December 11, 2006

A Woman in Berlin: A diary of the fall of the Nazi Regime

In 1945 German resistance to the Russians, British and Americans finally collapsed. It was the Russians who reached Berlin first, arriving in the capitol in late April and early May 1945. What then followed has become well known in the last couple of years. Going by Anthony Beevor's estimates its assumed that around 2 million women were raped in 1945 by the invading Russian forces, that figure includes Poles and Russian women who were with the Russian army. In Berlin the figure was somewhere between 95,000 and 130,000 women, many of them raped several times, many of them gang raped. The explanations for this orgy of sexual violence have been found in the trauma of the Soviet soldier, who had both come through the killing fields of the Eastern Front, the most vicious front of the most vicious war in human history, and who had earlier endured the long reign of Stalinist terror at home. When added to the 6 million Jews, who contrary to Iranian propaganda, were slaughtered in the Holocaust, the millions of soldiers dieing on each front, the massacres in China and the gulags in Russia, these rapes seem like a final installment in the chronicle of horror unleashed on Eurasia by the German and Russian dictatorships.

Understanding though the specific details of each victim that we can elucidates the status of every victim. Instead of feeling statistics, we can start to feel pain. The pain of the rapes that happened over Germany in 1945 struck very deep and this diary of a woman journalist brings that out. The anonymous diary titled A woman in Berlin conveys something of what it felt to be a woman alive in Berlin as the Soviet men rolled through. The grim humour, better one woman jokes a Russki on top than a Yank overhead, echoes throughout a tale that is filled with repeated atrocity. This is a chronicle of unreleived sexual violence. She is raped by soldiers, officers, gangraped by groups of Russians and lives in perpetual fear. Her friends too endure massive hardship- one nineteen year old girl was raped by three different soldiers one after the other, then she had marmalade smeared into her hair and coffee grains scattered over her face. The repetitive nature of the violence offered numbs the senses, but its the physical details which shocked me again and again, take for instance this description of a rape:

The one shoving me is an older man with grey stubble, reeking of alcohol and horses. He carefully closes the door behind him, and not finding any key, slides the wing chair against the door. He seems not even to see his prey, so that when he strikes she is all the more startled as he knocks her onto the bedstead. Eyes closed, teeth clenched. No sound. Only an involuntary grinding of teeth when my underclothes are ripped apart. The last untorn ones I had. Suddenly his finger is on my mouth, stinking of horse and tobacco. I open my eyes. A stranger's hands expertly pulling apart my jaw. Eye to eye. Then with great deliberation he drops a gob of gathered spit into my mouth

It isn't pleasant to read, I assure you it isn't pleasant to write, even though all I'm doing is copying it out of a book, but how much worse to have experienced that again and again and again. The book takes us through the journey of someone who suffers repeatedly in this way- it changes the woman and it changes her friends. It gives them for a start a kind of collective identity as women and a collective despair with men. As they queue up once stability is restored to collect ration books and get jobs, the chat amongst the women is of how many times they've been raped and how they will deal with their husbands about it. Fears of sexual disease and pregnancy also proliferate- our diarist notes that conversation became coarser, that things unmentionable before became mentionable. And also running throughout is another theme, that the experience changed completely her and other women's reactions to men. The fear created lasted long after authority was restored- she notes that when she goes out in the evening, she never sees women. Also in her eyes, men become diminished, parasites or rapists. She is unbeleivably, unimaginably fair to many Russians that she meets who don't deal badly with her- I can think of three men she mentions by name- and all three are recorded scrupulously fairly. Very few times does she unleash a generalised hatred despite her experiences of all men or all Russians- a hatred I am sure that lesser mortals such as myself would find easy to slip into. Despite this the psychological damage is emmense and the diary is a record of the damage done even to someone who sought to protect her own personality under enormous stress.

Men being powerless, what we see is that women begin to adapt various survival strategies. Our heroine turns herself into a virtual prostitute, protecting her own building and her partners in her flat by sleeping with Russian officers as they move in and out of Berlin. Her prostitution is exploited by others- most importantly by her male co-lodger who seems to do nothing but eat and complain. The violence of prostitution is also key to this book: our heroine at one point hurts so much bodily that she has to beg her Russian officer to be gentle, but she can't ask him to stop making love to her for fear that then a source of protection and food would fade away. The sense of blissful relief that she evokes when she ends her diary and is able to sleep on her own in her own clean sheets is one of the most powerful images of the whole book- it makes the stretching out of limbs seem like another Eden, a demi paradise.

Coping strategies through this book are emmense- I've mentioned the physical coping strategy of prostitution but she coped in other ways too. She coped in part by becoming numb- time and time again she refers to the need just to keep on living, not to enjoy or appreciate life but just to keep going. Fascinatingly, in a way that illustrates her education, she draws upon that: using images out of Horace, Virgil, Aeschylus, Shakespeare and others to understand her situation. Furthermore filtered through the book are her own memories of her own past- the moment she met a Dutch Jew in Paris, her lover, her first kiss and other moments which she uses to make analogies to present situations, even if depressing analogies. These are her psychological resources.

This is one of the most amazing documents of wartime Europe I have ever read. Beevor thinks that its genuine and I see no reason to doubt that assessment from a leading historian of the period. It is such a rich source. The internalisation of Nazi propaganda is fascinating to see- we deal in this book with a worldly and intelligent woman yet even she is stunned that the Soviets can provide better rations than the Nazis. The speed with which the Germans turned on Adolf is also interesting- she mentions that defeat made people hate the government- look what your Adolf did to us they repeat to one Nazi. The unbeleivable thing though about this diary is its record of continual and terrible atrocity, these women were not killed but they were smashed, violated in the sovereignty of their own persons.

There is one last question that does need addressing whenever one thinks or writes about this kind of subject and that is the nature of German war guilt. I can feel some in my audience twinge at the thought of prioritising the German loss over Jewish and other losses in World War Two. The film Downfall has been criticised for this. This document is different- the German crimes in the war are alluded to, interestingly they are used by a man to dismiss woman's suffering as a fair exchange for the suffering the Germans' committed in the East- an intriguing bargain to say the least and one that made me as a man shiver at the moral complacency of the comment.

But this document does not seek to be a total account- this is a diary and we can't treat it like a history- this is a diary of one woman's experience in Berlin from April to June 1945, it includes what she experienced and not what she didn't. What she describes was a reality of acute suffering and it is just that it becomes part of our record of the war, though it is a mere part. There are of course grim ironies within all this- one couple that she records suffering hugely are a Jewish couple who somehow had managed to survive the Nazi regime by hiding and then on the moment of their release, the man is shot and woman abused. In a further irony, as Linda Grant commented in a Guardian review of the book, these same troops who raped this woman may well have been amongst the troops that liberated Auschwitz. We need to read documents like this- not because they obscure the other suffering of the second world war or the guilt of Germany for inaugurating the Holocaust- but because they illuminate the very nature of suffering itself. This woman, whoever she was, was a casualty of the second world war and her diary gives us an insight into how the victims of that or indeed any conflict feel in their degredation.

The Second World War and its horrors (even the ultimate horror of the Holocaust) are almost cauterised, cleansed by their names, by the statistics, but being brought face to face through three hundred pages with the gashes upon the soul inflicted by repeated rape and gang rape, not to mention prostitution, makes one turn back to all the evil atrocities of the period and suddenly realise they weren't numbers on a scorecard of infamy, but souls tortured, and in many cases murdered. Each person had their own separate individuality and each one suffered in ways we cannot even imagine, to perceive one person's suffering gives us an emmense insight into what that kind of experience is like.

I have failed in my account of how this book effected me and why everyone should read it- like other great works about that most terrible period in European history- like Solzhenitsyn or The Pianist or Primo Levi or indeed many others, it makes you want to cry. The repeated terror both leaves you wishing to comprehend and realising you never will because though you can share the words, you can't share the experience. We live in a world where rape is still too common everywhere. Moreover we live in a world where rape used as atrocity and gang rape used as atrocity like this are still happening, in places in Africa and other areas of the world, and the only thing that I as a male blogger from Europe can do is leave you with a final and to me heartbreaking quotation- this is our diarist reflecting on what she would live for after the war,

When I was young the red flag seemed like such a bright beacon, but there's no way back to that now, not for me; the sum of tears is constant in Moscow, too. And I long ago lost my childhood piety, so that God and the beyond have become mere symbols and abstractions. Should I beleive in progress? Yes to bigger and better bombs. The happiness of the greatest number? Yes for Petka [a rapist] and his ilk. An idyll in a quiet corner? Sure for people who comb out the fringes of their rugs. Possessions, contentment? I have to keep from laughing, homeless urban nomad that I am. Love? Lies trampled on the ground. And were it ever to rise again, I would always be anxious I could never find true refuge, would never again dare hope for permanence. Perhaps Art, toiling away in the service of form? Yes for those that have the calling but I don't. I'm just an ordinary labourer I have to be satisfied with that... What's left is just to wait for the end.

I don't think I really need to add anymore except for the fact that I have failed to do either a tragic period or a tragic book the justice they deserve in these few lines.


james higham said...

Tiberius, have you seen the spam comment above mine - can't believe the tone of it, with no regard for the content of your post. As a man, it's probably important that men both write as you did and that other men pause and read it. It's not pleasant but the truth shouldn't be sanitized.

Political Umpire said...

Another good post on some of the worst aspects of humanity.

Gracchi said...

James I didn't see it till I got back to my computer just now. Spamming an ordinary post is bad enough but a post about a subject like this- well that takes a special level of idiocy. That guy has been several times though- so I may need to switch to moderated comments for a while to stop him. To be fair I think he probably hadn't read the content of what I'd written though the title should have helped.

Yes I agree I think it is important to write like that about rape I found reading the book as a man profoundly disconcerting because in an irrational way I felt deeply disturbed. One of the worst things about the whole affair is the way that German men reacted. When the diary was published first in the fifties they objected strongly and made a huge controversy so it was withdrawn eventually. The end of the book and her own encounter with her boyfriend is awful as well- as are the other encounters between women and thier boyfriends in that the boyfriends get incredibly angry with the women who suffered instead of with the Russians.

Thanks Umpire.

Ellee said...

Pure Cambridge quality stuff here! I expect nothing less from Gracchi.

I was at Lucy Cavendish College this evening with some very interesting people, but I'm sworn to secrecy.

Gracchi said...

Thanks Ellee- Lucy Cavendish is one of the colleges I don't actually know that well. Cheers for the post.

james higham said...

Ellee loves her mysteries.

Leslie said...

I've read the book and I am very suspicious of it. It just reeks of fraud and pro-Soviet, politically correct propaganda. The author paints her own men, German men, as barbarians and brutes and cowards. The Russian men, despite the constant raping, are presented as fascinating, pro-feminist, kind and generous, and the alleged diary-keeper throws herself into relationships with them quite eagerly. Conveniently she is fluent in Russian! There are lots of statements putting down Hitler and the German government and she relates with satisfaction how everyone is throwing anything Nazi-related into bonfires. I've known several women who lived in Berlin at this time and their experiences and beliefs are the opposite from this book. I believe it is just a carefully and cleverly written fraud designed to encourage people to believe that the German government from 1933-1945 was the greatest "evil" on earth and that the Allies somehow "liberated" everyone in 1945. I think we can all do without this kind of liberation, just like we can all do without fake diaries to push people's thoughts into certain patterns.

Gracchi said...

Leslie. On the believable nature of the book I think I'll stick with the views of Anthony Beevor who wrote the introduction to my edition and authenticated it. I am not an expert in this period.

I think its very hard to read the book as anything other than a condemnation of her experience at the hands of Russian soldiers. That was what I got from the book.

I don't think there is much dispute over whether the Nazis were up there as one of the worst regimes in human history- whether there was civilian jubilation at their demise or not.