To the fraulein who penned this diary in the spring of 1945, polite language sounded “very prewar.” The anonymous author, a professional journalist, describes companionship as intimate but provisional, and etiquette as a relic of the days of peace and real coffee. She didn’t go in much for delicacy herself: When reunited with female friends, her greeting of choice was “How many times were you raped?”
In East Germany, World War II’s coda—a Soviet raping spree—provoked national shushing. Upon publication in Germany in 1959, the diary was assailed for sullying the honor of the country’s women. Now reissued in English as A Woman in Berlin, the book should be embraced for the reason it was initially faulted. Its frank documentation of German suffering—the hunger and uncertainty as well as the widespread rape—illuminates a subject whose worldwide taboo is just beginning to subside.
Violated by a series of “Ivans,” the diarist resolved to latch onto a high-ranking officer with the grim ambition of choosing her rapist. The Russians in this account clearly regarded sex as war booty, not as a weapon; some even made ridiculous courting gestures and offers of remuneration for their pleasure. The author and a friend exact their small revenge by declaring the Soviets bad in bed. “Maybe they have the latest in socialist planned economies,” her friend concludes, “but when it comes to matters erotic they’re still with Adam and Eve.”
Unflinchingly honest, the chronicle also sheds light on lingering questions about civilians under the Third Reich. For all her sophistication, the diarist was hardly a staunch dissident. Amid the suddenly trendy Hitler-bashing, she pauses to ask herself, “Was I for . . . or against? What’s clear is that I was there, that I breathed what was in the air, and it affected all of us, even if we didn’t want it to.”