I've been reading this book slowly, almost but not quite in real time - it's a diary that runs from the 20th of April to the 22nd of June 1945 written by a 34 year old German woman in Berlin. It's not always been the easiest thing to read because it doesn't show human nature at its best and to read it for to long together has a slightly brutalising effect.
I was regrettably hazy about the downfall of Berlin, had never given any thought to what happened when the Russians and other allies swept in. Our inherited war stories are so fundamentally different and it's easy not to dwell on the reality of what being in an occupied city was like, especially at the end of a long war when the enemy is suddenly at your disposal.
In his introduction Antony Beevor touches on suspicions about how genuine the diary is. It's clear that the author was a professional journalist, so it seems safe to assume she had some sort of eye for posterity but the whole thing rings to depressingly true to be anything other than genuine.
It is on the whole an account of hunger and rape, with the deepest anger saved for the returning German men who insist on being protected from the reality of what happened to the women. It's an anger it would have been hard to express post war, and a reality that many must have wanted to put firmly behind them, but equally that resentment must still have been festering for so many women.
Our heroine quickly makes the decision to find herself a reasonably senior officer in the hopes that it will provide her with some protection from the indiscriminate attacks taking place (this is after her neighbors have more or less thrown her to the wolves to protect themselves). It's a plan that works well enough whilst each man is around, but they are moved on quickly and then the the whole sorry business starts again. Still, it means she can get food and there is a level of protection.
Crucially the fact that this is a widely shared experience initially makes it easier for the women to deal with what's happening - they can talk about it, even joke, and assign a certain amount of blame to the administration that left them so vulnerable. That starts to change as the men drift back and the enormity of events generally and what it might mean for the future sinks in.
It's nothing like the heartwarming accounts of life on the home front, but there is a raw honesty here about the cost of war, and something of the pull of nationalism, as well as the humiliation of being part of a defeated nation - turning from a people into a population. The quality of the writing (and translation by Philip Boehm) makes it a particularly compelling narrative, and if enjoy isn't quite the right word, it really does feel like an important book to read.