It’s perhaps no surprise that a kind of tacit agreement among Germans has ensured virtual silence on the mass rape suffered by as many as 130,000 women at the hands of Soviet soldiers during the Red Army’s occupation of Berlin in 1945. The late W.G. Sebald likened the “taboo” subject of German war suffering to “a shameful family secret, a secret that perhaps could not even be privately acknowledged”. Roughly 50 years ago, one woman broke the silence surrounding the rapes with the publication of her diary, but a hostile German reception forced the issue back into obscurity. The reissue of A Woman in Berlin marks its first reprinting since 1959, after the anonymous author prohibited republication of the book during her lifetime. Besides documenting the relentless terror and humiliation she and other German women endured, the diary offers a unique window on the German psyche as it comes to terms with Third Reich’s wholesale collapse.
From the first entry, dated 20 April 1945, the 34-year-old former journalist demonstrates the ability to alternate between revealing introspective musings and piercing observations of the European “wasteland” before her. Of the impending Russian conquerors’ arrival, the resigned diarist writes, “Our fate is rolling from the East and it will transform the entire climate, like another Ice Age.” After leveling the city, Soviet soldiers, soused from their vodka rations, began celebrating their capture of Berlin by indiscriminately raping German girls and women. Many were raped several times by several different men one after the other. The diarist herself was brutally raped by three different men in one night.
You would expect such an irrevocably traumatic event to crush her will to endure, yet she demonstrates remarkable resourcefulness and mettle. The morning after this tormenting experience, she says to a cadre of women who’ve shared the same awful fate: “What’s the matter? I’m alive, aren’t I. Life goes on.” Even after rape becomes a daily rite for her, she writes: “All my feelings seem dead, except for the drive to live. They shall not destroy me.” Her defiance springs from a fierce rejection of victimhood and self-pity. Intellectual honesty will not allow her to parlay her own real suffering into a reprieve for the moral responsibility she bears for the crimes of her nation. Of course, many Germans strenuously sought to distance themselves from the Nazis once the regime fell, claming they were never supporters. “Everyone was persecuted, and no one denounced anyone else,” she writes, mocking the revisionists among her. And though she comes across as tolerant and cosmopolitan, she observes, “What about me? Was I for…or against? What’s clear is that I was there, that I breathed what was in the air, and it affected all of us, even if we didn’t want it to.” Though quick to lash her craven countrymen, she doesn’t harbor the disdain intellectuals sometimes display for their country’s masses. “I feel that I belong to my people, that I want to share their fate, even now,” she writes.
She reserves her more scathing observations for German men, whom she dubs “the weaker sex”, given their utter powerlessness to defend the women from the Russians. It was not uncommon for a German man to be forced to sit in the adjacent room while his wife was being gang raped. Defeat had decisively shattered what the diarist calls the “myth of the Man” celebrated by Nazism. Now women were thrust into the role of protectors, responsible for hiding the men from Soviet soldiers on the prowl for party members. But she knows this new sexual politics will soon give way to the old, since women would have to pretend they escaped the raping spree or face being ostracized if they made their experiences public. Prophetically, critics accused the author of “besmirching the honor of the German women” when the diary was originally published.
News accounts of mass murder also forced her to confront the consequences of the myths perpetuated by the Nazis. Her first mention of the genocide of Europe’s Jews is recorded on 27 May, after listening to radio reports: “They say that millions of people — mostly Jews — were cremated in huge camps in the East and that their ashes were used for fertilizer. On top of that everything was supposedly carefully recorded in thick ledgers — a scrupulous accounting of death. We really are an orderly nation.” If, as this passage suggests, she was previously unaware of the death camps, she was, however, fully cognizant of the virulent anti-Semitism that fueled the murder of millions. In one anecdote, she recalls how a Dutch Jew she met in Paris in 1936 reacted when he suddenly discovered her nationality: “A daughter of Hitler!” She also recounts how some Germans now shamelessly boasted about Jewish relatives who had been previously “hidden deep in the family tree”. But their crass attempt to curry favor with the Russians by claiming kinship with Jews was for naught. “With all the invectives heaped on me, they [Russians] never once brought up the persecution of the Jews,” she writes. Soviet soldiers’ indifference to Jews is illustrated by the tragic story of a German man and his Jewish wife. After years of living as pariahs in their basement, the couple longed for the liberation of Berlin. Ironically, when the Russians break into the basement, a stray bullet badly wounds the husband and the wife begs the soldiers for help. “Whereupon they took her into the hallway, three men on top of her, she kept howling and screaming, ‘But I’m Jewish, I’m Jewish.’ In the meantime her husband bled to death.”
This harrowing account reminds us of the Hobbesian state of nature that reigned in Berlin during its eight week of occupation. It must have been particularly disquieting for a people said to have order hard-wired into their DNA. More than a cathartic outlet, the diary was a way of making sense of the chaos around her, of imposing some kind of structure or logic on the vertiginous period. A Woman in Berlin will stand as a civilian’s devastating chronicle of the barbarism of total war.