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Old 28th Nov 2007, 7:04   #1
beer good
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Default Anonymous: A Woman in Berlin

Since Paradox mentioned this book in the "Read of the Year" thread and I happened to have a review written, I thought I'd post it.

A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous

There's a famous picture from the end of WWII, depicting a Red Army soldier hoisting the Soviet flag over the Reichstag with a Berlin laid in ruins in the background. Most official versions of the picture are retouched to hide the fact that the soldier's arm is adorned with several plundered wristwatches.

That image comes to mind when I read this; not the forgery, but the double edge, the fleeting difference between liberating and defeating. "A Woman in Berlin" is a diary written by an anonymous woman during the fall and occupation of Berlin, between April and June of 1945. She's part of the people who lost, but decides not to lose herself, even in the face of homelessness, hunger and repeated rape. She will survive, and she does, thanks to her intelligence, luck, limited knowledge of Russian and a blank refusal to let her emotions get the better of her... it's a horrifyingly objective and sober tale. For instance, there's her calm acceptance of the fact that the Russians will take their pay in the form of rape, so she'll simply have to limit her own exposure to it by becoming some Russian's private concubine.

It's going to take a wolf to keep the other wolves at bay. An officer, as high up as possible, commendant, general, whatever I can get.

I lived in Germany in 1995, during the 50 year anniversary of what was officially dubbed the "liberation", and many Germans – especially those with roots East of the Elbe – had trouble celebrating. Which should in no way be taken to mean that they missed the Nazis, just that... losing a war is never painless, and the Soviet army especially were not exactly kind to the people they "liberated". Granted, that's hardly surprising considering what the Germans had done to them just a few years earlier. The official instructions of the Red Army was to go easy on the Germans; in practice, many followed the words of the writer Ilja Ehrenburg – "violate the German women's racial pride"; it's a sad irony that a war that started because of the ridiculous notion of racial purity probably led to more mixed children than any other. Provided the women survived, that is.

But what "A Woman in Berlin", just like Joachim Fest's "Downfall" and the movie version thereof, does so well is to illuminate that a war is never as easy as the good versus the evil; good people will be hurt on both sides, and when the big questions are settled with bombs, it's the ordinary people who get to pay the price. 60 years later Germany still has some trouble facing up to its past, but in 1945 those thoughts were still unthinkable – it was just an issue of surviving day to day in the ruins of civilization, and not until the end of the book when the situation starts to slowly return to something resembling normality can you allow yourself to actually feel and reflect again.

Parallels to Anne Frank are tempting, but yet there's a huge difference; this is an adult woman writing, who can't allow herself to feel sorry for hersel, hate her enemies or pity those who suffer around her. When you read Anne Frank, you're spared her actual physical suffering since it ends before she's captured; that's roughly where "A Woman in Berlin" begins, and the knowledge that the writer survived – though hardly unscathed – does not in any way make it less devastating. Even if it shares the same problem as most unedited diaries, in that it has some passages which are less interesting than others, it's still a very sharp note from that gray zone where all ideologies, strategies, nationalities, races and all abstract concepts fade into the background and there are just human beings fighting to survive.
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Old 3rd Dec 2007, 3:29   #2
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Default Re: Anonymous: A Woman in Berlin

A very accurate and insightful review beer good. The thing I really appreciated about her story was her rather detached manner of telling of the horrors that over took her, without a bit of melodrama or self pity. She was not a bit dry in the telling, just very realistic and clear in the telling.

I like the quote you use in your review about a wolf keeping the other wolves at bay. She was a centered and realistic woman and I admire her for it. She survived and that is what counts.
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