‘A Woman in Berlin’ by Anonymous

2002 (originally 1954), 311 p

What is it they say about scams- that’s if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is?  That’s the way that I felt when I first starting reading this diary that starts on 20 April 1945 as Berlin falls. The diary ends, rather inconclusively some eight weeks later in 22 June 1945.  Obviously I wasn’t alone in my scepticism, borne just as much of admiration for the anonymous author and her writing, as the feeling that it was almost too good, too observational, too aware as a historical source.  The historian Antony Beevor, felt the same way too:

It was perhaps inevitable that doubts would be raised about this book, especially after the scandal over the fake Hitler Diaries.  And the great bestseller of the 1950s, ‘Last Letters from Stalingrad’ was found to be fictitious over forty years after its first appearance.  On reading  the earlier edition of this diary for the first time in 1999, I instinctively compared my reactions to the Stalingrad letters, which I had read five years before.  I had become uneasy about the supposed Stalingrad letters quite quickly.  They were too good to be true…As soon as I was able to compare the published collection with genuine last letters from Stalingrad in the German and Russian archives, I was certain they were false.  Yet any suspicions I felt obliged to raise about ‘A Woman in Berlin’ were soon discarded.  The truth lay in the mass of closely observed detail.  The then anonymous diarist possessed an eye which was so consistent and original that even the most imaginative novelist would never have been able to reproduce her vision of events.  Just as importantly, other accounts, both written and oral, which I accumulated during my own research into the events in Berlin, certainly seemed to indicate that there were no false notes.  Of course, it is possible that some rewriting took place after the event, but that is true of almost every published diary.  (p. 5)

And this is what I needed to hear: a reputable, informed historian making the call about the authenticity of what I was reading.  The diary certainly is well written.   Some of the entries are unrolled out over the length of a day, written a couple of hours apart; others are written a day or two later.  The diary opens as Berlin experiences the first bombings, like the roll of distant thunder that draws closer.  Women and children mainly cower in basements, hearing the explosions coming closer and aware of the rumours of the mass rapes that would sweep along with defeat.   The tension is like the rumble of bombs: insistent, breath-holding fear.

When it comes, as you know it must, she says little. For me, this was one of the hallmarks of authenticity- that she distanced herself from the physicality of it, except for one (of several) Russian soldier who slowly, deliberately, opened her mouth and spat into it.  The universality of the raping is horrific: “how many times?” is a commonplace, matter-of-fact question as friends and acquaintances meet again on the other side of the nightmare.

The author is an educated woman, a journalist who has travelled widely, and she speaks Russian.  She consciously decides that she will use her Russian to gain the protection of an educated, high-ranking officer and what follows is a strained, strange, conflicted relationship, compromised to its core by issues of power and consent (or the lack thereof).

As the Russians sweep through and life starts to take on a different normality, German men start reappearing from their hiding places  and their own relationships with their women are distorted through shame, impotence and disgust.  The women themselves speak about the rapes, even indulge in a form of gallows humour about it, as a way of mental survival.  The men are appalled by this response.  Along with the re-establishment of the water supply, the intermittent running of public transport, the issuing of inadequate food rations and the first shoots of entrepreneurism, much of the camaraderie and communalism of the women starts to break down.

We do not know what happens next- the anonymous author is obviously about to move onto a new phase because old relationships have been severed in this strange new world, and choices need to be made.  And that, for me, pointed to its authenticity as well:  a grinding, hard reality and ‘normalcy’ creeps over the last part of the book; there is no great climax and no resolution either.

I see that they have made a film of this book but I hadn’t heard of it. In fact, I hadn’t heard of the book at all until I read Kimbofo’s review of it.   Part of me wanted to look away out of discomfort and shame; the other part of me wanted to keep reading out of curiosity and admiration.  It’s very good.

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2 responses to “‘A Woman in Berlin’ by Anonymous

  1. Yes, it’s a very powerful book, one of the few that admits the atrocities that make war a uniquely horrific experience for some women. Do you remember the fuss the RSL made, Janine, when some years ago there were attempts to acknowledge rape in war in the ANZAC day parade? Complete denial. It made me very angry.

  2. Pingback: ‘Suite Francaise’ by Irene Nemirovsky | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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