‘A Woman In Berlin’ by Anonymous

WomaninBerlin

Non-fiction – paperback; Virago; 311 pages; 2005.

It’s true: the war is rolling towards Berlin. What was yesterday a distant rumble has now become a constant roar. We breathe the din; our ears are deafened to all but the heaviest guns. We’ve long given up trying to figure out where they are positioned. We are ringed in by barrels, and the circle is growing smaller by the hour.

So begins one of the most harrowing accounts of war-time Berlin you are ever likely to encounter. Indeed, the imminent war historian Antony Beevor, who writes the introduction to this edition, calls it “a war diary unlike any other…one of the most important personal accounts ever written”.

The diary begins on Friday 20 April 1945 and continues for just over two months until 22 June. It is written by an anonymous 34-year-old woman, whose husband is away fighting in the German Army. She has been bombed out of her own apartment and is now living in a furnished attic room owned by a former colleague, who has also been called up.

It chronicles the day-to-day struggle for survival in a city now under Russian occupation. We hear of the huge queues for food and water, the ransacking of government buildings in search of Nazi stockpiles, the constant fear that they will be bombed out of their homes. But the most shocking part of this book is the diarist’s account of mass rape that was carried out by Russian soldiers.

Fortunately, she doesn’t go into elaborate detail, but her thumbnail portraits of such barbarous events — she was raped several times over the course of a few days — are enough to fill the reader with horror. But this is an intelligent, well-educated woman, who, as a journalist had travelled the world and picked up numerous foreign languages along the way (including Russian), and so she adopts the most pragmatic approach that one could adopt when confronted with such brutality — on Tuesday, 1 May 1945, she writes:

No question about it: I have to find a single wolf to keep away the pack. An officer, as high-ranking as possible, a commandant, a general, whatever I can manage. After all, what are my brains for, my little knowledge of the enemy language?

While A Woman in Berlin might sound like terribly depressing subject matter, it somehow doesn’t feel that way when you read it. Yes, it’s distressing and occasionally very dark, but the diarist is so practical, so free from self-pity and so bloody tenacious, that you find yourself being swept up by her life, cheering her along, hoping she’ll come out the other side with her spirit and faculties intact. It helps, too, that the book is riddled with dark humour, such as this exchange between a friend she manages to track down on 21 May:

Ilse and I hastily exchange the first sentences: ‘How many times were you raped, Ilse?’ ‘Four, and you?’ ‘No idea, I had to work my way up the ranks, from supply train to major.’

I also have to point out how terribly easy this book is to read. It feels very much like a novel, not a diary. She has such an eye for detail that she brings everything to life in beautiful descriptive passages, such as this one contained in her entry for 10 May:

All along the way we see debris left by the troops: gutted cars, burned-out tanks, battered gun-carriages. Occasional posters in Russian celebrating May Day, Stalin, the victory. Here, too, there are scarcely any people. Now and then some pitiful creature darts by — a man in shirt sleeves, a woman with dishevelled hair. No one pays us much attention. A woman passes us, barefoot and bedraggled. She answers our questions — ‘Yes, the bridge is still there’ — and hurries away. Barefoot? In Berlin? I’ve never seen a woman in that condition before. The bridge is still blocked by a barricade of rubble; my heart is pounding as we slip through a gap.

And this, more startling, image contained in her entry dated Thursday, 26 April:

An image from the street: a man pushing a wheelbarrow with a dead woman on top, stiff as a board. Loose grey strands of hair fluttering, a blue kitchen apron. Her withered legs in grey stockings sticking out the end of the wheelbarrow. Hardly anyone gave her a second glance. Just like when they used to ignore the rubbish being hauled away.

The publishing history and the “outing” of the anonymous author’s identity is almost as interesting as the book itself. A Woman in Berlin was first published in an English translation in the US in 1954 and the UK in 1955. When a German language edition was published in 1960 it caused an uproar, because as Antony Beevor explains, “rape and sexual collaboration for survival were taboo subjects”.  The author apparently claimed she did not want it published again in her lifetime. She died in 2001 and it was republished in 2003. You can find out more about her in this wikipedia entry.

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19 thoughts on “‘A Woman In Berlin’ by Anonymous

  1. Very good synopsis on this book. I read this a few years ago and was really taken by the book. You are correct…it did not feel like depressing reading. I found that I could not put the book down.

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  2. It sounds like a harrowing read and also quite a page turner, as horrible as that sounds. I’m really intrigued by this book now. I wonder why it’s still published as anonymous when the author has been outed and widely known.

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  3. Wow you were saying at book group what an impact this book had one you and reading this and seeing the quotes I can definitley see why you liked it so much. She sounds in many ways a remarkable woman who captures the war like it hasnt really been captured before. I might pop this one on my birthday wishlist, thanks for telling us all about it Kim.

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  4. A very powerful book. I remember in the 70s when women tried to join the ANZAC Day marches to commemorate women raped in war and there was the most terrible furore about it. The newspapers thundered either that rape in war never happened and it was wicked to besmirch the reputation of brave soldiers, or they said that it was ‘inappropriate’ and they should ‘get their own march’.
    Lisa

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  5. It’s a gripping read, isn’t it? I couldn’t put it down either, partly out of fear, partly out of fascination. Apparently it’s been turned into a film, but I’m not sure it’s something I’d actually want to go and see…

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  6. You might remember this was one of the titles I nominated for NTTVBG… ? I then thought I’d choose it for the Riverside Readers book group, but just to be sure it was an OK choice I read the first chapter… and the second… and the third… and then well, I’d read the whole damn book and decided I better choose something else instead.

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  7. I assume it’s probably a marketing decision: it kind of sounds more authentic having it written by “anonymous” rather than by a journalist who turned out to be a bit of a Nazi propagandist!

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  8. She certainly has an eye for detail and tells it all in a rather dispassionate, almost objective, kind of voice. It’s harrowing but brilliant all at the same time.

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  9. I can remember attending an ANZAC Day march in the late 1980s and there was a big protest, on the sidelines, about rape in war. To be honest, I was probably too young to appreciate what they were trying to say, but I do remember there was quite a debate about it in the press. It’s difficult, really, because you can’t tarnish all male soldiers with the same brush. I think the beauty of this book is that it talks about a taboo subject without resorting to sensationalism, self-pity or preaching. In some ways that just makes it all the more powerful — and distressing.

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  10. Totally adding it to my list. It sounds a bit like SUITE FRANCAISE – by Irene Nemirovsky, which I’m sure lots of you have read? It’s a novel, but it deals with Germany’s invasion of France during World War II, and was written by a woman living through it, and soon to be a victim to it. Really recommend that also.
    Sarah

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  11. I haven’t read Suite Francaise just yet… It’s in the queue. There was a time there where every second blog reviewed it, so I decided to hold back… enough water’s gone under the bridge now, so perhaps it’s time to dig it out for a read. I believe it’s supposed to be very good.

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  12. I’ve just bought this book and will start reading it as soon as I’ve finished my current book (a 14th century historical novel), then I have the Jennifer Johnston book to read. Quite a book queue forming…..

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  13. Oh yes… I have one of those queues, too, Louise. 😉 Pleased to hear you are going to read this book — and the Johnston. I’m trying to work out all my timings, because I’ve got to read the Johnston by next Sunday but have just started Lionel Shriver’s new one and I’ve got two or three others on the go too!

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  14. This is in my stack. I just wanted to say that the film version is phenomenal. Nina Hoss plays the central figure and she’s one of the best German actresses in the biz IMO.

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  15. i read this book whilst serving in the navy in the fifties.it opened my eyes and made me think of the lesser glories of war.
    Of course in the eyes of the russian soldiers it wasnt rape,
    it was ordered by Old Joe himself to debase the german blood
    line. A similiar book WOMAN OF ROME captures the thoughts and ssurvival actions of a woman and her daughter to remain alive
    during the war years. Both books give you an insight to what
    people will do to stay alive.

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