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Other Casualties

Other Casualties
August 2, 2005

One part of Milovan Djilas's Conversations with Stalin lingers in the memory well after the rest of the book fades. The author himself calls it "a scene such as might be found only in Shakespeare's plays." Actually, it does have its parallels to Rabelais, as well; for like many another gathering of the Soviet elite amidst the privations of World War II that Djilas recounts, there is an enormous feast, and a marathon drinking session.

This particular miniature carnival occurs in the final months of the war. Stalin is hosting a reception at the Kremlin for the Yugoslavian delegation. But before the partying begins, he must disburden himself; for Stalin has heard that Djilas (who would later become vice president under Marshall Tito) has criticized the behavior of some units of the Red Army as it has made its way across Europe.

"Does Djilas, who is himself a writer, not know what human suffering and the human heart are?" cries Stalin. "Can't he understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes a trifle?"

By "having fun," he was referring to well over two million rapes, by Soviet soldiers, of women of all ages and backgrounds. The very indiscriminateness of the sexual violence gives the lie to the idea that it was revenge for the suffering inflicted by the Germans. Inmates liberated from Nazi concentration camps were raped as well.

As for Djilas, it must have seemed, for a moment, as if Stalin's outburst were the kiss of death. Luckily for him, the dictator's mood changed. "He proposed frequent toasts," recalls the author, "flattered one person, joked with another, teased a third, kissed my wife because she was a Serb, and again shed tears over the hardships of the Red Army and Yugoslav ingratitude."

Perhaps in response to the criticism, Stalin issued a command that soldiers behave themselves. The Soviet officers read the proclamation to their troops with a smirk. Everyone knew it meant nothing. Boys will be boys.

The anonymous memoir A Woman in Berlin, now appearing in a new English translation from Metropolitan Books, is an extraordinary chronicle of life in the streets as the Thousand Year Reich turned into rubble and the advancing "Ivans" had their fun. The author was a German editor and journalist who died in 2001. Her book, based on a diary kept over two months during the spring of 1945, first appeared in English in 1954. It was only published in German in 1959, where it seems tohave been regarded as an intolerable faux pas, a violation of the unstated rule that the events never be mentioned again.

The book's rediscovery now comes in the wake of Antony Beevor's massive documentation of the rape campaign in The Fall of Berlin 1945, published three years ago by Viking Press. To judge by the reservations of some military historians, Beevor's account may not be the last word on howSoviet forces advanced into Germany. (A reviewer for Parameters, the journal of the U.S. Army War College, praised it as a work of popular history, but lodged some complaints about certain gaps in the book's account of troop manuevers.) Yet the book did take an unflinching look at the extent of the sexual terror.

Beevor supplies an introduction to the new edition of A Woman in Berlin, situating the document in historical context. He notes, for example, that the statistics about rape for Berlin "are probably the most reliable in all of Germany," falling somewhere between 95,000 and 130,000 victims "according to the two leading hospitals."

He also points out that there is no particular evidence that rape was treated as a deliberate strategy of war -- as human-rights activists have recently charged the Sudanese military with doing in Darfur.  "No document from the Soviet archives indicates anything of the sort in 1945," writes Beevor. But he suggests that the scale of the attacks may have been a by-product of the Red Army's internal culture, even so: "Many soldiers had been so humiliated by their own officers and commissars
during the four years of war that they felt driven to expiate bitterness, and German women presented the easiest target. Polish women and female slave laborers in Germany also suffered."

Reading the memoir itself, you find all such interpretive questions being put on hold. It is not just a document. The author, an urbane and articulate woman in her early 30s, writes about the fall of Berlin and her own repeated violation with an astounding coolness -- a bitter, matter-of-fact lucidity, the extreme candor of which is almost disconcerting, given the lack of even a hint of self-pity.

"No doubt about it," she writes after being raped several times in a row. "I have to find a single wolf  to keep away the pack. An officer, as high-ranking as possible, a commandant, a general, whatever I can manage. After all, what are my brains for, my little knowledge of the enemy's language?... My mind is firmly made up. I'll think of something when the time comes. I grin to myself in secret, feel as if I'm performing on the stage. I couldn't care less about the lot of them! I've never been so removed from myself, so alienated. All my feelings seem dead, except for the drive to live."

I've just reviewed the latest edition of A Woman in Berlin for Newsday, and will spare you a recycling of that effort (now available here ). Since then, a look at other reviews has revealed some debate over the authenticity of the book. The comments of J.G. Ballard ( no stranger to questions of sexuality in extreme conditions ) are indicative.

"It is hard to believe, as the author claims, that it was jotted down with a pencil stub on old scraps of paper while she crouched on her bed between bouts of rape," wrote Ballard in The New Statesman a few weeks ago. "The tone is so dispassionate, scenes described in so literary a way, with poignant references to the strangeness of silence and the plaintive cry of a distant bird. We live at a time that places an almost sentimental value on the unsparing truth, however artfully deployed. But the diary seems convincingly real, whether assembled later from the testimonies of a number of women or recorded at first hand by the author."

Given that concern, it is worth looking up the original edition of A Woman in Berlin, now more than 50 years old. It came with an introduction by C.W. Ceram, whose book Gods, Graves, and Scholars, first published in 1951, remains one of the best introductions to the history of archeology. Ceram recalls meeting the author of A Woman in Berlin not long after the war.

"From some hints that she dropped," he wrote, "I learned of this diary's existence. When, after another six months passed, I was permitted to read it, I found described in detail what I already knew from the accounts of others."

That means Ceram saw the book in 1947, at the latest. "It took me more than five years, however, to persuade the author that her diary was unique, that it simply had to be published."

She had, he writes, "jotted down in old ledgers and on loose pages what happened to her.... These pages lie before me as I write. Their vividness as expressed in the furtiveness of the short penciled notes; the excitement they emanate whenever the pencil refuses to describe the facts; the combination of shorthand, longhand, and secret code ... all of this will probably be lost in the depersonalizing effect of the printed word."

Ceram's introduction is interesting for its testimony about the book's provenance. But that remark about "the depersonalizing effect of the printed word" will seem odd to anyone who has read A Woman in Berlin.

In many ways, of course, the book is an account of brutality. (War is a force that turns people into things, as Simone Weil once put it; and killing them is just one of the ways.) But the anonymous author also created a record of what is involved in resisting depersonalization. At times, she is able to see the occupiers, too, as human beings. You cannot put the book down without wondering about the rest of her life.

 

 

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