Joanna Bourke: A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous

Roundup: Talking About History

Joanna Bourke, for the Independent (6-17-05):

[Ms. Bourke, professor of history at Birkbeck College, is the author of Fear: a cultural history.]

The anonymous author of this memoir was living in Berlin in April 1945 when Red Army soldiers marched into the city. What followed was an orgy of rape. The first time she was dragged out of the cellar and gang- raped, her neighbours closed the door, barricading themselves behind it. The second time, she managed to convince one soldier to treat her as his exclusive property. 'Only one, please please, only one,' she begged...

...Who was this remarkably resilient woman? The chances are that she was a journalist called Marta Hillers, although that cannot be confirmed. Hillers died in June 2001, aged 90, and her executor refuses to comment. She had visited Russia and learnt some Russian. The memoir was first published in 1954, in English translation. A German version, a few years later, was attacked for 'besmirching the honour of German women'. However, when republished in Germany in 2003, it became a bestseller.

The memoir's reception in Germany owes much to the 'Historians' Debate' of the mid-1980s. Revisionist historians attempted to re-position the Germans as victims in the Second World War. They pointed to the Allied bombardment of cities, as well as the mass rapes of 1945, as evidence of German suffering.

The Allies, including Britain and the Soviet Union, were responsible for war crimes against the German people. German guilt had gone too far. The Holocaust had to be seen in the context of other campaigns of mass murder, in particular Stalinism. According to this interpretation, the rape of German women could be transformed into a story whereby all Germans were violated by a brutal Soviet culture.

The author unwittingly contributes to this debate. The main victims are women and children. Nazi crimes only appear at the end, when she hears about the concentration camps and observes that the fact that millions of humans were made into 'fertiliser, mattress-stuffing, soft soap' was 'sickness, insanity'.

The vision is bleak, but there are times of unbearable poignancy. One day, she turns to Anatol, who raped her while protecting her from other predators, and told him in Russian, 'You are a bear'. She knew she used the correct Russian word for bear (m'edv'ed) because it was also the name of a well-known Russian restaurant. However, Anatol thought she had made a mistake. 'No, that's wrong,' he corrected her. 'A m'edv'ed is an animal. A brown animal, in the forest. It's big and roars. I am a chelav'ek " a person.' Abuse is very human.

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