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Crime and Punishment | The Nation

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Crime and Punishment

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For much of the cold war the mass rapes of more than a million German women and girls by Russian soldiers were a strictly guarded taboo for East and West Germany alike. (In Italy, by contrast, the sexual violence of North African troops assisting the Americans became the subject of a bestselling novel and a film with Sophia Loren.) East Germans were not allowed to publicly defame their Russian "liberators," of course, but West Germans also balked. Consider the remarkable account of these crimes written by an anonymous female journalist in Berlin at the end of the war. She couldn't find a publisher until 1954, and then only in the United States. When a German edition came out in Switzerland in 1959, German reviewers lambasted her "shameless immorality" and charged her with "besmirching the honor of German women." Although photocopies of the text began to circulate in the 1970s among feminists and some members of the New Left, A Woman in Berlin was not printed in Germany until 2003. (The author was reportedly so incensed by this reception that she refused to let the book be published in Germany during her lifetime; even today readers continue to doubt the authenticity of her account.)

About the Author

Mark M. Anderson
Mark M. Anderson, a professor of German at Columbia University, translated Thomas Bernhard's The Loser under the...

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The diary covers a remarkable period of German history, from late April to mid-June 1945, when Germany was defeated, Hitler committed suicide and Russian troops occupied Berlin. The lawlessness of the city--its bombed-out buildings without electricity or water, its streets strewn with corpses and torched vehicles--is hard to imagine. The Russian soldiers, who had not seen their wives or girlfriends for years (the Red Army did not give home leave), went on a spree of looting and sexual revelry, raping some 100,000 Berlin women in a few weeks. The author of the diary was raped several times by different soldiers until she decided to preserve herself from random violence by choosing one officer to act as her protector--a decision made by many women, which exposed them later to charges of collaboration with the enemy. Once she finds a cultivated and kindly major, she admits that the intercourse between them is no longer rape. "Am I doing it because I like him or out of a need for love? God forbid!" But when she asks herself if she is doing it for "bacon, butter, sugar," she acknowledges that the relationship gives her food and hence independence. What she experiences from the German men is perhaps just as damaging. When her fiancé finally returns from the front, she finds herself "cold as ice" in his arms and is glad when he is through. "For him I've been spoiled once and for all." After hearing the women's stories of their rapes, he calls them "a bunch of shameless bitches" and goes off with one of his war buddies.

Here we can see the reason this topic remained off-limits for so many years: not so much because the women were ashamed as because the men were doubly humiliated, first for having lost the war on the front, and then for having been unable to protect their wives and daughters at home. Some of the most devastating remarks in this diary concern the emasculation of German men--the "miserable and powerless" civilians who grub for food and stand idly by as the Russians claim their sexual booty; but also the returning soldiers with their "stubbly chins and sunken cheeks" who inspire only pity, "no hope or expectation." "The Nazi world--ruled by men, glorifying the strong man--is beginning to crumble," she remarks; the end of the war marks the "defeat of the male sex."

Throughout the violence, hunger and loss of her apartment and friends, this remarkable woman manages to preserve her sanity by recording her observations in an astonishingly precise, unsentimental form (elegantly translated here by Philip Boehm). A professional journalist who has traveled widely and speaks some Russian, she is attentive to her surroundings as well as herself. Like Nossack she refrains from self-pity; after one of her rapes she asks the sobbing women around her, "What's the matter, I'm alive, aren't I? Life goes on!" But she is more politically and socially attuned than he is. She notes, for instance, that the Berliners standing in long food lines for a few scraps repeat a common Nazi saying from the "good" years before the war: "'For all this we thank the Führer'.... Today the exact same words have precisely the opposite meaning, full of scorn and derision. I believe that's what's called a dialectic conversion."

Political opportunism swells with the Russian success: "Everyone is now turning their backs on Adolf, no one was ever a supporter. Everyone was persecuted, and no one denounced anyone else." As news of the death camps filters in at the end of her diary, she quickly latches on to the "sickness" and "insanity" of the German atrocities. "The radio just broadcast another concentration camp report. The most horrific thing is the order and the thrift: millions of human beings as fertilizer, mattress stuffing, soft soap, felt mats--Aeschylus never saw anything like that."

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