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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book Review:  A Woman in Berlin

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City
Hardback:  261 Pages
Publisher:  Metropolitan Books (Henry Hold and Company)
Language:  English
ISBN-10:  0-8050-7540-3
ISBN-13:  978-0-8050-7540-3
Copyright:  2000

This book is a diary of a woman who was in Berlin when the Soviet forces arrived in April of 1945.  It is her story, and the story of others, as the final weeks of the war and the first weeks of the peace worked themselves out—worked their themselves out in an orgy of mass rapes.

Soldiers rape for a number of reasons.  Sometimes it is seen as part of the spoils of war.  Sometimes the result of the pent-up emotions of men who had been in combat for long periods and with no relief.  Sometimes it was just a way of humiliating and subjugating an enemy population, as in Bosnia.  Then there is rape as genocide, as in Darfur.  In the case of the Soviet Army and the occupation of Germany, it might well have been part vengeance.  A way of making up for the terrible things done by German and German led troops as those troops advanced toward Moscow and Stalingrad.  It may be easy for someone like Joseph Stalin to brush it off by saying that "people" should
understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle.
The anonymous author actually does seem to understand, saying
"the sum total of tears always stays the same"—i.e., that in every nation, no matter what flag or system of government, no matter which gods are worshiped or what the average income is, the sum total of tears, pain, and fear that every person must pay for his existence is a constant.  And so the balance is maintained:  well-fed nations wallow in neurosis and excesses, while people plaqgued with suffering, as we are now, may rely on numbness and apathy to help see them through—if not for that I'd be weeping morning, non, and night.  But I'm not crying and neither is anyone else, and the fact that we aren't is all part of a natural law.  Of course if you believe that the earthly sum of tear is fixed and immutable, then you're not very well cut out to improve the world or to act on any kind of grand scale.
This is a pretty bleak view of the world, but her eight weeks were pretty bleak.

One of the things of interest to me, was the ongoing discussion of the impact of these mass rapes on the men she knew.
It's the first time I've heard of one of our men responding with that kind of red-eyed wrath.  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.  No man loses face for relinquishing a woman to the victors, be it his wife or his neighbor's.  On the contrary, they would be censured if they provoked the Russians by resisting.  But that still leaves something unresolved.  I'm convinced that this particular woman will never forget her husband's fit of courage, or perhaps you could say it was love.  And you can hear the respect in the way the men tell the story, too.
A little later she reflects on this again.
"Well—life goes on.  The best part was over anyway.  I'm just glad by husband didn't have to live through this."

Again I have to reflect on the consequences of being alone in the world in the midst of fear and adversity.  In some ways it's easier, not having to endure the torment of someone else's suffering.  What must a mother feel, seeing her girl so devastated?  Probably the same as any one who truly loves another but either cannot help them or doesn't dare to.  The men who've been married for many years seem to hold up best.  They don't look back.  Sooner or later their wives will call them to account, though.  But it must be bad for parents—I can understand why whole families would cling together in death.
In the last few pages the diarist's boyfriend, Gerd, comes back from the war.  It does not go well and eventually he leaves.  He can not accept the rapes.  She ends the book with a question about the future:
Maybe we'll find our way back to each other yet
One can't help but wonder if the troubles of 1968 did not have at least part of their background in 1945.

The book is not lascivious, going with the minimal facts and not the details of a sexual nature.

Regards  —  Cliff

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