This book review originally appeared November 24, 2018 on my old blog. I am reposting it on this blog as is.
A couple of months ago, I went through a brief phase of fascination about the former East Germany. I think I decided to download A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary at around the same time I downloaded Stasiland, a book about East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi. I recently read and reviewed Stasiland, so I decided to follow up with this book, written by an anonymous German woman who happened to be living in Berlin when it was taken over by the Russians, right after Hitler’s regime was defeated. She kept a diary for eight weeks which explains, in her own words, what Germany’s capital was like in the wake of World War II.
Until 1989, Germany was a divided country. About two-thirds of it was called West Germany, and it was initially controlled by the United States, France, and Great Britain. Russia controlled East Germany, as well as half of Berlin, then known as East Berlin. West Berlin, which was completely walled in, was likewise controlled by the United States, France, and Great Britain. However, these organizational changes weren’t really immediate.
After World War II ended, there was a period of chaos and confusion. That’s what the 34 year old anonymous author of A Woman in Berlin writes of in her diary. For eight weeks, as Russian soldiers took over Berlin, the author kept a record. This book is written in diary form, starting in April 1945. The woman who wrote this book died in 2001. She was well educated and had worked as a journalist before the war. This book was originally published in 1953, but then went out of print for about fifty years. It was published again at the beginning of the 21st century.
In the spring of 1945, Berlin was mostly populated by women, who had not gone off to fight in the war. The men who were left behind were elderly, sick, or both. Consequently, when the Russian soldiers moved in, the women became prime for rape. The author of this diary was a victim of rape, as were many of her peers. Other women hid in cellars or attics to avoid being molested by randy Russian men. The author writes of one teenaged girl named Stinchen who sat in a stuffy crawl space over her parents’ apartment with a chamber pot, hiding out for weeks.
Recognizing that unless she came up with a plan, the rapes would continue, the author sought protection. She latched on to a Russian officer, communicating with him through the few words of Russian she spoke. Because she was attached to the officer and his friends, the author was better fed and somewhat safer than most of the other women.
Besides mass rapes, there was also mass looting going on. The author writes that the Russian soldiers didn’t seem to have any concept of quality. They would steal things just to steal them, and then just as easily abandon them when the items became a burden. They were mostly interested in liquor and sex. At one point, the officer who had “befriended” the author brought over a stolen trunk full of clothes and shoes in good condition, which he offered to the author’s neighbor. Although the clothes and shoes were much needed, it occurred to the women that they might be spotted wearing their neighbor’s clothes and shoes. The thought made them feel too ashamed to accept more than a couple of pairs of shoes. The author’s pair were too small for her feet, but she made do anyway.
As I read this book, sitting in the German house I’m about to leave, I couldn’t help but picture what life was like for Berliners who watched their city being torn apart by different countries. As a woman, I couldn’t help but be horrified by the plight of the woman who were repeatedly harassed and sexually assaulted. I can’t even imagine the horror of it and how tough they had to be in order to survive it. Aside from the sexual assaults, the women were also forced to work for the Russians. The author of this diary, for instance, was forced to labor as a washerwoman at a Russian military installation. There wasn’t enough food and, although it was springtime, it was also very cold and there was no heat.
The author also had a German boyfriend, but he was away on the eastern front, fighting. While her boyfriend was away, the author suffered starvation and abuse. She learned to jealously hoard what’s hers. When he eventually came back, she was unable to deal with him. He wanted to share what she had with friends, while she couldn’t bear to share it. They broke up.
I lived in Armenia for two years. Armenia is a former Soviet Republic. Although Armenians are not Russians, they were heavily influenced by Russia for many years. I experienced sexual harassment there that I’ve never experienced anywhere else… but then, that was in the 1990s and I was a lot younger and it was much sooner after the Soviet Union fell. Armenia is looking very different now, although I can’t say whether or not it’s changed. I have always found stories about life in the former Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union fascinating. Since I’ve spent a total of six years in Germany, I’m especially interested in what life was like in the forbidden eastern part of the country, where people were separated from their families by walls and fortified borders.
A Woman in Berlin is extremely interesting because it offers a firsthand, journalistic look at what Berlin was like in 1945, from a woman who was there, living the reality. The author doesn’t resort to self-pity or complaints. Her tone is eerily emotionless and matter-of-fact, which adds to the unique nature of the diary. Here she is, facing hunger, humiliation, and the threat of sexual assault, but she keeps reporting. Also, the author was a fairly ordinary person. She wasn’t someone with money or connections that made her life easier. She had to rely on her wits and will to survive. The book ends in June 1945, as things were slowly starting to become more normal.
I think A Woman in Berlin is well worth reading. So often, books about World War II focus on the Holocaust or the war itself. This is a book about what it was like to be a regular German woman during those times. It’s a unique viewpoint, although it was probably the most common situation for civilian Berliners at that time. If you’re interested in what Germany was like right for regular people after Hitler’s regime fell apart, this is a book you should consider reading.
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