Earlier in the week, I blogged about completing the Race for Life with my two daughters. I’ve been pondering a great deal about women recently and am fascinated that we might soon see a political first in this country – the three largest political parties in the UK all led by women! And perhaps the first female US President later in the year? Tantalising.
Europe has also been at the forefront of my mind, as it has in most of my social circle too. So, with all that in mind, I thought I’d like to tell you about A Woman in Berlin. No, it’s not a biography of Angela Merkel! It is a war diary, written anonymously in the aftermath of the fall of Berlin to Russian forces in 1945.
My husband suggested I read this book. It was adapted for film in 2008, which we had watched, and he bought the book soon after. The film was powerful, but my husband found the book even more so. It tells the story of how the remaining population of Berlin, left behind after the fall of Hitler, broken, abandoned and disillusioned, goes about the daily challenge of survival amidst the ruins of their once great city.
Part of the survival contract, for the women at least, is meeting the sexual needs of their new Russian masters. At first, we can see how this is psychologically devastating to the women, terrifying to the mothers of teenage daughters and emasculating to the rump indigenous male population. The author writes about the details of violent rapes carried out by Russian soldiers from all ranks. Some of the sexual encounters are frenzied; many of these men have had no contact with women for months, sometimes years. They have been brutalised by war and by the actions they have seen the Nazis take in their own country, are half-starved and exhausted from fighting, and most of the lower-ranking soldiers seem to be peasants, snatched from their simple lives and with no idea how to relate to their middle-class German captives.
As the Russians ‘settle in’ the rapes seem to become less frequent, at least for our main protagonist, although the population adapts and begins to utilise sexual favour as a means of survival, a way of getting food and other supplies. Perhaps this is more shocking than the brutal rapes near the beginning of the book, how workaday it all becomes; later in the book women gossip at the clinic, discussing the symptoms of their sexually transmitted diseases.
Woven through the book and the stories of horrific sexual violence, subjugation and control, is the sense of human beings’ extraordinary instinct for survival and their resourcefulness. There is also the terrible pragmatism, as the Berliners talk about their new-found disgust for Hitler and how low his actions have brought them, and realise they have to some extent to accept their fate.
Rape as a weapon of war has become a topic of international media interest in recent years, as conflicts prosecuted across the globe have shed light on how women and children suffer so brutally at the hands of male combatants in times of war, and how this is so rarely spoken about. It’s as if it is somehow less bad than the hundreds or thousands of deaths. The reality, however, is that the scars of rape remain on the communities left behind, the children fathered and women traumatised, long after the dead have been buried and memorialised and towns and cities reconstructed.
As I said, my husband found this book gripping and powerful. I have an interest in history and found it interesting as a source, an insight into how people survived a deeply traumatic event at a momentous time in the 20th century. However, I’m afraid the book did not engage me as much as I would have liked. Yes, I felt horror at what the women of Berlin endured, but I could not get away from the fact that only months earlier they lived seemingly happily under Nazi rule. I found it hard to care for the protagonists, apart from our anonymous diarist. For me, it just didn’t work as a piece of literature, so your ‘enjoyment’ of the book may depend on where you are coming from – are you seeking a historical account or something with more narrative content? For me, The Book Thief is a much more powerful exposition of how ordinary people suffer in war, although clearly it does not have the same sexual themes.
It’s well worth a read though, because you might not have known about this particular story, and I’d recommend the film.