Anonymous was a woman

by Yule Heibel on September 2, 2005

Looking around for links to Trümmerfrauen (“rubble women”) for yesterday’s entry, I came across a review of a book I’d completely missed when it was published in English translation this summer: A Woman in Berlin by “Anonymous.” The book, based on a diary kept by a 34-year-old journalist in Berlin, was published anonymously in Germany in 1953, where it was rejected as too shameful, disgusting, and discomfitting. It was re-published in Germany 50 years later, in 2003, and is now available in English translation. As the American Amazon review puts it, “…it was probably too dark for postwar readers, German or Allied. Now, after witnessing Bosnia and Darfur, maybe we are finally ready.” An Aug.7/05 review in the San Francisco Chronicle notes, “When at one point Anonymous speaks of spewing onto the pages, an unwitting echo of the spewing the war has performed on her, we have begun to feel, in contrast, the urgent necessity of her account.”

In 1989, when I was doing graduate research as a SSRC fellow at the Freie Universität in Berlin, I heard Inge Deutschkron give a talk at a symposium. Born in 1922 in Finsterwalde, Germany, she was a child when Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and she was a young woman barely 20 at the height of World War II, which she, daughter of secular (and socialist) German Jews, survived underground, hidden by friends. She is the author several books, including an autobiography entitled Ich trug den gelben Stern (I wore the yellow star). At the symposium, Inge Deutschkron had a lot to say about the Nazis, the postwar Germans (supposedly “rehabilitated”) who stepped in to run the country, and the “special relationship” between Germany and Israel, but she was also one of the first I heard who spoke openly about the systematic rape by Soviet soldiers of women in Berlin and Germany during that 8-week period from April 20 to June 22, 1945. If I remember her talk correctly, she told of how she, too, was threatened, in her case by a Soviet soldier who also happened to be Jewish, but who couldn’t understand that she, Inge, should be spared. She was a woman, therefore she was to be raped. It didn’t matter that she was a Jew who had just survived the Nazi genocide of Jews.

“Anonymous,” the author of A Woman in Berlin, learned to “dissociate,” to refer to herself as a “walking machine.” She and scores like her endured torture, “dissociated” and accomodated themselves to their lot as best they could, but they couldn’t ask for sympathy or understanding. Some German men in Berlin even brought women hiding in cellars to the Soviets, in a bid to be spared the Russian soldier’s wrath themselves. Then, once the Soviet men left and the German men returned, it became ever clearer that the latter certainly didn’t want to learn that “their” women had been “sullied.” Besides, by the time the rapes stopped, the world learned of the death camps. What’s a raped woman — a city of raped women — compared to that atrocity? Silence shrouded all. And so it goes….

This is still happening. It’s important to break the silence. Crime is crime. War crimes are war crimes.

I usually don’t quote entire articles, but the July 2, 2005 Guardian review by Linda Grant is really very good, especially in terms of how it links then and now. Here it is, The rubble women — Linda Grant on A Woman in Berlin, a shocking account of mass rape during the fall of the German capital, in full:

In the early stages of the Yugoslav war, allegations of mass rape of Croatian and Bosnian women by Serb militias appeared in British newspapers and were dismissed as propaganda by some broadsheets or treated with predictable sensationalism by the tabloids, which predicted a surfeit of “rape babies” available for childless British couples. I played a very small role in the attempt to understand whether real atrocities were occurring, by tracking the course of how these allegations reached the western European media. The answer was mechanical rather than ideological; the war in the former Yugoslavia was the first conflict to be monitored by modern feminist organisations in both Zagreb and Belgrade, which collected the data, and in those days just before the internet, got the information out to German women’s groups, which in turn alerted one of the major German news magazines, which then broke the story.

Despite the difficulty of collating accurate statistics (some women had been raped many times, other cases were multiple eye-witness reports of the same rape) and the mysterious absence of a sharp rise in pregnancies (abortion on demand was available up to 12 weeks and many women, during the heavy shelling, stopped menstruating), I concluded that the rape of Bosnian and Croatian women was not a peculiar feature of this conflict, but a condition of war generally. The failure was that of those organisations whose job it was to document atrocities and which, in the case of rape, had never established the mechanism to do so. A press spokesman at the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed to me that it gathered no statistics on rape in wartime. Any woman wanting to make a report would have to tell her story to a male ICRC officer, through a male interpreter. He agreed that there was no authoritative means of collecting data.

Sixty years ago, in the closing days of the second world war, a 32-year-old German woman, employed in publishing, wrote in her diary: “A stranger’s hands expertly pulling apart my jaw. Then with great deliberation he drops a gob of gathered spit into my mouth.” Anyone who read Antony Beevor’s monumental account of the fall of Berlin, Berlin: The Downfall, will know of the frenzied and brutal attacks on thousands of Berlin women of all ages when the city fell to the Red Army. The diaries, first published in Germany in 1954, and translated into English the following year, were greeted with disgust by German audiences and quickly went out of print. The anonymous author describes the degradation of Berlin women at the hands of the Russian troops and, perhaps more controversially, the choices each made to survive. One need have no sympathy at all for the cause of German nationalism in the 1930s and 40s to be filled with horror at her calmly written accounts, told without self-pity. Even when the rape period is over, and the occupying forces have reasserted control over the city, they continue to feel, and indeed to be, dehumanised: “To the rest of the world we’re nothing but rubble women and trash.”

The narrator, describing herself as “a pale-faced blonde always dressed in the same winter coat”, has the small advantage that she speaks some Russian, having travelled through that country in the 30s. Some groups of soldiers gang-rape her, others contemptuously leave a few cigarettes, “my pay”. The soldiers, known to the women as the “Ivans”, talk to their horses, “which they treat far better than they do us: when they talk to the animals their voices sound warm, even human”.

After the horror and degradation of the first few days, she decides, in the interests of self-preservation, to find an officer, assuming that if she becomes a kind of courtesan of the army, she will be protected against mass rape. However, she discovers that the Soviets have no educated officer class with Germanic codes of conduct, chivalry and clear class-based demarcations of control over their men: a Russian army officer is as likely to be a peasant as his troops. One of the small incidents she notices is that women on the upper floors of her apartment building are more likely to escape attack because many soldiers, from villages in the remote steppes, are unused to stairs.

Even as the rape days continue, the author is conscious of what is going to happen when they end, and considers the different means by which male soldiers and female civilians are awarded a language to describe their experience. Speaking of the German soldiers who had returned to Berlin on leave, she writes: “And they loved to tell their stories which always involved exploits that showed them in a good light. We on the other hand will have to keep politely mum; each one of us will have to act as if she in particular was spared. Otherwise no man is going to want to touch us any more.” And this is indeed the brutal conclusion to her book: the return from the front of her fiancé Gerd, to whom she gives the diaries, and who returns them to her without comment.

Nazi Germany assigned women a closely defined space, as breeding animals for Aryan youth. “The Nazi world,” she writes, “- ruled by men, glorifying the strong man – is beginning to crumble, and with it the myth of ‘Man’. That has transformed us, emboldened us. Among the many defeats at the end of this war is the defeat of the male sex.” Beevor notes that the sexually repressive post-war era in Germany, in which husbands reasserted their authority and the experience of mass rape was submerged, proved that her optimism was “sadly premature”. Perhaps the value of her observation is in its retroactive understanding of German fascism; of the masculine lure of the strong state, the glamour of those uniforms so salaciously depicted by Leni Riefenstahl. The experience of women in occupied zones, whether Germany in 1945 or Iraq today, has its own story to tell, which is not the same as that of the conquering or occupied males.

Perhaps the most horrific incident recounted in the book concerns a lawyer married to a Jewish woman whom he had refused to divorce and who had had to endure terrible hardship as a consequence; they are huddled over the radio, listening to foreign broadcasts, looking forward to the liberation, when Russian soldiers burst into their basement, shooting the husband. Three of them threw themselves on top of the wife while she screamed: “But I’m Jewish, I’m Jewish” and her husband lay bleeding to death. “No one could invent a story like this: it’s life at its most cruel – mad blind circumstance,” the narrator writes.

In his introduction, Beevor addresses the question of authenticity, given the continuing anonymity of the author who died two years ago. The truth, he concludes, lies “in the mass of closely observed detail”. Indeed, most propagandistic accounts of rape in wartime have the air of folk stories, large shapes with recurrent images and themes, heavy with cliché. Satisfied then, that the diaries are real, the reader might ask where should they be placed – as archive material for historians? I would argue that while A Woman in Berlin lacks the great moral interrogation of Primo Levi’s post-war accounts of Auschwitz, what the books share is a voice describing the lived experience of horror that the mind almost always prefers to forget, the examination of painful memories, the questioning of the impact that it has on the self, and on the inner struggle to survive, at all costs.

And we are also confronted, in this book, with a central moral ambiguity that pervades every war, just or unjust. The very Red Army troops who drunkenly ejaculated into the body cavities of a half-crazed elderly woman, screaming in terror, were likely to be the same individuals who, in the January of that year, had liberated the Auschwitz death camps, had been, in fact, Levi’s own liberators. And so the faces of victim and oppressor switch and switch around, and this is why one can only regret that the author would not allow the book to be republished in her lifetime, after its hostile reception in the 50s, and did not live to know that others, even those who were the victims of her country, could read, and empathise, and understand. [Guardian review by Linda Grant]


maria September 2, 2005 at 6:55 pm

This is pretty horrifying … and when I think back, really hard, to my childhood in Europe and recall some of the strange fears and concerns of women in my mother’s circle of friends … or when, as a very young child I saw that movie with Sophia Loren, “Two Women,” I think it was called, with its “beautified” rendition of brutal rapes, a lot of that strange behavior of the women in my mother’s generation makes sense.

I wonder if rape is a problem in new Orleans right now … and I think I have seen a brief allusion to it somewhere … but I bet that’s something that’s not likely to be talked about either. Given the level of anger and rage, it seems likely to be a problem.

I have seen references to this book before, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to looking at it … and the review makes it even harder.

On another note: I am glad to see you back posting — because you always manage to jolt the reader into a new awareness about whatever issue you bring up!

Yule Heibel September 3, 2005 at 2:45 am

After I heard those stories in ’89, I couldn’t look at the older women in Berlin anymore without wondering whether this or that one had been through those 8 weeks, Maria. I bet you anything there are many stories that were left untold.

According to anecdotal evidence, it’s happening in New Orleans/ Superdome, too. No surprises, I guess. I can’t imagine romanticising or endorsing in any way shape or form any kind of anarchism anymore, that’s for sure….

Yes, back to blogging, thanks for the kind words. Don’t know how much longer my efforts will last, though….

Anonymous September 16, 2005 at 11:55 am

Just to say hellow!

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