A Woman in Berlin / Translated by Roksoliana Sviato. Kyiv: Komora, 2019. 304 pp.
Sometimes you don’t have any words. Language is not able to convey all the experiences that a person managed to survive. And when such imperfect words make up the description of such intolerable experiences, we call this set of words testimony.
She, the author of A Woman in Berlin, shortened words in her war diary to make it easier: there wasn’t enough time and energy for writing, and she had so much to tell. For example, “RP” (originally VG). This word needed to be shortened because it was used in the text very often. This is what this book is about in particular – about rape during the war. This is the experience of the author. She addresses her diary to a specific person, her beloved man. When he began to read those notes, he was irritated, bored and indignant. What is this all about? What the hell is that “RP”?! She deciphered the shortening with the evil laughter for him: “I had to laugh: what do you even think? Rape, of course.” Words don’t do their job of naming something that requires being named properly. Because the need must be shared between those who speak and those who listen.
Sometimes words are superfluous. And they make up a description of unbearable experiences which we call literature for convenience.
We already know well that war, like nothing else, is able to make an artistic convention out of life, when everything experienced looks like a bizarre fiction, a grotesque lie of the literary imagination. Those stories that we hear, listen, tell and retell for five years don’t want to be in the novels because there is “too much drama” in them even for bad novels. The author of A Woman in Berlin is trying to comprehend her extreme experience within the literary patterns supplied by culture. She is a clever book lover, she has a huge arsenal of literary formulas and conventions. And literature shutouts life.
In the bombed Berlin, a German woman who went through a defeat in the war (shared shame) and a series of rapes (individual shame), picks up a book. This is Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line since Hunger by Knut Hamsun that she would prefer isn’t near. This Conrad’s prose about the brotherhood of men is called an allegory of World War I not accidentally. But she is suddenly determined to listen closely what unendangered men would tell her about existential suffering, loss, and deprivation of liberties? Literature is not the daughter of the experienced pain, but the ungrateful heiress step-daughter.
A Woman in Berlin is a document. It was created by a journalist Martha Hillers, but this name became known after the death of the author and after the reissue of her diary – this was her will. The manuscripts were first published in German and in English translation in the early 1950s. They caused a wave of indignation and misunderstanding; the preservation of the author’s anonymity was a necessary step. After those publications, Hillers forbid to issue of A Woman in Berlin, the book was published for the second time only in 2003, after the death of the author. And that’s when the explosion happened. These war diaries were finally read, but it took fifty years for culture to learn to comprehend and accept the testimony of rape, to legally punish and morally condemn rape in war. For example, the precedents and the experience of the Balkan wars and apartheid and courts in the Hague over serial military rapists were needed.
It is paradoxical that diaries – a genre tied to the present moment like no other and therefore quickly becoming obsolete – appeared too early in the case of A Woman in Berlin.
The story covers eight weeks – from April 20 to June 22, 1945. The author at that time is thirty-four but she looks younger – in particular because of her skinniness. After all, hunger still goes on. The destroyed Berlin, constant bombings, the news reaches the civilian population in the form of bizarre gossips which no one believes (and in vain, because those gossips are accurate). The dwellers of the house, in which the heroine lives not so long ago, unite to survive. The people from the upper floors move to those who live on the first and second floors, they are organizing a hideout in the cellars together, establish more or less safe trips for water, loot in shops and bakeries nearby together to stock up products. She starts to write a diary during the bombing: the time passes faster in the hideout, there is an illusion that she controls the situation. She will continue to write as soon as the bombing stops and the Soviet army enters the city. It is then when she will desperately need the therapeutic effect of the diary: “This is a consolation in my loneliness, a conversation, an opportunity to pour out the soul”.
She does consistently work with several literary formulas; it is hardly conscious, but also demonstrative: she uses literature to comprehend the events beyond the limits of patience – it is a mine of shared experiments. Consciously or unconsciously, but this approach becomes so explosive and ironic that reading the diary is difficult and psychologically unbearable.
I will not write about all the formulas. I’ll tell you about two of them to give an example.
Female warrior. This is a story about a girl (young woman) who rejects gender restrictions to protect the lives of her loved ones (usually her husband) and pay tribute to her fatherland. The subjects of cross-dressing correlate with this formula. Amazons, female warriors, heroines…
There are three girls in the book whose clothes are accented as some kind of a uniform. There is a lesbian who dresses like a man in the house – people laugh and make fun of her. The appearance of a military woman, a Russian, will be synonymous to this “guy”. Strong, well-fed, in a faded clean uniform, she stands at the crossroads, plays with flags, dances (as the author describes this scene). The third woman-in-uniform is a young girl, a neighbor. Her mother asks Martha, who speaks Russian, to find out whether the Russians will punish the girls from Nazi youth groups, one of which was headed by her daughter. Martha advises hiding a uniform. They all hide their uniforms when the victors are about to enter Berlin. The heroine herself wears lace lingerie, dark elegant dresses and cardigans (yes, she describes her clothes; it is important to her).
Female warriors (presented sarcastically and ironically) of the world in which Martha lives, are strangers. They’re fiction. In her world, these literary warriors are opposed to the very real deserters. Men also hide and alter their uniforms before the arrival of the Russians.
Captive. This story is about an aboriginal woman who is taken prisoner, civilized and saved from her “inferior” environment this way. Now she is good enough to be loved by her white owner, a victor.
The heroine of “A Woman in Berlin” was in the USSR before the war, so she knew Russian a little. She was chosen as a kind of parliamentarian by her “house council”. The first negotiations ended with the first rape: while Martha was raped on the stairs by two soldiers, her neighbors were sitting silently in the basement. The topography of rape is important here. For example, the upper floors were salvation for women: the Russians rarely went above the second floor in search of victims. To protect themselves from gang violence, one could become a mistress to an honored man. She picked up such a man, and later one more, and another one (another one went off at the last moment). In that story, men started to believe that they are heroes-lovers while remaining rapists. One of her partners showed a photo of a beautiful Polish woman with whom he had an affair in Warsaw. In the last days before the rotation, he asked for Martha’s photo, to also show it to someone. And the story of the Polish woman becomes so obvious to everyone except the main character. And then the story about a noble savage re-educated by love begins.
It is so naive, the literature!
The war just came to an end. Karl Jaspers reads his well-known lectures about shame for the Germans. Shame, guilt, remorse, punishment – these feelings must be clearly defined and named, experienced to the end individually and autonomously in order to re-educate. The author of A Woman in Berlin never speaks of shame or guilt or punishment. She uses the concept of “collective experience, predictable and expected many times with fear”. Harm is caused and it is necessary to get rid of its consequences together: “This collective mass form of rape will be overcome collectively. Everyone helps everyone.”
On what grounds should the team of the people’s healers be formed?
In A Woman in Berlin women unite. It is not such a utopia of female sisterhood, it is a temporary military alliance. Women talk to each other. Men in this world are no longer able to hear anything. Hiller’s diary actually ends when it is read by the addressee – a friend and a lover; he read and rejected it, and advised not to write. Women talk with each other – and this is a crisis solution: it occurs in the absence of other interlocutors. And yet they retell terribly erotic dreams to each other they have after the rape as a psychological defense of some sort. They discuss how and where to have an abortion. They welcome each other after a month of separation by asking a question: “How many times were you…?”. They are sarcastic and desperate about comparing the sexual skills of the Russians and the Germans… We know this effect from the camp memories of women: female victims “close” communication structures in order to take care of each other and survive.
But no, it’s not utopia.
Here are three points from “A Woman in Berlin”, not central at all.
There is a lesbian girl living in the house (I have already mentioned her). She lives on the upper floors, and she’s dressed like a young man – that’s how she avoided violence. Her not so happy sisters are laughing: that she just had to be raped, maybe she would have realized what she was losing. Yes, they joke about corrective rape. And they hardly joke: they do still believe that the goal of a woman’s life is “finding a normal man”.
In the same house, there are two sisters who have chosen the same survival tactics as the main character: they note honored military men who can protect them from gang rape and starvation. The behavior of the sisters is condemned in unison by the whole house, including the main character. They allegedly enjoying life too much: boozing till morning, laughing at the stairs. Martha does the same thing! When one of the sisters is killed out of jealousy, the author says it was supposed to end this way. Let’s call it a destined victim. Martha is not a hypocrite in this story. She is a survivor at the expense of another woman (literally, symbolically, etc).
The third story is not about women. It’s about perspective and shared experiences. And it is unlikely to read or even just to see it in some edition other than the Ukrainian one.
Hunger is ruling. It is reported that soon they will start to issue cards for the Russian sunflower oil. A moment of impatience and happy anticipation! “I saw wide golden sunflower fields of Ukraine. I wish.” The note of June 3, 1945. These days, it is very easy for us to imagine what those golden fields of Ukraine look like. What hunger those who work in those fields, whose ashes are found in those fields, feel… it’s also about female non-solidarity, after all. The author of A Woman in Berlin shouldn’t, doesn’t need to, can’t endure imagining Ukraine of 1945. Imagination is a splendour that belongs to those who have experienced extrema, not to those who are in the process of self-salvation.
Who of the torn body of a neighbor? (But they need to borrow vaseline). Who feels the suffering of an aborted fetus of gang rape? (But you have to lower your voice next to the one who suffers). You don’t laugh when you recall how they spit into your mouth after the rape, but you can laugh at the teenager doing it with an elderly neighbor (so funny!)… Temporary unions are good for being temporary. Months of hellish danger are coming to an end, and everyone is returning to their apartments, countries, states, social groups. She often refers to The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler. That decline and dying from the title beckons her, it does. But moreover, she thinks about the death of the individual in culture; civilizations rely on the formation of groups and group identities to survive. It’s the decline that her Berlin is experiencing.
When in 2003 re-release was issued, the expertise of the original records was held on demand. The question arose: how much did the editor interfere, how much did the author adjust the diaries before publishing them. The answer to both questions is: minimally. We do read a text written in 1945. The edits were mostly author’s and were intended to preserve her and her environment’s anonymity. But despite, there were two narrative and ideological points that Hillers noted later, accentuated additionally. First, the theme where the author of A Woman in Berlin talks about the construction of masculinity in national socialism, which destroyed the morally German men and now it should be “worked off” by women. This theme became one of the central ones in the book later. Secondly, the fear of getting pregnant during the rape – it does not occupy such a significant place in the original diary as in the book. And here is the third question: why exactly are these themes needed to be rethought and recomprehended by the author?
“It’s a good thing my husband didn’t see it,” one of the raped women says. Victors, deserters. Men worth to have a child from. Men worth making abortion after. People who have no right to reproduce. No, she doesn’t write directly about guilt. And yes, she writes only about it. The last generation of the “pre-decline Europe” should have ended this way then.
This frankly, the very frank diary has a fragment which the author removed, and then resumed in brackets, in which she strongly distanced herself through irony. This fragment distracts stylistically from the main text, it is practically a poem – bad, too elegiac and dark. Her constant “lover” (quotation marks are necessary) lent her a bike, she rode around Berlin, she felt free for a moment. And in the evening, she experienced an orgasm with this rapist. How can one even attempt to write “a love story” pattern on such material? This question is rhetorical, you know. She left the scene in which she weeps in the arms of the rapist, because she seeks comfort and consolation, in the book. The scene of sexual pleasure was removed, as she felt only one thing at that moment: she betrayed her husband, her body, herself. Therefore, she described that orgasm in the rhetoric of terrible poems, and that’s why she removed the fragment, and that’s why she returned it.
No, this is not repentance. And no, it’s not an accusation.
Casually, freely, mundanely a memory arises: the owners of the house said that the dwellers don’t have to pay rent for May 1945. It is clear: they don’t have to pay – everything is already paid for.