Anonyma, A Woman in Berlin (1945 ; 1954)

This book has taken me literally forever to read through, and forever to find something to say about it here. It’s all the more ridiculous as the book, a diary held by a young woman living in Berlin, spans from April 22 to June 20 1945, even less than 2 months.

Yet in these 2 months you get more events than in a whole lifetime, as we get to witness first-hand the bombings, the fighting, and then the surrender to the Soviet troops, closely followed by massive rapes and pillages. We see the civilian life going to tatters (the last tram, the last newspapers, then no more food, the retreat to shelters), and something that looks like the return to a primitive existence, where survival needs and guns ownership trump all other laws. All semblance of normalcy is stripped away from the Berlin population (mostly women and disabled older men) left to manage on their own with the new rulers.

Amidst the disaster people get hard, tough, crude, shell-shocked, but the will to live is also incredibly strong. The diarist herself writes with absolute clarity about being raped (and having no choice but to offer sex against food and protection) and what it costs to survive in these dire circumstances, but she does so with a lack of emotions that is very impressive (or disturbing?). Is it her own journalistic eye, her need to dissociate herself from the events, a kind of traumatic disorder, or the long term impact of living in Nazi Germany?

It’s a shocking read because the writer’s direct language doesn’t spare you (I was even relieved to read it in German as some subtleties escaped me), and because it goes against the tendency now to be very emotional about traumatized victims, and to talk about it a lot. Here the woman shows herself as incredibly strong, and I’m not sure she even thinks of herself as a victim. She has survived against all odds, and life must go on. Thousands and thousands of German women have been raped like her, yet very rarely does she meet with depressed, suicidal victims. She herself very rarely reports crying or feeling sad. Women around her seem rather immune to shame, introspection, guilt, sadness and everything we commonly associate with the crime, they keep a silent sense of solidarity knowing each other’s plight.

I don’t want to enter the discussion about the authenticity of this diary and who the woman was and what were her relationships to the Nazi regime. I just know it has been widely disputed, no wonder about it. But I can’t say that I read it as a literary text, although some reviewers have pointed out that between the original writing in 1945 and its first publication in 1954 some editing and rewriting must have been made.

If you want to know more about this text, I highly recommend an essay by Janet Halley, from the Melbourne Journal of International Law, available online: “Rape in Berlin: Reconsidering the Criminalisation of Rape in the International Law of Armed Conflict” (2008)

Halley highlights the ambiguities of the text that shed some light on the ideological aspect of rape and, depending how you read it, may trivialize rape as one of the unfortunate consequences of war among the civilian population:

Faced with this refusal to characterise her rapes as the distinct matter of her woe or grief, and her persistent location of those emotions elsewhere, we are left with two options for how to behave as readers. If we understand that the Diary is a book about rape, we will construe her complacency about her rapes as the symptom of her emotional illiteracy, cauterised sensibility, and amputated emotional capacity. We can decide to distrust her entire reportage for this reason or we can read these deficits as evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociation, denial, trauma, and thus as part of the damage the rapes did. But if we read the Diary as a book representing a protagonist experiencing, painfully, the collapse of a world and its gradual replacement by a new one, we will trust her, even admire her, for crying only at the really important moments. It’s also, possibly, the other way around: if we distrust the speaker’s sensibility, it’s a book about rape; if we trust it, it’s a book about war.


4 thoughts on “Anonyma, A Woman in Berlin (1945 ; 1954)

  1. Pingback: Helene Berr, Diary (1942-2008) « Smithereens

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  4. Pingback: The one in Bombed-Out Hamburg | Smithereens

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