Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Ich bein ein Berliner 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comI have been suffering from a cold that has filled me with nothing but mucus, malaise and lassitude. All my energy has been devoted to feeling sorry for myself rather than blogging, but here’s some reader’s advisory for you: A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City. It is the diary of an anonymous woman in Berlin toward the end of World War II and it is an incredibly important contribution to the annals of primary historical material. The author is so eloquent, observant, resourceful and wry that you greatly sympathize with her plight. She is never self pitying and never in denial that the population has brought this upon itself. It is a testament to the power of her writing that, for the first time in my life, I actually felt sorry for a German.

When the diary begins, Berlin is becoming a bombed out shell and social order is breaking down. The populace knows that the end of the Reich is near and it waits with bated breath for the Russian tanks to roll in. Although everyone knows to expect no mercy from the Russians, their advance will be a relief in a way, because the relentless bombing will stop. A popular saying circulates: 'Better a Russki on top than a Yank overhead.’ Better to be raped than bombed into oblivion, in other words. Deprivations are severe and there is neither heat nor running water. The author is lightheaded from hunger, and “every thought begins and ends with food.”

In the insane thinking typical of the end of the Reich, the German army has left large caches of liquor for the Russians to find. The theory is that the liquor will weaken and degrade the Russians’ fighting ability, but instead makes them drunk, uninhibited and emboldened to commit rape and other war crimes. There is definitely a payback element for Hitler’s appalling atrocities against Soviet civilians, but other factors come into play as well. Many of these soldiers had been severely mistreated by their own officers, and conquered women were an easy target upon which to take out their humiliation. Most soldiers were lonely and miserable and had been away from their families for years, and desperately yearned for human touch and female companionship.

During the initial sacking of the city the author is gang raped several times, and soon pragmatically decides that she needs to find ‘a single wolf to keep away the pack.’ She is well traveled and knows elementary Russian, and sets out to make some sort of an arrangement with a soldier. Cultivated and pretty, she soon works her way up from supply sergeant to major.

She is wise to do so because all the other women on her block are raped indiscriminately - even grandmothers. She reports that the Russians have a saying: "You old, you must be healthy!" Women hide in crawl spaces or try to disguise themselves as men or crones when they are forced to venture out to forage for food and water. One group of women remains safe on the upper floor of an apartment because a family on the first floor, several children included, all hung themselves, and serve as scarecrows to keep the soldiers from exploring the building further.

What is so impressive about the author is how calm and rational she remains in her writing. She is somehow able to maintain a rational detachment without sounding like an emotionally flat, shell shocked victim. She uses gallows humor as an effective coping mechanism. In her observations of the events, the author is not above a droll vindictiveness for war profiteers.

"She's by far the plumpest woman in our group, very buxom. People say they like that...The older women in particular who had once been quite plump have shrunken terribly. Of course the distiller's wife is an exception. Since the war began she hasn't lacked for things to trade. And now she's paying for her unmerited fat.”

She also mentions the ‘Ivans’ surprising acts of gentleness and decency. For the most part, they adored children and clung to their innocence. They enjoyed dandling babies on their knees and playing Santa Claus by distributing food.

When order is somewhat restored, the author is forced to work doing laundry for soldiers or taking apart and boxing up factory machinery (the means of production) to be shipped back to Russia. The work is pointless and absurd – do the Russians really believe that they’ll be able to reassemble the machinery out of these unlabeled boxes of jumbled parts? – but any protest is impossible.

The diary ends when the author’s boyfriend deserts and returns. When she shows him the diary, he closes it in disgust and inquires why all German women have become ‘a bunch of shameless bitches.’ He doesn’t want to hear or know about what it’s taken for her to survive, and their relationship does not survive.

When the diary was first published in the 1950s, Germany was also neither ready to hear nor come to terms with the collective rape of its female citizens. The diary was met with hostility and vicious attacks against its authenticity. It was treated as if it were some indictment against German men, as if it dishonored and shamed the German men who were unable to protect the women, as well as if it made the women who did what they had to do to survive seem like they had fraternized and prostituted themselves to the enemy. It soon became out of print and relegated to obscurity. The work wasn’t republished until last year, according to the terms of the author, who only wanted it republished after her death.

One unsatisfying element of the book was for all of the author’s eloquence and introspection she never adequately explains why and how the German’s allowed Hitler to come to power. She was not a member of the Nazi party, but she was no dissident either. She has more than an inkling about what was going on in the Holocaust – at one point she compares a woman who looks like a bulldog to someone she imagines would be a good concentration camp guard – but she remains patriotic to her people. She mentions that she had an opportunity to move abroad at the beginning of the war, but decided to stay in her country, right or wrong, evil regime or not. Still, the author is an intelligent, beautiful writer and her descriptions of conditions are harrowing but tempered by her wry, clear eyed observations. Highly recommended.

I hope you're feeling better now! Seems many people have been ill the past two weeks.
You give a well-written review; I'll have to look for this at the (meager) local library after my reading list has thinned out some.

An observation: Your posted image says "Six Weeks in the Conquered City" yet the cover on Amazon is correct.
Remember when you were miserable with stomach flu, and I rented "Schindler's List" and "The Killing Fields" for you to watch? You asked me, "What are you trying to do, kill me?" I couldn't help but think of this when I saw your choice of recovery reading. :-)

Is it 6 or 8 weeks? Weirdness on your covers.

Miss you-- catch up soon? -e
I spent 3 years in Berlin 1963-66 in the US Army. Your summation of the book is exactly what I heard from many Germans. Times were terrible when the Russians came. One woman told me, though, that although she knew he was evil, the most wonderful day of her life was when she saw Adolph Hitler; he had charisma in spades, apparently.
Speaking of charisma and the title of this blog, "Ich bin ein Berliner", I am also reminded of the day in June 1963 when John F. Kennedy came to Berlin and made that famous speech at the Schoeneburg rathaus. I was an escort officer for Secretary of State Dean Rusk and for AFL-CIO bigwig George Meany, so I heard that speech. Also, I heard his more intimate speech to the American community; his charisma was on full display! The Berliners were full of grief that November when they heard of his assassination.
Thank you for the comments. I love firsthand history. Continuing on with my dark fascination with that era of German history, I am reading Mothers in the Fatherland. In the foreward the author writes how when she was hitchhiking through Germany in the 60s how "hundreds of Germans shared with me their memories of a Nazism w/out genocide, racism, or war. They recalled a social world of close families, sports activities and vacations, a strong community spirity, high moral standards and economic security. Men and women looked back with fondness, sad only about the war - that is, the defeat, not the brilliant military victories before the Battle of Stalingrad." Hey - life under fascism isn't all bad, I guess.
One of my aunt's German friends, a boy at the time, recalled when the Red Army rolled in. He said that many of the soldiers were illiterate serfs who had never seen such modern conveniences as windowframes. They spent a lot of time trying to dismantle them to take them back home as booty.
The same with flush toilets. The Russians would put things in them to wash (such as potatoes) and get really mad when their food or whatever disappeared for good down the sewer. And getting mad for them was a good excuse for rape or other mayhem.
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