- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005

A WOMAN IN BERLIN:

A DIARY: EIGHT WEEKS IN THE CONQUERED CITY

By Anonymous

Metropolitan, $23,

288 pages

REVIEWED BY CLIVE DAVIS

One of the most potent films of the past year, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Der Untergang,” portrayed the fall of Berlin from the point of view of Hitler’s inner circle, ensnared in their network of concrete bunkers as the Soviet forces edged ever nearer. The sense of madness and hysteria was nothing less than overwhelming. Based in part on the memoirs of the fuehrer’s secretary, Traudl Junge, the film depicted an ingenuous young woman caught up in events she barely comprehends. At the close, as the Russians finally show their faces, we watch as she slips through their ranks, desparate not to attract the attention of any of the troops milling around her. Stories of how the conquerors indulged in raping sprees when they swept through East Prussia left no Berliner with illusions about what to expect in the way of gallantry.

So Junge escaped, and lived to a grand old age. As did the anonymous author of “A Woman in Berlin,” who died in 2001, aged 90. In the spring of 1945, however, she endured the nightmare that Junge managed to evade. A stark, unflinching account of unarmed civilians left at the mercy of rampaging soldiers, the diary — which covers a period of just over two months — offers invaluable testimony about the final days of the war and the brutal reality of combat as it was lived then and as it has been lived across the centuries.

“A Woman in Berlin” is anything but sensational — the author’s prose is calm and detached — yet its description of mass-rapes caused immense controversy when the book was first published in Germany a half-century ago. (The first edition appeared in English several years earlier.) Some critics accused the author of moral deviancy, as if appalled that she had the audacity to dredge up long-suppressed memories of a period when any woman, no matter what age, it seemed, could fall prey to drunken, marauding “Ivans.” The response proved so hostile that the author — a sophisticated journalist who had traveled widely across Europe and the Soviet Union — subsequently decided that the diary should be republished only after her death.

In retrospect, the outcry seems senseless. Having suffered the shame of being attacked by squads of lawless soldiers — sometimes in sight of their husbands — women came to understand that were expected not to traumatize their own menfolk by referring to what had happened. Modern feminism gets a bad press in some quarters — sometimes for good reason — but there is surely every reason to be grateful for a change in the moral climate which now allows this subject to be freely aired.

“A Woman in Berlin” offers an intensely personal counterpart to the mass of chilling statistics and commentary accumulated in Antony Beevor’s epic “Berlin: The Downfall, 1945.” Mr. Beevor, who supplies the elegiac introduction to the diary, points out that in Berlin alone, between 95,000 and 130,000 women are thought to have fallen victim to the Russians. In the author’s own apartment block no female is safe, be it a daughter barely into puberty or a middle-aged hausfrau whose face is disfigured by eczema. The diarist herself is raped several times. Ever-resourceful, she decides that her best hope of fending off more attackers is to become the property of an officer who wields enough authority to keep the enlisted men at bay.

She succeeds, but never quite shakes off the thought that what she has opted for is a form of prostitution. By May 3, the worst of the random sprees are over — although the threat never entirely goes away. From that point onwards, the emphasis is on finding a way to find enough potatoes and nettles to live on. By the beginning of June, the devastated city is slowly beginning to establish some sort of normality, even though nobody knows what Soviet occupation will ultimately bring. There are long, dreary hours of factory work; one train after another has to be loaded with requisitioned machine parts bound for Moscow. But in this early period at least — certainly in comparison with the hellish final months of the war — communist rule seems almost benign. When the women discuss their experience of rape, a sort of gallows humor keeps them sane amidst the horror stories.

It’s not entirely surprising that doubts have been raised about the book’s authenticity — although Mr. Beevor has no doubts on that score. Our anonymous author writes with a rare elegance. At the same time as she complains about the fatigue induced by her near-starvation diet (“There’s always this kind of wavy mist in front of my eyes, and I feel a floating sensation, as if I were getting lighter and lighter.”), she is capable of registering the tiniest details about her daily existence. When one of her protectors, a chivalrous Soviet major, departs for his native Leningrad, she finds herself looking at his gloves: “He was holding them elegantly in his left hand. They dropped on the floor once and he hurried to pick them up, but I could see they didn’t match — one had seams on the back, while the other didn’t. The major was embarrassed and looked away. In that second I liked him very much.”

Is her ability to speak Russian a help or hindrance? Sometimes she wonders. It may be true that her language skills enable her to see the occupiers as fellow-human beings. On the other hand, those who do not speak Russian can see the soldiers as mere animals, and there is something to be said for preferring to see things purely in that light. (“They can bury their feelings deeper. I can’t do that.”)

There is a final twist before the end. The author’s fiance, a soldier assumed to have been lost at the front, suddenly reappears. All goes well at first. But then both begin to realize how much events have altered them. The old intimacy starts to crumble. The lovers are no longer individuals; they are part of history.

Clive Davis writes for The London Times. He keeps a weblog at www.clivedavis-online.com.

A WOMAN IN BERLIN: A DIARY: EIGHT WEEKS IN THE CONQUERED CITY

By Anonymous

Metropolitan, $23, 288 pages

REVIEWED BY CLIVE DAVIS


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