Tacos, Gelato, and A Woman In Berlin

The Tigress Readers gathered together last week over Mexican food followed by coffee and gelato, to discuss our latest read, A Woman in Berlin.


It was a but of a departure from the last book we read, American Wife, not for lack of sex – as both books featured quite a lot of coupling. But instead of a romantic, titillating romp with an up-and-coming politician, A Woman In Berlin centered around the politics of war and the dark side to sex – namely, rape.

The book is an unflinching account of one woman’s experience of 8 weeks in Berlin during the Red Army occupation in the Spring of 1945. The author chose to remain anonymous to protect herself when her diaries became released as a book. She was a very well-learned woman who worked as a journalist in Berlin when the city underwent its siege by Russian troops.

Her supremely observant and detailed day-by-day accounts of what it was like to go from normalcy to mass rapes, food shortages and chaos is in many ways incredibly mundane, but taken as a whole, is pretty chilling. I’m not usually attracted to books or movies about war as in the past I’ve found this genre to generally glorify or romanticize war and feature men almost exclusively. This isn’t to say there aren’t realistic, every-day people accounts to be found – I just haven’t stumbled across any until reading this book. 

I found the author’s examination of the war and how it effected her city, the folks in her building and her own sense of self fascinating. One of the realizations she has deals with the changing landscape of war. Prior to the World Wars, men used to go off and fight each other on a battle field. While they were fighting to protect what mattered most (their country, family and homes), their wives and children and family were safe at home. But the dynamics of war changed. In 1945, men were going and fighting in another country, city or town to destroy what mattered most to other men (their countries, families and homes). This left a city like Berlin totally ready for destruction when the Russians came in that spring of 1945. German men were off on another front, and the German women and families became victims of mass rapes, bombs, food shortages and murder. I’d never considered this point before reading this book, but it just made it all the more senseless that war happens at all. Everyone comes home irreparably damaged, to those who stayed behind who have by then also become irreparably damaged. No matter who “wins” it’s always a net loss. 

The rape situation in Berlin during those weeks of occupation was startling as it took place on a mass scale. Mothers began hiding their daughters in floorboards, some women began using costume makeup and clothing to look old and unattractive. But those who were left untouched were the rare exception. Most of the women the author is in contact with – from the very young to the very old, were violated. Rape became so commonplace that the typically reserved and conservative German women began conversations with “how many times?” This created an oddly public dialogue for a short while about the situation and seemed to have shifted the psychological damage and shame of keeping rape private. But after the war and the occupation ended, the shame and conservativism replaced those brief weeks of a mass experience. No one talked about it anymore. I can’t help but wonder how many Germans born after that time are actually of Russian descent.

I took a lot away from this book and continue to mull on some of the concepts – the Germans as victims of WWII, the psychological strength of women and weakness of men in wartime situations and how people are capable of almost anything given the right or wrong circumstances.

And quite coincidentally, there’s a screen adaptation of the book out in select theaters right now. Some of us might go see it this weekend.

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