Non Fiction: A Woman in Berlin (1954)


A Woman in Berlin is a firsthand account of the Red Army’s entry into Berlin during the last days of World War II. The anonymous author was a thirty-four year old female journalist who was living in the city at the time. Berlin had been bombed extensively and ninety percent of its buildings were destroyed. There was no running water or electricity. 
Hitler had rejected any idea of evacuating the two million civilians left in the city, thinking that his troops would defend the city more bravely if their wives and children remained there. The civilians were mostly women and children and included 120,000 babies and infants - young boys and old men had been forced into the German army as the Allies gained ground. 
The author recorded the events that occurred in Berlin during the time period of the 20th April 1945 up until the 22nd June, 1945 in a notebook. 
The diary was first published in an English translation in the United States in 1954 and not long afterwards in seven other languages, but when a German language edition was published in Geneva six years later it was very controversial and had a hostile reception in Germany. As a result, the author decided the book should not be published again while she was still living.
Her writing is considered important as a firsthand account as many of the atrocities committed against women, in particular, at the time have been repressed by both the Soviets and Germans. Not to mention the fact that history is often rewritten to fit in with current agendas.

‘This chronicle was begun on the day when Berlin first saw the face of war.’

The author’s account is harrowing and dreadful but she wrote in an objective, almost dispassionate manner at times which lessened the initial punch for me...for a little while, at least. Thinking back on her story, I almost wish I hadn’t read it. It's a book I'd be hesitant to recommend unconditionally because of the nature of the content so I'd suggest checking out these websites to know what you're in for if you do read it:

‘Our radio’s been dead for four days. Once again we see what a dubious blessing technology is. Machines with no intrinsic value, worthless if you can’t plug them in somewhere...At the moment we’re marching backwards in time. Cave dwellers.’

The author found some flowers growing and took them to a Frau Goltz, a lady she knew:
‘“What flowers, what lovely flowers.” The tears were streaming down her face. I felt terrible as well. Beauty hurts now. We’re so full of death.’

The author observed that she was ‘...coming down a level in way I speak...these are strange times - history experienced first hand, the stuff of tales yet untold and songs unsung. But seen close up, history is much more troublesome - nothing but burdens and fears... 
We are debasing our language in expectation of the impending humiliation.’

Before the Nazis surrendered, Hitler and Goebels sent out handwritten notices to rally the inhabitants of Berlin, but the residents were so used to the noise and fanfare of Nazi proclamations that these handwritten commands were ignored. One woman was heard to comment, “Well, just look what those two have come to.”

‘The handwriting looks pathetic and inconsequential, like something whispered.
Yes, we’ve been spoiled by technology. We can’t accept doing without loudspeakers or rotary presses...
Technology has devalued the impact of our own speech and writing.’

‘The cold doesn’t want to go away. I sit hunched on the stool in front of our stove, which is barely kept burning with all sorts of Nazi literature. Assuming everyone is doing the same thing - and they are - Mein Kampf will go back to being a rare book, a collector’s item.’




Comments

Brian Joseph said…
I have read and seen other accounts from Berlin at the time. They are often harrowing. I really should read this. I had not heard about those notes. Fascinating stuff.
mudpuddle said…
i have to avoid information like this, it gives me nightmares... i sincerely wish humans were better than they are...
Carol said…
Hi Brian, it's important to know that these things happened but it doesn't make for enjoyable reading!
Carol said…
Hi Mudpuddle, the 20th Century beats them all, I think, considering the idea that we are supposed to be 'advancing.' Unfortunately, there is a very thin veneer on most of us. I noticed a little bit of that when COVID started last year. It didn't take long for every man for himself to emerge, especially in the toilet paper aisle!
Ruthiella said…
I've not read this book but I've read about it and how it was suppressed after the war in Germany - which astonishes and appalls me now. But then, I didn't live back then - so who knows what I might have felt had I lived through WWII. It is interesting how horrific events have a certain cycle to them in how they are reported and remembered and when. One of these days I will pick it up.
Marian H said…
I don't think I could read this, but I am glad it exists. In our anti-Nazi narratives, it seems like the Ally atrocities against Germany and Japan are often neglected to be mentioned.
Carol said…
Hi Ruthiella, it's awful to think that certain things couldn't be discussed because of the shame connected to the atrocities. Something the author highlighted was the sense of community among the women who were affected when the Red Army overran Berlin but when their men returned after the war the subject was taboo.
Carol said…
Hi Marian, there's nothing fair in war. Stalin's atrocities went on for decades.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this book, it’s obviously a very important record of history.
Carol said…
Thanks, Shellyrae.