the victors entering Berlin. The first "enemy" to breach her building's basement bomb shelter, filled with quaking women and hidden girls, is momentarily disarmed when she speaks to him in Russian. "Evidently, he's never heard one of us 'mutes' address him in his own language."

She doesn't linger on the brutal assaults that lead her to seek a protector, a lifeline — an officer-rapist who not only defends her against the others but also offers protection, even spoils, to her building mates. A new term soon enters the city's vocabulary: to "sleep up" some food.

Anonymous adopts as a mantra the saying, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." She derives strength and sanity from her writing, and these diary entries contain a certain sense of irony. In darker moments she thinks that there can be no improving the world, that "the sum total of tears always stays the same." But there is no hint of self-pity in her journal, nor any attempt at self-exoneration.

Given the frankness of her account, and its nasty first reception, it isn't surprising that Anonymous wished to remain so, refusing to authorize republication of "A Woman" until after her death, which came in 2001. But when a new German edition of the diary, which had become something of a feminist classic, came out in 2003, the hue and cry over her identity began again.

Let Anonymous stand witness as she wished to: as an undistorted voice for all women in war and its aftermath, whatever their names or nation or ethnicity. Anywhere.

Kai Maristed is the author of the novels "Broken Ground," "Out After Dark" and "Fall."


August 14, 2005

'A Woman in Berlin': My City of Ruins


ON April 20, 1945, huddled in a basement air-raid shelter, a Berlin woman in her early 30's began keeping a diary. A few days earlier she and her neighbors had heard the first sounds of artillery as the Red Army approached. To stiffen a futile resistance, Goebbels, shameless to the end, had been exploiting the Germans' historic fear of the barbarian hordes from the east with stories of mass rapes and other atrocities. For once his propaganda was true -- the atrocities were real -- but by now there were few left to resist, mainly boys and old men. Most of the two million Berliners still in the city were women and children, abandoned by the Nazi hierarchy (no one had troubled about evacuation plans). With the Russian troops determined to have their revenge for years of brutal war, Berlin was a human catastrophe about to happen.

''A Woman in Berlin'' is an intimate account of that catastrophe, what became of one woman, her neighbors, the people on her block. Scribbled in a notebook and on odd pieces of paper, it seems not to have been written with readers in mind, but as a kind of therapy, to get ''all this confusion out of my head and heart,'' as the anonymous diarist puts it. It is one of the most important documents to emerge from World War II.

Publication came late, and reluctantly. The author, a journalist and editor before and after the war, needed to be persuaded to make her manuscript public, and it was not until 1954 that the book first came out, in an English translation. (Anyone who has done research in the period has learned to treasure the rare copies of that edition.) But in Germany this was the time of the great forgetting, and the book didn't appear there until 1959, when a Swiss publisher finally brought out a German-language edition. It was promptly denounced, or else ignored. It would be intellectually comforting simply to say it fell victim to the condition W. G. Sebald described: of a society so traumatized by guilt, and the opprobrium of the outside world, that it was unable to acknowledge its own suffering. But a less complicated syndrome was also involved, the timeworn let's-blame-the-rape-victim. Critics said Anonymous besmirched ''the honor of German women.'' German men disliked being reminded that they had once been forced to stand aside, or worse, acquiesce, while their women were violated. In the atmosphere of 50 years ago, what had happened in Berlin in 1945 seemed an affront. Like so much else, the book was best forgotten.

Its reissue, therefore, in a new (and better) translation by Philip Boehm, is cause for celebration. Anonymous died in 2001, but she remains officially unnamed, a private woman who has bequeathed us an extraordinary public legacy. Although the diary covers only two months -- it ends as Berlin begins limping toward a semblance of normality -- it is a richly detailed, cleareyed account of the effects of war and enemy occupation on a civilian population.

That population was largely female and the dramatic events here are rapes -- repeated rapes, group rapes, violent rapes, accommodating rapes. It has recently been the fashion to think of rape as a military tactic (as it was in Bosnia), but here it appears in its more familiar aspect: crude men seizing their spoils of war, as barbarous as Goebbels had promised. The most commonly accepted figure for rapes committed in Berlin during the first weeks of the Russian occupation is around 100,000 (calculated by hospitals to which the women turned for medical help). ''A Woman in Berlin'' shows us the actual experience behind those abstract numbers -- how it felt; how one got through it (or didn't); how it brought its victims together, changing the way they saw men and themselves; the self-loathing (''I don't want to touch myself, can barely look at my body''); the triumph of just surviving.

The book is graphic and unflinching, with the immediacy of all great diaries (we are always in the present), but what makes it so remarkable is its determination to see beyond the acts themselves. The rapists are not faceless; they have personalities, names (Petka, with the lumberjack hands). They have the contradictions of real people. They are brutal, naïve, even hungry for some kind of connection.

Anonymous is also determined to see herself, to monitor her own responses. When she realizes that only a steady protector will save her from multiple random rapes, she combs the neighborhood for an officer, proud of her resiliency, wryly noting the others backing away from ''Anatol's private game preserve.'' When Anatol is succeeded by ''the major,'' whom she grows to like, she broods about whether she has become a kind of whore. There is even grim farce. Anatol returns after an absence, forcing her to juggle him and the major, both suspicious, so that they won't bump into each other. And yet behind the Feydeau maneuvering the real situation is always clear: ''I'm nothing but booty -- prey that has to stand back and let the hunters decide what to do.''

Though the heart of the book, the rapes are by no means all of it. We are also given the feeling inside a bomb shelter, the breakdown of city life and civil society, the often surreal behavior of the enemy, soldiers' arms lined with looted wristwatches, the forced labor clearing out the rubble piles that marks the beginning of the road back. Some of these, like Pepys's fire, are bravura set pieces: her first walk across ''the carcass of Berlin'' is a brilliantly vivid description of a ruined city. In the shelter she pans, cameralike, from face to face so that we know who these people are as they listen for bombs. She is dispassionate and honest about Germany's responsibility for the war that has destroyed it, appalled at news of Nazi atrocities, thoughtful and open-minded, even about her oppressors.

But the larger issues of the war are distant, available mostly by rumor. What she records instead is the world actually in front of her eyes, and here no detail escapes her -- the stench of buildings where Russians have defecated wherever it suited them, the eerie silence of a whole city hunkering down, the behavior of her neighbors, often petty even in crisis. She has written, in short, a work of literature, rich in character and perception. It is dispiriting that shame or fear of social ostracism caused her to hide behind the label Anonymous (her fiance left her when he heard about the rapes), but even anonymously she has given us something that transcends shame and fear: the ability to see war as its victims see it. One evening, ''for the first time in three weeks I opened a book. . . . But I had a hard time getting into it. I'm too full of my own images.'' And we, too, will be full of those same images, for a long time to come.

Joseph Kanon is the author of ''The Good German,'' set in postwar Berlin, and, most recently, ''Alibi.''



September 11, 2005-09-10

'A Woman in Berlin'

To the Editor:
Joseph Kanon gave a very favorable review to "A Woman in Berlin" (Aug. 14), a report by an anonymous author in the form of a diary about the collapse of the Third Reich and the mass rapes of women in Berlin by Russian soldiers that followed. Kanon describes the book as an "intimate account of that catastrophe. . . . Scribbled in a notebook and on odd pieces of paper, it seems not to have been written with readers in mind but as a kind of therapy." Nearly the same words were used by the editor of the first published version of the diary in 1954, and reprinted in the German edition earlier this year.

What Kanon does not tell the readers of his review is the troubled and dubious history of this book. It seems quite strange, 60 years after the end of the war and four years after the death of the presumed author, whose identity is known in Germany, that this book is published anonymously. More troubling is the fact that Kanon does not mention that the republication of the book in Germany in 2003 led to skepticism about its authenticity.

Jens Bisky, a German journalist with the respectable Süddeutsche Zeitung, revealed in 2003 that the presumed author, Marta Hillers (1911- 2001), although no member of the Nazi Party, wrote for minor journals and newspapers during the Third Reich and worked on a navy recruiting brochure. Bisky also reported that the editor of the first American version and the following German version was Kurt W. Marek, himself an author who during the Third Reich wrote a book titled "Wir Hielten Narvik" (we held Narvik), an account based on diary entries of the heroic battle of the Wehrmacht.

According to the German version's afterword, Marek stumbled by chance over the diary of the "woman in Berlin" who was a neighbor. It took Marek some years to persuade her to have the diary published, initially in the United States in 1954 — during the frantic years of the cold war when stories of raping and publicly defecating Russians presumably were quite welcome.

In spite of these circumstances, there was no serious investigation of the authenticity of the handwritten notes and of the relationship between those notes and the printed version. Even according to Marek's afterword, the handwritten diary was transformed into a typewritten manuscript in July 1945, and thereby altered and revised. Since Marek's death in 1971, the handwritten notes have been in the possession of his wife, who has promised a thorough investigation at some indefinite later date. As long as such an investigation is not carried out, the doubt remains that there were changes during the editing process. But even without further knowledge of the history of the editing process, who could think — after reading the first day of the diary, April 20, 1945, Hitler's birthday (which is not mentioned in the book) — that this work was written without readers in mind, as Kanon suggests in his review?

It is not my purpose to deny the historic fact of mass rapes and atrocities carried out by Russians in Germany. Historians estimate the number of German women raped during and after the last days of the war to be as high as two million, and many of them died from injuries suffered during their ordeals. However, this book is a very dubious companion if one wants to know what was really going on in those days in Berlin. Until a serious and critical edition of the diaries of the "woman in Berlin" is published, this book should be regarded as a work of fiction rather than of fact.



Tearing down the gates

An anonymous journal recounts the brutal taking of Berlin by the Russian Army in 1945

By Richard Eder  |  August 14, 2005

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary
By Anonymous
Translated, from the German, by Philip Boehm
Metropolitan, 261 pp., $23

Two weeks after the Russians fought their way into Berlin the Nazi flags hanging from the apartment houses had been reworked. The housewives cut them into small red squares (with curved indents where the white-circled swastikas had been excised). Each of these instant Soviet flags was painstakingly hemmed and stitched.

''How in our country could it be otherwise?" asked the anonymous author of ''A Woman in Berlin," a diary kept for eight weeks beginning in late April 1945, shortly before the city fell. She had emerged from her battered apartment to take her first walk through the rubble-filled streets of the city.

Her rhetorical question, like the diary, was less sardonic than coldly resigned. It was not judgment, a luxury in desperate times that featured hunger, destruction, and the effort to avoid death and rape (often, as in her case, unsuccessfully). It was the compulsion to see clearly.

Buried in rubble, the mortal need is air; in the rubble of Anonymous's world the mortal need was truth. During those weeks of chaos, violence, and fear, the three notebooks filled by the former journalist kept her together. (Unlike those who live by the sword, those who live by the pen may in fact live by it.)

Her journal earns a particular place in the archives of recollection. This is because it neither condemns nor forgives: not her countrymen, not their occupiers, and not, remarkably, herself.

Such unsparing chill earned it a brief, disliked life when it was published in the 1950s in a Germany committed to positive thinking and reconstruction. Its reappearance, now, stands gritty and obdurate among a swirl of revisionist currents that variously have asserted and disputed the inherent nature of Germans' national guilt.

The diaries record the final days waiting for the Russians. The author and her neighbors huddle in the basement shelter, feeling the jar of bombardments. Their government's authority has disappeared; they are in a disquieting German position of having no instructions.

Power is out and the radio is silent. ''What a dubious blessing technology really is," Anonymous writes. ''Machines with no intrinsic value, worthless if you can't plug them in somewhere. Bread, however, is absolute. Coal is absolute."

Food becomes an obsession. As she leafs through an English novel, one sentence leaps out: ''She cast a fleeting glance at her untouched meal, then rose and left the table." Anonymous reads it a dozen times. She scratches it with her fingernails.

Then the Russians surge in. No one knew what to expect; many feared deliberate vengeance. It was stranger: wildness, chaotic and uneven. The first soldiers on Anonymous's street appeared on stolen bicycles that few knew how to ride, gleefully swerving, skidding, and crashing. Attention turned to wristwatches; before long some flaunted six or seven.

It was not punishment or rage but a blithe, indifferent pillaging and pleasuring that grew more shattering -- with an occasional unpredictable kindness -- with the mounting consumption of vodka and looted schnapps and wine. Before long, the appropriating turned to women. Soldiers seized them on the street and, when most tried to hide in their apartments, broke in after them. The estimates of rapes ranged between 30,000 and more than 100,000, Anonymous writes.

Weeks later, after discipline was restored, friends would meet and their first question was ''how many times?" The author suggests that rape was so widespread and universally acknowledged as to give paradoxical rise to a collective female solidarity that somewhat lessened the psychological damage produced in peacetime. Here the shame and guilt, far from secret and inward, were public and elsewhere.

Anonymous writes of the protectors she and others sought out. They were officers, successively higher-ranking and more sophisticated, who sought a sexual connection rather than demanded it. She draws vivid portraits of these men, for one of whom she comes to feel a kind of love. Partly from gratitude and superficial in part, but then the skin is an organ as well as the heart.

It would be a mistake to read ''A Woman in Berlin" in terms of the more recent political genre of ''we were hurt too." The author notes acidly how quickly her neighbors went from praising Hitler to mocking him. For herself she refuses such contorting. ''I breathed . . . the air," she writes of the Nazi era.

Not heroic, and no doubt insufficient. But, if you like, clean. And above all useful, in letting us take her diary for what it is: oddly suggestive, this half-century later; and conceivably prophetic.

To put it briefly, Anonymous writes a merciless account of what individuals can be faced with when all material and social props collapse. Not just their own, but those of an entire society, whose majority regards itself as ordered, justified, and comfortable. Never mind what it may be up to outside -- or to the outsiders inside.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications. 




The rape of Berlin
An anonymous diary from 1945 reminds us of the horrific crimes Soviet liberators committed against millions of German women.

By Jonathan Shainin

Aug. 18, 2005  |  "The essence of a nation," the French historian Ernest Renan said in 1882, is that its citizens have much in common, but "that they have forgotten many things." The Germans, it could be said, have forgotten things that most nations never knew. No single country has struggled so openly to reckon with its history, and the process has not been a short one. Germany has spent decades coming to terms with the atrocities perpetuated by the Nazi regime, but the penumbra of shame around these crimes also obscured the suffering visited on German civilians, 600,000 of whom were killed by Allied firebombing of cities like Dresden and Hamburg.

The publication of "A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City," then, shines considerable light on a hidden history of the war. The writer, an anonymous 34-year-old journalist who recorded in her diary the events of the fall of Berlin in the spring of 1945, does not fashion herself a victim. But her diary, released by a German publisher for the first time 60 years after the war, meets the challenge that novelist W.G. Sebald put to Germans in his lectures on "Air War and Literature": "to try recording what [they] actually saw as plainly as possible." In unsparing prose that brooks no pity and assigns no blame, the diarist calmly describes the disintegration of the German capital. Her diary begins less than a week before the Soviets entered the city, hastily scrawled by candlelight in a basement shelter: "My fingers are shaking as I write this."

What makes the book an essential document is its frank and unself-conscious record of the physical and moral devastation that accompanied the war. Sebald extols the virtue of "authentic documents, before which all fiction pales," and what is most remarkable about "A Woman in Berlin" is what is most ordinary -- or rather, the desperate measures rendered ordinary in a city under occupation. The diarist spends her days scrounging for coal, picking nettles for food, and searching out what little clean water may still be had. Berliners queue for pathetic rations in the streets onto which the Russians fired almost 2 million shells in the last two weeks of the war; when a mortar explodes outside a local meat market, killing three, the women "use their sleeves to wipe the blood off their meat coupons" and line up all over again.

Before the Nazis came to power in 1933, Berlin had the smallest proportion of National Socialist voters of any German city. By the time the Red Army arrived, most Berliners, with the exception of the deluded Nazi faithful, appeared all too eager to shed the enthusiasm they had since developed for Adolf Hitler, whom they had taken to calling "that man" -- a turn in public opinion that seems not to have begun in earnest until long after it was apparent the war would be lost. Many have repurposed Nazi literature into fuel; if people keep burning it, the diarist quips, "Mein Kampf will go back to being a rare book, a collector's item." The discarded mottos of Nazi propaganda are no more than grist for gallows humor: "For all this," people incant, turning around a wartime mantra, "we thank the Fuhrer."

What little strength the regime still possessed was devoted to upholding the Nazi commitment to senseless brutality: "If the war is lost, the people will also be lost," Hitler explained to Albert Speer in March 1945. "It is not necessary to worry about their needs for elemental survival." In Berlin, the Nazis pressed prisoners of war into constructing useless barricades instead of building water pumps; 80,000 men were sent to their deaths on the western front in the failed Ardennes offensive while the eastern front crumbled. Concentration camps in the path of advancing troops were evacuated, with prisoners marched to their deaths or simply executed. The Nazi program of civil defense consisted of making the meaningless declaration that a city was a "Fortress," and then attempting to terrify its inhabitants with tales of "Asiatic" barbarity. The Nazis rushed newsreel cameras to East Prussia, the site of the earliest Soviet atrocities, solely to terrify the remaining Germans into holding their ground. "Are they supposed to spur the men of Berlin to protect and defend us women?" the diarist wonders skeptically; "their only effect is to send thousands more helpless women and children running out of town."

The diarist and her neighbors sweat out waves of air raids, knowing all too well that the respite from American and British bombers will only come with the Soviet occupation: "Better a Russki on top," they joke nervously, "than a Yank overhead." "Our fate is rolling in from the east," the diarist laments, and early reports leave little room for optimism: "Let's be honest," one woman in the cellar ventures, "none of us is still a virgin, right?"

In a fateful gesture of incompetence and betrayal, German military authorities left oceans of alcohol in the path of the Russian army in the hope that drunkenness might impair their fighting prowess. (It is hard to say if this decision reflects a Nazi faith in Russian stereotypes or a rank ignorance of them.) "That's something only men could cook up for other men," the diarest laments archly. "If they just thought about it it for two minutes they'd realize that liquor greatly intensifies the sexual urge. If the Russians hadn't found so much alcohol all over, half as many rapes would have take place."

The first rapes in East Prussia were an eruption of pure rage, bloody revenge for Wehrmacht atrocities on Soviet soil in the march to Stalingrad; soldiers destroyed homes, raped women -- some as young as 12 -- and killed children. But revenge could not have been the sole motive, for even Soviet prisoners of war and Jewish survivors were not safe; some, as young as 16, were raped by the soldiers who set them free. By the time the first libidinous Soviet wandered into the diarist's cellar a few months later -- pointing menacingly to a teenage girl and asking "How many year?" -- German women appeared to the Red Army simply as rightful spoils of war.

Though the precise statistics will never be known, existing estimates are breathtaking: 2 million women were raped in Germany, many of them more than once. In Berlin alone, hospital statistics indicate between 95,000 and 130,000 rape victims. Many women killed themselves rather than "concede" -- as some women put it -- to the Soviets; some men killed themselves and their wives rather than suffer the indignity of rape.

The diarist, who worked before the war as a journalist and editor and traveled to "a dozen or so countries," speaks "very basic" Russian and is quickly drawn into mediating between the Germans and their unwelcome guests. After she helps to chase two would-be rapists out of the basement the first night after the Russians arrive, she peeks outside to ensure the coast is clear and the men, lying in wait, force her to the ground while those inside the shelter, ever the good Germans, bolt the door and abandon the diarist to her fate:

"He's simply torn off my garter, ripping it in two. When I struggle to come up, the second one throws himself on me as well, forcing me back on the ground with his fists and knees ... The door opens, two, three Russians come in, the last a woman in uniform. And they laugh."

Later that night she is raped again, with a kind of perverse consent: when four men set upon her in her apartment, she begs for only one to stay. Thus the chaos begins: having been raped once, sadly, is no guarantee against further assaults. "Every minute of life comes at a high price," the diarist observes. The next day she is raped again, by an older man "reeking of brandy and horses," who rips apart her underwear -- "the last untorn ones I had." She writes: "Suddenly his finger is on my mouth, stinking of horse and tobacco. I open my eyes. A stranger's hands expertly pulling apart my jaws. Eye to eye. Then with great deliberation he drops a gob of gathered spit into my mouth."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The proliferation of tales of individual atrocities often takes on the numb character of pornography: an endless litany of crimes against dignity, the same scenarios of cruelty replayed again and again; anyone who has pored over human rights reports soon finds that the accumulated evidence begins to dull as the brutalities mount. Yet here the opposite is true. The stories from those around her only multiply the disgust: a friend raped four times; a Jewish woman raped while her husband, shot by the Russians, bleeds to death; a woman whose three rapists smear marmalade and coffee grounds in her hair, just for kicks; the rape of "a twelve-year old girl ... who was tall for her age"; the soldiers who "took the sixteen-year-old on the chaise longue in the kitchen"; one woman raped by "at least twenty men," with "her breasts, all bruised and bitten."

The diarist's emotional register remains unfailingly calm. Her dispassionate chronicle of the disasters of war suggests a kind of stoic heroism, though she is quick to point out that her own travails have been minor by comparison: "It sounds like the absolute worst, the end of everything -- but it's not." The diarist resolves after her third rape to take refuge with a senior officer, "a single wolf to keep away the pack." But this gambit is not entirely successful; after her first benevolent rapist disappears, she is forced to take up with another one. Berlin's men can do little, it seems, to protect its women.

In fact, German men are largely absent from "A Woman in Berlin," and the ones who do pass across its pages do little to earn our esteem; those who refrain from expressing their ridiculous faith in the regime in the midst of Soviet artillery bombardments are busy surrendering their wives to marauding Russians. "I think our men must feel dirtier than we do," the diarist observes, and goes on to recount the story of one German man who berates his neighbor as she's about to be raped: "Well, why don't you just go with them, you're putting all of us in danger!" Even before the Soviets arrive, the diarist perceives in the failure of the German Reich the irreparable decline of the male archetypes it venerated: "The Nazi world -- ruled by men, glorifying the strong man -- is beginning to crumble, and with it the myth of 'Man.' ... Among the many defeats at the end of this war is the defeat of the male sex."

Indeed, what is perhaps the book's most chilling insult comes not at the hands of a Russian rapist but from the diarist's partner, Gerd, who returns from the front in June, casts his eyes on the diary that our heroine has been dutifully keeping for him, declares that she and the other women have "all turned into a bunch of shameless bitches" and disappears, presumably forever.

After the war there was clearly no shortage of rape stories. Though one Russian commandant dismissively assures the diarist that "our men are all healthy," the spread of sexually transmitted disease -- as well as the pregnancies that resulted -- forced the Germans to take action. The Nazi authorities, for all their neglect of the civilian population, were sufficiently alarmed to relax eugenicist laws prohibiting abortion as an act of "sabotage against Germany's racial future," although women had to submit to what was surely a humiliating police interrogation to prove they had been raped. It has been estimated that 90 percent of those women who became pregnant had abortions; many of the children who were born were put up for adoption.

The diarist at first refuses to acknowledge that she might be pregnant -- "no grass grows on the well-trodden path," she suggests hopefully. Later, when her period is two weeks late, she heads to a female doctor who has hung out a shingle among the ruins ("she'd replaced the [broken] windowpanes with old x-rays of unidentified chests"). After being reassured that she is not pregnant, the diarist ventures to ask the doctor "whether there were indeed lots of women who'd been raped by the Russians" coming in search of abortions. But the doctor wants no part of such talk: "It's better not to speak of such things," she replies curtly. Though the diarist expresses her hope that women might "overcome collectively," no such public reckoning would be possible in postwar Germany, as she anticipates ruefully: "We ... will have to keep politely mum; each one of us will have to act as if she in particular was spared."

After the war, a friend of the diarist, Kurt Marek, read the manuscript and attempted to have it published. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that "A Woman in Berlin" was first released outside Germany, when Harcourt, Brace published an English edition in 1954. The New York Times judged it "profoundly relevant," but the reception in Germany, when a Swiss publisher released the book five years later, was precisely the opposite; the prevailing sentiment among the very few notices that did appear was expressed by a critic who excoriated the author's "shameless immorality." Clearly the diary broached what Sebald would later describe as "a tacit agreement ... that the true state of material and moral ruin in which the country found itself was not to be described."

Though the diary at first fell on fallow ground, it enjoyed a samizdat second life, circulating among leftists and a growing women's movement after 1968. But what was once unspeakable out of shame was now prohibited by politics: Accounts of Soviet atrocities in the east, like attention to Allied bombing in the west, had become the sole province of the German far right. Where one taboo had lifted another settled: Helke Sander, a German feminist whose 1992 film "Liberators Take Liberties: Rape, War, and Children" chronicled the rapes and their aftereffects, was pilloried in some quarters as a revisionist. The woman in Berlin, still guarding her anonymity against the disgrace of rape, would not allow her diary to see the light of day again so long as she lived. But by the time of her death in 2001, a seismic shift in German consciousness had transpired, and the book, published in 2003, quickly became a sensation and shot onto bestseller lists; last summer the film rights were sold for an undisclosed amount.

The conventional narrative holds that in the first decades after the war, Germans struggled fitfully with the Nazi years, embracing a kind of blanket guilt yet indicting no one in particular, taking psychic refuge in the triumph of West Germany's "miraculous" economic recovery. 1945, "zero hour," marked an irreparable boundary between present and past that few Germans cared to cross. But it is a convenient myth that Germans have only now recognized their own suffering: Instead of forgetting the war in the years that followed, Germans remembered it selectively, with great attention to certain of their own victims, particularly prisoners of war and expellees driven from their homes in the east.

Still, during an era when it was common to decry the Soviet "rape" of eastern Germany, the very real rape of German women remained a forbidden topic -- despite the number of women who suffered. "None of the victims will be able to wear their suffering like a crown of thorns," the diarist told Marek. "I for one am convinced that what happened to me balanced an account." Such self-effacement testifies to our diarist's ethical fortitude, but that German women should have endured such pain on behalf of German men should satisfy no one's sense of justice.

Pity for the German people was in short supply after World War II, and for good reason. But the prevalent understanding of Nazi barbarities as an evil beyond human comprehension is nevertheless a cunning absolution of the rest of us, a self-exoneration that the diarist, to her credit, vehemently refuses. To see Germany's descent into madness as an incomprehensible anomaly outside the bounds of humanity is to forget the evils of which the rest of us remain capable. "We learn nothing by blaming them," I.F. Stone wrote in 1961 as Adolf Eichmann went to trial. "We all marched with Eichmann ... whether it was the human incinerator or the H-bomb, we built it." The ensuing half-century of human brutality has illustrated this all too well, and those fateful place names that have joined Auschwitz in our atlas of evil -- Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Halabja, Iraq; Srebrenica, Bosnia; Kigali, Rwanda -- are a painful reminder that "never again" was a wish and not a binding vow on mankind. It has taken that half-century to allow the recognition that, in Germany as elsewhere, among perpetrators there are also victims; "A Woman in Berlin" reminds us that the exclusivity of these categories is little more than a fable.

About the writer
Jonathan Shainin is on the staff of the New Yorker.

After the Fall
A German woman's diary tells of an appalling campaign of rape in the conquered Nazi capital.

Reviewed by Ursula Hegi
Sunday, September 4, 2005; BW10


Eight Weeks in the Conquered City

By Anonymous

Translated from the German by Philip Boehm

Metropolitan. 261 pp. $23

Berlin, spring 1945: "I am essentially living off my body, trading it for something to eat." An anonymous woman is writing into her diary, questioning whether she should call herself a whore. With that same stunning frankness, she describes the plundering of her neighborhood when Berlin was conquered and Soviet soldiers moved through the city, raping women of all ages, attacking them alone or gang-raping them in stairwells, cellars, on the streets.

A Woman in Berlin is an amazing and essential book. Originally written in shorthand, longhand and the author's own code, it is so deeply personal that it becomes universal, evoking not only the rapes of countless German women in 1945 but also the rape of every anonymous woman throughout war history -- the notion of women as booty. The book's focus is not on the Nazi rampage across Europe but on its aftermath, when 1.5 million Red Army soldiers crossed the Oder River and moved westward. More than 100,000 women in Berlin were raped, but many of them would never speak of it. "Each one of us will have to act as if she in particular was spared," Anonymous writes. "Otherwise no man is going to want to touch us anymore."

Anonymous was an editor and journalist. Her voice is unlike most other voices from that period: She probes, refuses to look away. Nearly half a century ago, when her diary was first published in German, it challenged the postwar silence and all it concealed: guilt, lies, defensiveness, denial. . . . What courage it must have taken her to agree to publication! She was initially reluctant and insisted on anonymity -- a wise decision that protected her from the stigma of rape and, somewhat, from the outrage of her readers.

How dare she dishonor German women? How dare she remind German men that they hadn't protected their wives or mothers or daughters from rape? How dare she survive by forming a relationship with one rapist, who was willing to protect her from other attackers and provide her with food? "I hear that other women have done the same thing I have," she writes, "that they're now spoken for and therefore taboo . . . [reserved] for officers only, who don't take kindly to low-ranking poachers trespassing on their private preserve."

The first day of the occupation, Anonymous was raped by two Russians. Later that day, when four more Russians broke into her apartment, she tried to escape. But one of them, Petka, caught her. Terrified, she told him she would be with him if he protected her from the others. This urge to survive -- physically and emotionally -- is at the core of her writing. It informs her perspective with dignity and grit, a bizarre sense of humor and the capacity to find odd moments of joy in her surroundings -- in the scent of lilacs, in a tree stump "foaming over with green."

She knows the "blank, shiny eyes" of hunger, knows what it's like to eat nettles and knows how "all thinking and feeling, all wishes and hopes begin with food." When she replaces Petka with a new protector, she questions herself: "Am I doing it for bacon, butter, sugar, candles, canned meat? To some extent I'm sure I am. . . . out of all the male beasts I've seen these past days he's the most bearable. . . . Moreover I can control him." Since Anonymous spoke Russian, she translated for Russians and the people in her building. War news came to her from the occupiers: By April 30, she heard that Hitler and Goebbels were dead. Many Germans who supported Hitler now claimed to resent him. The phrase "For all of this we thank the Führer" was no longer used to praise Hitler but to denounce him. Even when Anonymous was afraid or in pain, she did not consider herself a victim but understood the Russians' violence as the consequence of German cruelties in the Soviet Union. One Russian told her about German soldiers who brutally killed children in his village. Others asked her to be a matchmaker and promised her food.

Her diary focuses on the moment -- as if she were having a conversation with herself -- and gives scant information about her past politics. But her voice suggests a woman who disagreed and adapted, who used her considerable survival skills to observe and think and record. This voice is irreverent and insightful, focused and without self-pity and hypocrisy. Capturing that prose in another language would be a challenge for any translator. In the 2003 German edition, published after the author's death, this voice comes at us in fragments, breaking many rules of grammar. It's a fascinating voice, hip and educated and weightless, flitting between slang and high German. In the English translation, Philip Boehm captures the details of the diary accurately, but unfortunately he alters the diarist's character by giving her an even voice that conforms to grammatical rules.

Anonymous writes about other women on her block who adapt and survive. But many don't. There are suicides and horrendous injuries. Her neighbor, Elvira, is attacked by "at least twenty, but she doesn't know exactly. . . . Her swollen mouth is sticking out of her pale face like a blue plum . . . her breasts, all bruised and bitten." How can any woman survive mass rape? How can any woman live with the impact of mass rape? According to A Woman in Berlin , the impact is very different from rape during peacetime. "We're dealing with a collective experience, something foreseen and feared many times in advance . . . something we are overcoming collectively as well," she writes. "All the women help each other by speaking about it, airing their pain, and allowing others to air theirs and spit out what they've suffered." ·

Ursula Hegi's books include "Stones from the River," "Sacred Time" and "Tearing the Silence: On Being German in America."


A Woman in Berlin

Anonymous tr by Philip Boehm

Virago, £16.99, 311pp


At the very extreme of human suffering
(Filed: 04/09/2005)

Nigel Jones reviews A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous.

Sir Arthur Harris famously said of the Germans as he launched RAF Bomber Command's devastating offensive against them: "They have sowed the wind - and they will reap the whirlwind." What that phrase meant in grim reality is set out in numbing detail in this extraordinary book. I wish I had read it 20 years ago in Berlin when my elderly landlady was still tut-tutting about her pride and joy, a monstrous wooden dresser which had never been the same, she said, since the Russians had knocked it about. This book tells the human side of the dresser's story.

Its anonymous author - almost certainly a journalist named Marta Hiller who died in 2001 - kept a detailed diary, recording, in turn, the desperate defence of Berlin as the fury of the Red Army approached in Spring 1945; the privations of Berliners cowering in the cellars of apartment blocks laid open by Sir Arthur's avenging bombers; the city's conquest by the Russians; the orgy of rape visited upon the women and girls who survived; and finally the gradual restoration of a condition vaguely approaching "normality". Of these stations in the crucifixion of the Reich's once-proud capital, it is inevitably the mass and repeated rape of most of its female population that preoccupies both the diarist, and the (male) critics who attacked her book soon after its original publication in the 1950s.

Significantly, it first saw the light in an English-language translation in 1954; only five years later did a German edition appear - and even then it was published in Switzerland. Only now, it seems, is a new Germany ready to read this searing handbook of this particular journey to hell.

The author's greatest contempt is reserved not for the brutish Russian soldiers who rape and violate so casually - "They are only peasants, after all" - but for the cowardly scraps of German manhood skulking in the basements behind the skirts of their wives. Most of the young men of Berlin - including the author's fiancé - are dead, taken prisoner, or missing. It is the old, the broken and the shameful - such as her greedy, bedridden fellow lodger Mr Pauli - who are unable and seemingly unwilling to protect their womenfolk from the rapists.

The author astonishes herself with the ease with which she accustoms herself to the attentions of the Russians. After the first fumbled attack in the stairwell of her apartment, she accommodates herself as best she can to a situation she can only ameliorate, not prevent. Her tactic is to attach herself to a Russian officer to protect her from the attentions of less-welcome common soldiers. Once her first such protector, Anatol, moves on, she soon accommodates two successors, and the situation is tacitly accepted by her landlady and Mr Pauli, who come to rely on their rapist guest as the sole source of food - and survival.

I was reminded of Maupassant's masterpiece Boule de Suif, in which a prostitute is persuaded by her travelling companions to sleep with an officious Prussian officer so that they can continue their interrupted journey. Once she has done the deed, she is shunned by those who had sacrificed her. Boule de Suif's unhappy situation is played out again here; only this time it is the Prussians who are on the receiving end: "In the queue at the pump one woman told me how her neighbour reacted when the Russians fell on her in her basement. He simply shouted, 'Well, why don't you just go with them? You're putting us all in danger!' A minor footnote to [Oswald Spengler's] The Decline of the West."

Of course, such survival came at a price: not only in physical suffering - the legacy of unwanted babies and venereal disease - but most of all in the taboo of shame which it has taken nearly 60 years to shift. Coolly written, tearingly honest, yet calm and dispassionate almost to a fault, this is a classic not only of war literature but also of writing at the very extreme of human suffering. All the same, one can understand how the male mandarins of German publishing sat on it for so long.

Nigel Jones's 'A Brief History of the Birth of the Nazis' is published by Constable/Robinson

       The Nation

Crime and Punishment


from the October 17, 2005 issue

Read this article here