Saturday, June 1, 2019

A Woman in Berlin - Anonymous

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.


  1. This is such an important book, I couldn't agree more. It was one of the first books I read about the German civilian experience of the war (and its aftermath) as a teenager and set me off on a course of reading that truly broadened my view of the world (and of how history is written and presented to us). As you say, the British perspective focuses so often on cosy homefront tales but the reality for the majority of people impacted by the war was very, very different.

    1. Yes, and if there's one thing the last few years have underlined it's the shaky grasp of general history that we have. Far to much nostalgia for an imagined past and very little appetite for a wider understanding of the realities of war. What I've taken away from this account is both the acknowledgement of civilian complacency towards the regime, and her anger that the women were just left high and dry then expected to keep quiet about what happened to them.

  2. I recently finished reading an excellent novel, 'The New Mrs Clifton' by Elizabeth Buchan, which in part covers this subject. It depicts very well both the weariness of immediate post-war London, and the devastation of post war Berlin, and what happens when Major Clifton brings home a German bride.

    1. I might look for that. My grandmother was German, my grandfather met her, I guess just after the war, got her pregnant and returned to England. She turned up here later with a baby by which time he was engaged to another woman. He married my grandmother, but it was not a happy relationship. I can only guess at how hard it was for her to make a life in England based on how she would hardly ever speak about her past, and never spoke her own language, not even to her children.