Reviewed by Bruce Rhodes
May 23, 2008
An intelligent, resilient, compassionate, resourceful woman chose to keep a diary during the dark days of the end of World War II in desolate, bombed-out Berlin, when the Soviet Red Army’s ‘liberation’ of the city included the rape of an estimated 100,000 German women, including the author herself. She chose to remain anonymous, and also shielded the identities of most of the fellow Germans around her.
The attitudes of the ‘Ivans’ who arrived in Berlin ranged from the ruthless bullies who gang-raped German women from age 14 to 74 at one extreme, to the older, more senior, more refined Red Army officers who treated the German vanquished with respect and even compassion. Alcohol consumption by the Red Army was a catalyst for rape, pillaging and destruction. The Nazis consciously left behind stores of alcohol, believing that an inebriated Red Army would be a less effective fighting force. The Nazis clearly failed to realize that the alcohol would fuel a wave of revenge and violence against its own female civilians.
The author and most Berliners were without water, electricity and decent food for weeks on end. Red Army soldiers would wander in and out of the Germans’ apartments, at all hours of the day and night, stealing whatever they wanted, grabbing and abusing the women, and defecating everywhere, indoors and out.
On the one hand, the Germans realized that they had this abuse coming to them, after the Nazi atrocities. “Our German calamity has a bitter taste – of repulsion, sickness, insanity, unlike anything in history” (page 257). On the other hand, the Germans fear and resent their liberators, who force them to work twelve hour days dismantling factories for shipment to Russia, with the only compensation being meager food rations. Out of hunger, many German women succumbed to the offer of food from the Red Army soldiers, in exchange for sleeping with them.
Despite living amid rubble and a largely hostile occupying army, the Berliners were remarkably calm and organized. Certainly there was looting by locals, and skirmishes in queues for water and food, but by and large the vanquished cooperated with one another. As the author wrote, she wanted to get busy in a constructive way, re-connect with herself spiritually, try to return to a normal life, to whatever extent that was possible. Berliners were mindful that they would no longer be masters of their own realm; rumors flew around that Germany was going to be converted into one huge field of potatoes. Berliners lived with discomfort and uncertainty during this period.
Gender roles were turned upside down at the end of the war. Erstwhile pompous Nazi men were now either dead, or emaciated and humiliated prisoners of war, or deserters in hiding, or elderly, hapless and hopeless as they watched or listened to their wives and daughters being raped. By contrast, the women took a lead role in cleaning up the ruined city, forming work crews to remove rubble.
Antony Beevor, author of The Fall of Berlin 1945, states of A Woman in Berlin “… this book is one of the most important personal accounts ever written about the effects of war and defeat.” I share his admiration for this book, and recommend it highly.