A Woman in Berlin opens with huddled neighbours sharing stories by candlelight. Uncertainty about the future of newly-occupied Berlin is rife and swaggering Russian soldiers pose a very real threat to the remaining inhabitants of the once-great metropolis. This is the diary of female journalist who, having survived the war itself, noted down the new horrors of living in Berlin from April to June 1945.
Whilst much has been written about the Second World War, and justly so, A Woman in Berlin provides the reader with a refreshingly different viewpoint on the final stages of Germany’s defeat. This is the story of a liberal, intelligent and well-travelled German woman with ambiguous political leanings and a fiancé in uniform.
The novel records the minutiae of everyday life in a not so everyday situation and this translation by Philip Boehm reads beautifully. Most striking of all in this anonymous account is the violence, both sexual and physical, which the German women suffered at the hands of the so-called “liberating” Russian soldiers.
This is a very quiet book; it doesn’t make great assertions or sweeping historical statements. Nevertheless, it is remarkable how perceptive and honest the author is in her observations. There are stories of great generosity, as strangers rally round to help one another, and also petty theft, when greed and the need to survive overwhelm common decency. Regardless, the author does not discriminate in what she records and the diary consequently becomes a perfect snapshot of a particularly remarkable and difficult period in twentieth-century European history.