* Prices may differ from that shown
This review is for the paperback book "A Woman in Berlin - Diary From 20th April 1945 to 22nd June 1945". This book is a real life diary that was written by an anonymous woman during the time that control of Berlin changed from Nazi, then to solely Russian and then to the collective allied forces. The historian Antony Beevor wrote an introduction to the book to put a context on the diaries themselves.
The main element of the diaries of this anonymous lady is her attempts to remain safe during the sudden change in power in German's capital city. Hitler's Germany had collapsed and the Russians had come in to take control. At first this seemed positive for the people of Berlin, but then serious problems of disorder started, and it took some time for the allied forces working with the Russians to try and regain control.
The most surprising element of the book to me was the number of rapes on women in Berlin at the time, and how it was almost common place. With an almost lawless situation, troops and individuals from Berlin were able to pillage and steal from individuals, and commit in some cases some horrifying and sickening attacks on women, knowing that they would likely not be caught.
Unfortunately, I at first knew very little about the woman who wrote these diaries, just that she had worked in publishing and was reasonably well educated and travelled to speak numerous foreign languages, including Russian. It was that speaking of Russian that enabled her to secure protection from some more senior Russian officers, in an attempt to avoid the worst of the behaviour.
The book itself is well written and flows well, with a high quality of writing, which doesn't appear to have been heavily edited after the event. There is considerable tension in the book, and the author creates an interest in what is happening in her life which makes finding out the horrific state that she lives even more traumatic.
After reading some more on-line about the history of this period, it seems that the diaries were written by a woman called Marta Hillers. She refused to republish the diaries after their initial publication, as the response has been quite negative, but following her death in 2001, the diaries were republished and hence this book.
It was no surprise that the release of this book caused so much distress in Germany, where so many individuals (although mostly Soviet) had taken part in the rape and assault of women, let alone many other serious crimes, all on top of the atrocities committed in the Second World War. However, these events happened, so reading what happened is sad and difficult, but it is right that such histories should be published.
The book retails for 8.99 pounds, but at the time of writing is available new from Amazon for 6.49 pounds including postage. If you're happy with a second hand copy, these are currently available for around three to four pounds including postage from sites such as eBay and Amazon. The book was also turned into a film in Germany in 2008, called Anonyma - Eine Frau in Berlin (same title as the book for the English release).
Overall, this is a fascinating book, which isn't too remote despite the fact that at first we know little about the author. Indeed, in many ways it was more interesting reading the book without knowing the author, and then only discovering after the details of the individual. It's a title which unfortunately brings back the horrors of the Second World War, and also the total lack of humanity that can be shown during times such as these. It's a challenging title to read at times, but a fascinating glimpse into life in Berlin during the tumultuous times of 1945 and is definitely worth a read.
A friend passed this book on to me saying it was something I really should read. She knows how impassioned I can become about the morality of war, just or unjust. While this book makes no claim to being a historical chronicle it is, by its very nature, a testament to the innocent casualties of warfare and the moral ambiguities during times of conflict. I would like to share my thoughts on this read.
The book was (and still is) published anonymously although it has been suggested by literary historians that the author was in fact Marta Hiller who died in June 2001, aged 90. There is little in the text to identify her, but the author was, by her own admission, a journalist who had travelled to Russia before the war and spoke some of the language. Marta Hiller's literary executor refuses to comment but in academic circles it is widely believed the author is Marta.
Some background to the publication.
This book was first published in England and America, in translation, during 1954. The German publication a few years later caused much outrage and was accused of 'besmirching the honour of German woman'. The author was so distressed she refused to allow the book to be reprinted. This was of course a time when rape and sexual collaboration were unmentionable topics, particularly in post war Germany still coming to terms with the realisation of Nazi atrocities.
However a shift in German consciousness meant that when it was republished in Germany in 2003 it was received with much critical acclaim; in fact it became a bestseller and in 2005 the film rights were sold for an undisclosed sum. The book was translated again into English and re-published in the UK by Virago Press in 2005. This time there were questions as to its authenticity - maybe as a result of the fake Hitler diaries only a few years before or possibly the detail of the writing; but it was precisely this great detail which has led academics to vouch for its authenticity.
This is a remarkably frank and unselfconscious diary account by a 34 year old woman, translated from the original German by Philip Boehm. The book covers the short period of 20th April to 16th June 1945 when the Russian Red Army took Berlin.
There is an introduction by Anthony Beevor (a well published historian and author) and a short after word by the editor Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Whilst this is called a diary I feel the writer was not looking to chronicle events for posterity but rather using it as a vehicle to release some of her emotions.
During the early part of the diary the author describes how she is surviving in Berlin in an apartment block and then later in cellars to avoiding the allied bombing. Berlin is more or less cut off from the outside world and time is spent queuing for scarce food, picking nettles for soup, scrounging for coal or queuing to use the water pump. On one occasion, while queuing outside a butchers shop for meat, a Russian mortar explodes killing three people. The author describes how the queue reforms and sleeves are used to wipe the blood off the meat coupons. Times are hard but they are about to become unimaginably worse.
The arrival of the Red Army in Berlin heralds an orgy of rape. The author's first experience of this was when she was pulled from her cellar and gang raped while her neighbours barricaded the door. The betrayal by her friends seems to be almost as brutal as the attack itself. The second occasion and she begs for it to be only one soldier. After the third rape the author makes the decision that, as an act of self preservation, she must find a senior office who would, in her words, keep the pack away. She makes the heart-rending observation that in desperate times civilised habits are rapidly abandoned. She decides that to prostitute herself to one 'wolf' is preferable to becoming prey to all. This decision, while not entirely successful, provides her with basic necessities for survival; although she wryly observes that unlike the German army the Russian army does not appear to have an educated office class.
With babies dying through lack of milk, children playing in the street with corpses and no transport system nor electricity she observes that they are returning to the habits of cavemen. Rape is talked of with dark humour; it is a shared experience amongst the women which is discussed in terms that would have been unthinkable before the war. Mayhem appears to be all around yet the author still manages to record in detail the trials of her daily existence.
The diary ends with the arrival of the allied troops. Her fiancé returns from the front but they are unable to resolve the differences that have grown between them. Trying to reach out to him with the hope that he would understand some of the things she has experienced she gives him the diary to read. Traumatised by what he had experienced during the war he was unable to deal with her revelations and accuses her of being a 'shameless bitch'; she did not consider herself a whore but rather saw prostitution as the only way to protect herself from worse and to acquire the essentials of candles or basic food rations. Survival had to be the highest principle. No doubt the anger he felt was fuelled by the feeling of being powerless to protect his women; after all he had experienced at the front he now felt emasculated.
In the introduction Beevor states that, while precise statistics will probably never be known, hospital statistics of the time suggest that in Berlin alone there were between 95,000 and 130,000 rape victims (that is about 1 in 3 of the adult female population). Also, a shocking 10,000 women killed themselves rather than 'concede' to the occupying Soviets. Whilst this book gives some insight into the experience behind those numbers it would seem the bravery and stoicism displayed by the author in the face of such adversity was perhaps not typical of all women at that time.
This is a graphic and unflinching account written without a hint of self pity which makes me feel angry and saddened. In my opinion this is a gripping and detailed record of a short period of time (just a couple of months) that is often overlooked by conventional history books and, as such, should be regarded as an important social document.
Moral desolation caused by war is of course not unique to that period of history and we only need to pick up a newspaper today to see many atrocities still happening in war torn territories across the world. The author's intimate, calm and dispassionate account of fighting for survival amidst the horror and inhumanity of war does not make for easy or comfortable bedtime reading - but I would fully recommend this book.
My book was published by Virago, with 311 pages and has a cover price of £7.99. While I advocate the use of small independent book stores it is also available from Amazon for prices from £3.00.
Thank you very much for taking the time to read this.
©perfectly-p 2008 (aka perfectlypolished)