A Woman in Berlin is a diary kept by a journalist in April-May of 1945, during the capture of Berlin by the Soviet army. It was first published in the U.S., in English, in 1954, because the publishers in Germany declined it due to its subject, i.e., the rape of their women by Russian soldiers.
Germany has lost the war. The Nazi regime is defeated. The glorious nation has fallen seemingly beyond repair. But who has to face and bear the brunt of Hitler’s downfall?
With painstaking detail the author records the ordeal that she and her women neighbors are going through during the fall of Berlin: air raids, destruction of homes, death of their loved ones, chaos, lack of water, absence of heat, electricity failure, starvation, pillage, and worst of all, rape.
This young woman is a well-traveled journalist, speaking several languages, including some Russian, due to her pre-war business trip to the Soviet Union. She turns her knowledge and experience to her advantage. After being violated by different men she decides “to find a single wolf to keep away the pack. An officer, as high-ranking as possible… After all, what are my brains for, my little knowledge of the enemy’s language?” So she befriends a captain, who protects her from “the pack” and brings food to her and the couple she rents a room from. She reasons, “That’s our strength—we women always focus on the task at hand. We’re happy whenever we can flee into the present to escape worrying about the future.”
Am I a survivor or a whore? she asks herself. As it turns out, that will be up to men to decide. And men decide that she is the latter. When it is all over, the subject of rape becomes taboo. Those men who fail to defend their wives’ honor, trying to save their own skin, and those who return from the front, refuse to talk about it. And some even blame the women for it.
That’s why her testimony couldn’t be published in her own country for decades to come. Supposedly, it “besmirches” the honor of German women.
I find it admirable that this young woman gives an incredibly objective account of the horrors that she is witnessing and enduring. There is no self-pity or sentimentalism in it. She criticizes both the invaders and her own people, showing how the war can turn some into animals.
I personally do not advocate “an eye for an eye” punishment, but while reading the book, I couldn’t help thinking about the suffering of Russian women at the hands of Nazi aggressors in the occupied territories, and how thousands of them, and even their children, were raped, tortured, and murdered.
And that’s the conclusion the author of the diary achieves, based on her conversations with some Russian soldiers. “We brought it on ourselves,” she concludes. She also hears other people say, “Our boys probably weren’t much different over there.” They now realize that what goes around comes around. And they repeat the same line from their pre-war prayer, proclaimed on posters and in speeches—“For all of this we thank the Fuehrer”—only with the opposite meaning, full of scorn and derision. How ironic.
Given the author’s occupation, her diary is very well-written. It’s a literary masterpiece. Most importantly, this woman gives voice to other women—in any country—who are defenseless victims of war. I think the fact that she preferred “anonymous” to a “penname” was a condemnation of wars and warriors who treat women as the spoils of war.