A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous
30 November, 2011
After I read Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson, I knew I had to read A Woman by Berlin which she discussed in a talk I attended. And by chance, I came across a copy in my local charity shop and snapped it up. I found reading about the rapes by Russian soldiers after the fall of Berlin very disturbing, partly because it was something I knew nothing about even though I’ve read my fair share of history books. It really hits home how things, usually that to do with violence against women, are systematically brushed under the carpet and not spoken of. It’s a disgusting and disappointing habit.
A Woman in Berlin chronicles life in Berlin from April 24th to June 22nd 1946 just as Berlin fell to the Red Army. The narrator is a female journalist, well read, well traveled, alone who tries, together with the remaining people in her block of flats, to get through the terrifying days as the war draws to a close and the encroaching dangers of the Russian army.
What really surprised me about this account was how matter of fact the narrator is in her rendition of these fraught days. Not only is she discussing her own experiences but she is a witness to the experiences of everyone around her. They are her neighbours, colleagues, not necessarily friends. Yet what they all experience is collective trauma, and this makes them strong. Because of this, they are able to talk about the terrible things that have happened to them. She notes down how conversation has broken down, how propriety is no longer observed, how the women greet each other with the questions, ‘How many times were you raped?‘ I cannot think of anything more shocking. And what is most disturbing is that she is aware how in times of peace, a rape would tear a community apart, bring down swift justice and scar the women. But in times of war, where every woman has experienced rape, there is no other choice but to get on with it. Of course, many did not get over it and some even committed suicide so as not to get raped, but the sad thing is that many women had to go through such trauma, get on with their lives and later have to deal with the inability of their men to deal with it. And this naturally leads to a change in how they viewed their men.
I think the thing that is so impressive about this book is that it is written so well, and deals with such a traumatic subject with a light and manageable touch that when you do take pause to think about all that she has discussed, it hits you doubly hard. I don’t think I’ve read an account of rapes quite like this one. It’s unsentimental, matter of fact, the narrator is someone you can’t help but admire, someone with verve, vitality and a will to carry on but one who doesn’t let herself feel sorry for herself.
Of course, I’m aware this has been edited to allow for flow, but it’s an admirable piece of written history that really needs to be read more widely. And by that, I do not mean just by women.
There is also a film adaptation of this book, The Downfall of Berlin – Anonyma, which I’m hoping to watch soon.