Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Woman in Berlin (A Review)

When A Woman in Berlin was first published in 1953, it caused such a stir that its author insisted it not be published again as long as she was still alive. Her recent passing, as well as a considerable culture change in attitudes toward sex, gender relations and war responsibility finally enabled its return, first in Germany in 2003, and in the English-speaking world in 2005.

A Woman in Berlin
is a diary, the day-to-day account of a 34-year-old woman’s will to survive the invasion of Berlin by Russian troops between April and June, 1945.

It’s not hard to see why it would not become a best-seller so soon after the war. Too many people were rebuilding their lives. If you were German, the last thing you needed was a reminder of a time when rape and pillage was the norm. If you were not German, there were too many other narratives calling for your attention. Why would you stop to focus on an account of German suffering.

All accounts of people in conflict situations are Rohrschach tests of their readers’ experience. German men, we are told, hated this story because it revealed them as weak, no longer able to defend their women. Russians justifiably complain there is too little background information on the rape of Russia by the German invaders. Such information, while not justifying the brutality in Berlin, would at least help to explain their rampage.

Had I read A Woman in Berlin thirty years ago, I would have felt obliged to tie it to the struggle between my German self and my American self and focused on the question of German guilt and responsibility. Time has put that struggle to rest for me, though, and I am a somewhat less subjective reader. I see the book as a powerful contribution to feminist history, and believe that’s true no matter where you’re coming from. (That's still subjective, of course, and the international women's movement, I suspect, was the last thing the author had on her mind.)

It’s about a woman who realized she could not escape the mass rapes in the first days of the invasion, sought out a Russian with power and paid with sex for his protection. I don’t have the filters that led people of earlier times to judge and condemn. On the contrary, she comes across to me as a person of remarkable intelligence and courage. Caught by surprise in a raging river, some people might accept drowning as fate. Others look out for paddles and something to float on, and aim straight for the rapids.

Not that all women need be judged by how well they imitated her course of action. Not all women had the resources she had - a smattering of Russian, a belief in entitlement to life and the initiative that comes with a sense of self-responsibility. But those characteristics, to push the raging river metaphor a bit, merely put her in the boat. She still had to face the rapids on her own.

If you are shocked or distressed by tales of rape, you might miss the fact that this story is really about coping with vulnerabilities, sexual vulnerability being only one of many. To read this woman’s story is to become convinced that if you survive it’s because you are able to gather enough nettles by the roadside, and make do with potato mash, and rancid butter, when you can get even that. You haul your water up several flights of stairs and live without electricity, and with soldiers entering at will, standing on the back of your sofa and defecating in your living room. The question, with all due respect for those who fear being duped again, as we once were with Hitler's diaries, is not whether this happened. Of course it did. The question is why write about it and why read about it in years to come.

The quick answer is you write about it if you are fortunate enough to be able to channel your grief and fear and misery that way. And you read about it if you are fortunate enough to understand that nothing about the human condition need be shied away from. You will have to provide your own answers, if those are insufficient.

To read a personal narrative of this nature is to face another question. To what degree does one judge it on its literary merits, to what degree on its utility as insight into the human condition. Those are never entirely mutually exclusive categories, but you find yourself at one moment focusing first on one, then on the other. I read the book in part because it is Berlin history and because I know the kind of people who inhabit the book, including women not that different from the author. It’s not unlike discovering a family album and realizing as you turned the pages that your family had secrets you never knew and were never supposed to know. Discovering the writer understood how to arc a story was icing on the cake.

Because I had read the criticism first, from the cruel and stupid “how dare a German seek sympathy” criticism to the fuss about whether the story was authentic, I found myself reading defensively. I wanted to like this woman. Once I realized how much I was coming to respect her, I began to worry I was being conned, and began to look for chinks in her hero armor. She gets a bit superior at times, dividing the world into people with class on the one hand and pig farmers on the other. But it doesn’t take long to realize she is using everything in her armory to survive. Also, to her credit, she admits her shame in once celebrating German victories in Russia with full knowledge that the Russian people were being brutalized. Her journalist’s eye spots the weakness in people and she is unforgiving, but ultimately she judges herself by the same standard. She manages to poke fun at the German propensity for following orders – “The soldiers had trouble storming the train station because they had not bought platform tickets first.” And at the same time she displays another German vice, Sachlichkeit (dispassion), and makes you see its upside. That’s an understatement. The dispassion revealed in her self-description is no doubt why she lived to be an old woman.

When I was in my early teens, one of our neighbors returned from the Korean War, and I had my first encounter with a person traumatized by horror. His wife used to come to my mother for comfort. He regularly woke up screaming, and she was afraid he might hurt her. I was not supposed to be listening, but ours was a very small house. And my mother used to relay the stories to my father. “Poor woman, she’s got it tough,” they would say to each other, not knowing how else to respond. Post-traumatic stress syndrome was not in anybody’s vocabulary. Eventually the couple divorced.

The guy became an object of fascination to me, and he would let me hang out with him whenever he was outside tinkering with his car. Once I drummed up the courage to ask him about the war. “You’re too young to understand,” he said. “Some things you just can’t talk about.”

By the time I met a concentration camp survivor some time later and saw the number tattooed on her arm, I had learned it was not polite to ask people to talk about things that might embarrass them. By age fourteen I had learned there were some things one either picked up indirectly or not at all.

I know parents have to do that to their kids or they won’t be able to take them out of the house. But because we live with those strictures, it seems to me, we ought to celebrate each time somebody crosses the line of taboo and reveals what we are told ought to be hidden.

The author wanted not to be identified. The title page reads: A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City – A diary – by Anonymous.

In recent years the Korean and Chinese women pressed as girls into prostitution by the Japanese military in World War II are crossing the same line Anonymous crossed. The time is right now for them to “come out.” Smash the closet door and force the world to stop shaming them for things they had no part in creating. You may want to say that Anonymous is more of an Everywoman than a member of an abused class. Or you may want to take the feminist stand that being a woman is being a member of an abused class. In peacetime, we can argue over where the line is between fact and rhetorical excess.

In wartime, though, just as when we say “doctor” most people imagine a male being, when we say victims of war, we ought to think first of the women.

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261 pages in its Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt and Co.) First American edition, 2005. Translated by Philip Boehm with a foreword by Hans Magnus Enzensberger and an introduction by Antony Beevor.

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