Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Book report 2

War is sick and I'm sick of war. And luckily, I, nor any of you, I assume, have suffered it in our lifetimes yet. We should count ourselves lucky and blessed and hope that it never comes to our doorstep.
A Woman in Berlin is the anonymous diary of a German woman who lived through the "liberation" of Berlin by the Soviet troops at the end of WWII in 1945. Apparently it is not a generally known fact, because it was in the interest of both the Soviets and the Germans to suppress it, that when the Russians rolled into the Germany they raped everything that moved, in some estimates up to 130,000 German women and not once, but almost usually several times. They raped in exchange for food and in exchange for safety from other rapists. They raped as revenge for the horrors the Nazis inflicted on them and they raped under the permission of their leaders. In order to rape they had to get drunk first and so they drank like cossacks and they raped their way through Germany.
So this woman, who used to be a journalist and who spoke a little Russian, apparently wrote a diary of her life under the Russians in Berlin. One wonders if it is authentic. It certainly sounds so, too intelligent and subtle to be a work of propaganda. The history of how the book was received after it was written is as interesting as the book itself, because it came out in 1954, first in English and other languages and only in 1959 in Germany, where it was received "with hostility and silence". "Some accused it of besmirching the honor of German women". The nerve.
The Germans simply didn't want to know about the massive rape of their women. They did not want to know that many of the babies born were not of the pure aryan race they had cheered for. They did not want to know that these babies were the product of drunken rape, and they did not want to be reminded of their humiliating defeat. And as Hans Magnus Enzenberger points out in the preface, it didn't help that the author shows no self-pity and she casts a cold, hard look at her fellow citizens. It wasn't until the seventies that the book was rescued and reedited.
Her account of survival boils down to how to stave off hunger and rape. She is a strong, smart woman, and meticulous in her accounting of the endless routine of survival. Her observations about her fellow Germans and about the Soviets are sharp. Basically, most Soviets are portrayed as backward, primitive peasants, except one or two higher ranked soldiers who are educated and polite.
Under duress, every German turns into a stealing, conniving wolf, even formerly regal dames. The German men are either all at the front, or old and withered and useless (and hiding, for many are card carrying nazis) and not one steps in to prevent a rape. The women, according to her, are resourceful and strong, but if there is any sense of community it is only when there is a chance for survival. The minute somebody becomes a threat to the common survival, they are sometimes cast away. She shares the plentiful food she gets from sleeping with Russians with a widow and an older guy who is just a pathetic leech. When the Russians leave and there is no more food, the widow and the leech cast her out to near starvation. So much for good neighbors.
At this stage of perdition, people finally turn bitterly against "Adolf", once they realize they've been sold a terrible bill of goods (which they happily bought, not too many questions asked). They've been left to die and fend for themselves by their nazi leaders, who were so crazy arrogant that they refused to evacuate the women and children of Berlin when it was clear that the Russians were coming and there was no more milk for the children. The Nazis destroyed their own people. Which is logical; anybody with such abhorrent ideas about others is inherently self-destructive.
This woman's account is quite harrowing, and for those people who think the Germans didn't pay for their crimes, it provides a small, chilling comfort. It looks like some of them paid. It is an interesting companion piece to If This is a Man, aka Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi. Levi was a great writer and a man with a solid moral conscience and a heart. But also, he was an innocent, and this woman knows that she and her nation cannot feign innocence. And that is a major difference in the telling. Still, hunger is hunger, whether experienced by a Jew or a German, and the fight for survival is the same in the lager and in the bunker, though the lager was obviously much worse.
I find it fascinating that Jews are barely mentioned in this book. Perhaps because of shame. She mentions twice in passing that the Russians transmit news of the concentration camps. Her reaction:
Our German calamity has a bitter taste -- of repulsion, sickness, insanity, unlike anything in history. 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...
She is constantly amazed by the German need and capacity to obey. She keeps saying, with no little irony, that Germans are so orderly, that someone gives an order and there they are, following it.
I guess obedience without conscience is a mark of evil. And the Germans obeyed, most of them without giving it a second thought, for which they deserve whatever destruction came their way.

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