A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City, by Anonymous. Metropolitan, 261 pages, $23.
It’s no surprise that the mass rape of German women by triumphant Red Army soldiers at the end of World War II doesn’t feature prominently in Moscow’s annual Victory Day parades. The Soviet Union overcame more obstacles than perhaps any other country as it battled to push the invaders back to Central Europe, rebounding from a near-total destruction of its air capabilities and the catastrophic loss of an estimated 20 million citizens, civilian and military. The victory had all the makings of a national myth, which is what it became—its motives sacred, its soldiers saints.
So when reports of widespread raping in Germany reached Stalin, the dictator made himself chillingly clear: “I will not allow anyone to drag the reputation of the Red Army in the mud.” Punishment for rape was sporadic at best, leaving the summer of 1945 essentially a free-for-all for the Soviet soldiers passing through. Estimates of the number of German women raped over the next two years range—according to historian Norman Naimark—from the tens of thousands to as many as two million, a staggering figure cautiously seconded by Antony Beevor in his sobering introduction to the brutally observed war diary, A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City.
Written between April and June of 1945 by an unnamed, now-deceased journalist, A Woman in Berlin is first and foremost a riveting account of a military atrocity. Beyond that, it’s a ruthless, almost farcical look at a capital’s quick slide into a dog-eat-dog melee. It was perhaps the author’s almost shocking irreverence that led one of the few reviewers who acknowledged the diary’s first publication in German in 1959 (it had already appeared in English and several other languages five years earlier) to blast her for her “shameless immorality.” The wholesale rape of the women of Berlin was a story that brought honor to no one, neither the Soviet-backed government of East Germany nor the German men who stood by and let it happen.
Yet even the people barricaded in Berlin’s cellars and air-raid shelters in anticipation of the Red Army’s arrival could hardly bring themselves to believe the stories ferried by journalists from the front: “Old Woman of Seventy Defiled”; “Nun Violated Twenty-Four Times.” Surely, they consoled themselves, such things wouldn’t happen in Berlin. The author was the first in her building to get a lesson in reality; raped by two intruders after she used her slim command of the Russian language to intervene on another woman’s behalf, she found herself locked out of the cellar, pleading with the other tenants to let her in.
Needless to say, any attempt to report the rapes to the Soviet authorities proved pointless; the only official acknowledgment mentioned in the diary was a call for victims to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Many women, the diarist included, resorted to a sort of semi-prostitution: sex in exchange for food or protection. “No question about it: I have to find a single wolf to keep away the pack,” the author concludes after a particularly brutal assault. “An officer, as high-ranking as possible, a commandant, a general, whatever I can manage.” Her salty pragmatism—which carries the diary and apparently sustained the author through her most harrowing moments—led her for protection to a bearish lieutenant, then to a bookish major with an apologetic, almost civilized “bedside” manner. “Always these extremes. Either it’s ‘Woman, here!’ and feces on the floor, or all gentleness and bowing,” she reflects.
Women less able to adapt stowed themselves away in crawl spaces or locked themselves into apartments on ruined upper floors where the ambush-wary Russians were loath to venture. Others, such as two pretty sisters the author dubs “drink-and-be-merry,” ensured their safety by making themselves the belles of choice at the officers’ ball. In time, many of the women accepted the Russians’ constant advances—if not with pleasure, then as a source of gallows-humor camaraderie.
For the defeated men of the German capital, the rapes hit home on another front. Having briefly united Europe under their command and proclaimed the purity of the Aryan race, they now found themselves defeated on both counts, their country carved up, their women contaminated. Men, once glorified by the Nazi regime, sat helplessly by as their wives were dragged off and their homes turned into filthy latrines. “Most of them are reasonable—they react with their heads, they’re worried about saving their own skins, and their wives fully support them in this,” the author writes. But this reasonableness was also a source of corrosive shame, as she learned firsthand when her fiancé returned from the front to greet her stories with stony silence.
Permeating this extraordinarily honest and unsentimental work is the author’s growing awareness of Germany’s own crimes, and her reappraisal of the role she played as a sometimes enthusiastic though generally skeptical bystander as the Nazis came to power. Looking back on the bleakest days of Depression-era Germany, she recalls the rush of possibility that came with thrusting up her arm in a sea of Hitler salutes and admirably tries to make sense of it in the context of sickening radio reports about Nazi concentration-camp atrocities. Yet unlike those around her, who cursed “Adolf” for landing them in this mess or accepted their predicament as deserved punishment, she doesn’t try to explain or moralize the horror. She simply records it, as perhaps no one else has, in all of its devastating essence.
Rebecca Reich is the books editor of The Moscow Times and the former editor of Context, its arts and ideas section.