A Woman in Berlin could be a figment of a historian's imagination, so neatly and thoroughly does it satisfy curiosity about a moment in time. The anonymous journal of a thirty-four-year-old German journalist, A Woman in Berlin documents the final days of the Second World War, when Soviet troops took the city and, according to this account, began to claim their spoils.
This is, inescapably, a journalist's journal. In the midst of violence and tumult, the author's preoccupation with factual reportage characterizes all of her written perceptions, and each entry represents a careful and contained documentation of who's, what's, where's, and when's. In this way, the journal possesses a certain degree of detachment. The writer relays harrowing stories, but does not extrapolate from them the heavy moral or allegorical meanings the contemporary reader may be inclined to.
Though A Woman in Berlin exposes the battered and confused state of the German psyche in the year 1945 (there is pervasive cynicism, gnawing fear, and rampant talk of betrayal by the Fuhrer), the journal is, above all, a catalog of rape. The author struggles throughout to cope with the shame and physical pain of enduring repeated rapes herself, but more importantly, she offers the reader a privileged and excruciating view of the support mechanisms created, out of grim necessity, by the city's women. In the schizophrenic environment of wartime Berlin, the “collective experience” of rape was a great leveler. The subject was promptly de-stigmatized by women who needed the therapy of collectivity, whose psychological survival suddenly depended largely on empathic exchange with others who shared their experience.
It is unlikely that the anonymous woman in Berlin intended to craft the kind of indictment of militarized masculinity she manages to. But like a horror movie, in this tale, predatory masculinity lurks around every corner, in every stairwell and every abandoned apartment. Drunk on rationed vodka, prideful at being the victors, or often merely bored, the Soviet troops perpetrated, however unsystematically, a campaign of horror on German women. Just a few days after their arrival, merely walking a few blocks without being attacked seemed a considerable achievement. One mother locks her daughter, a teenaged virgin, in a cramped attic space to protect her from certain assault.
The Russian men, called “Ivans” by the Germans, appear either hardened and soulless, or childlike, committing acts of brutality against women in order to impress their comrades or prove themselves. As for German men, the war demotes them to mere objects of female pity. “Deep down,” the journalist writes, “we woman are experiencing a kind of collective disappointment. The Nazi world-ruled by men, glorifying the strong man-is beginning to crumble, and with it the myth of '”Man.'”
In our cultural accounting of World War II, narratives that expose acts of brutality committed against Germans have not been privileged. In fact, it is hard not to be struck while reading A Woman in Berlin by just how new this particular sympathy feels to those of us who've been reared on a diet of American war movies and history textbooks. The questions this journal raises, however, are broader and farther reaching. World War II is arguably the most ruthlessly chronicled subject in modern history, and yet there continue to be very few efforts to reckon honestly with German victimhood in general, and the mass rape of German women in particular. A Woman in Berlin, if not a model of writerly ingenuity, written as it was in rare moments of relative calm, should at the very least demand that we reinvestigate our understandings of World War II, and of the use of rape as a weapon of war and terror.