A Woman in Berlin: Six Weeks in the Conquered City by Anonymous, translated by Philip Boehm

Lester Pimentel

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.

A Woman in Berlin

Publisher: Metropolitan Books
Subtitle: Six Weeks in the Conquered City
Author: translated by Philip Boehm
Price: $23.00
Display Artist: Anonymous, translated by Philip Boehm
Length: 261
US publication date: 2005-08
Amazon affiliate

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.





A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.