Französiche Dom, Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin
I love Berlin. It is so fresh, vibrant and exciting that you feel you are soaking up innovation, ideas and history through your pores as you walk the streets. Berlin has not papered over its cracks, so you see remnants of the Second World War (the bombed-out carcass of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche) and the Cold War (the long, chilly footprint of the Wall) everywhere. I learned that none of the trees in the Tiergarten are more than sixty years old, because the previous forest was razed for firewood in the dying days of the war, and in the freezing winters afterwards.
But this is not about me. During my last visit, I fell upon an amazing book – A Woman in Berlin – a diary of a woman who details her life in the falling city as it was sacked by the Russian army. It starts on 20 April 1945 and ends on 22 June 1945. The writer, who has recently died, chose to remain anonymous when it was published, and the book received controversy, especially in Germany where it was accused of “besmirching the honour of German women.” As you read, you understand why the book might have been hard to swallow in the 1960s. Not only does she describes in exact and excruciating detail what it is like to live in a city under attack: the scrabbling for food, the nauseating fear of being bombed, the chilling anxiety of waiting for the Russians to arrive, but she deals very frankly with the mass rapes that took place, saying that the women began to ask each other not “Were you … ?” but “How many times … ?”.
According to the introduction, over 160 000 Berlin women were raped as the Russians swept through the city. They were considered an acceptable booty for the travails of being a soldier, and all women of all ages are targetted. People in the writer’s apartment building spirited their daughters away in crawl spaces, while only the oldest women ventured out into the streets to fetch water. The writer herself is not spared, and she finally makes a Faustian pact, singling out the most senior – and potentially most cultured and gentlemanly – Russian officer she can find to act as protector. In exchange for sexual favours, she receives food which she shares with the elderly and ailing residents of the building. What Berlin’s liberators come to call “forced intercourse” becomes her only method of survival.
The writer is a journalist and photographer, and her prose builds unforgettable images of war. This means the book can be hard going, since the subject matter is almost unbearable, but it is leavened with her salty sense of humour and astonishing courage.
Here is one excerpt that moved me with its prescience:
I barely glanced at the news from the western front. What does it matter to us now? Our fate is rolling in from the east and it will transfer the climate, like another Ice Age.
I found a letter wedged inside a drawer, addressed to the real tenant. I felt ashamed for reading it, but I read it all the same. A passionate love letter, which I flushed down the toilet. (Most of the time we still have water.) Heart, hurt, love, desire: how foreign, how distant these words sound now. Evidently a sophisticated, discriminating love-life requires three square meals a day. My sole concern as I write these lines is my stomach. All thinking and feeling, all wishes and hopes begin with food.
On the futility of technology:
Our radio’s been dead for four days. Once again we see what a dubious blessing technology really is. Machines with no intrinsic value, worthless if you can’t plug them in somewhere. Bread, however, is absolute. Coal is absolute. And gold is gold whether you’re in Rome, Peru or Breslau. But radios, gas stoves, central heating, hot plates, all these gifts of the modern age – they’re nothing but dead weight if the power goes out. At the moment we’re marching backwards in time. Cave dwellers.
This is a powerful and heart-rending book. It’s also an amazing piece of social history and now that Germany has learnt to be more open about its past, now that other countries have faced up to their roles in the making of war, this is a good time time to be reading this book. It may deal with a very short and very specific period in German history, but it talks to all of us about how far we will go when we are starving, about the bleak impact war has on civilians and about the small sparks of humanity that help people to survive when that seems impossible.