Randy Dotinga: Wartime Memoirs By Women In Vogue





In the 1950s, few people in the United States or Europe paid attention to a German woman's memoir of civilians fighting off starvation, sexual assault, and sudden death during the Russian occupation of Berlin.

Readers might have blanched at the descriptions of soldiers routinely raping helpless women left in the city at the end of World War II. Perhaps no one wanted to think about German suffering. Or maybe the author's wry personality lacked appeal at the time.

Now, more than five decades later, the reissued version of "A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City," is making waves across the globe, lauded as a journalistic masterpiece and a stunning literary achievement.

The book also has joined an exclusive club: It's one of a handful of war-related works that took decades - even generations - to be appreciated.

For example, "Parade's End," British novelist Ford Madox Ford's epic 1920s fiction series about World War I, has been rediscovered and is now being lauded for its depictions of the psychological effects of war. Just last month, "Winter Soldiers," a seldom-seen 1972 documentary about Vietnam veterans who protested the war, began hitting movie screens to wide interest.

"A Woman in Berlin" is most similar, however, to another long-forgotten but recently rediscovered war work: a Southern aristocrat's detailed recollections of life on the Civil War home front. After more than a half century of obscurity, the diary of Mary Chesnut - full of sharp commentary and sharp observations - has become a priceless historical document and a respected piece of American literature.

Why do the experiences of these two female authors resonate more now? The answer, historians say, lies in how we look at war and women. "Our interests have evolved," says historian Jay Winik, author of "April 1865: The Month that Saved America." "We've developed a larger appetite and appreciation for the soft underbelly of war, the social and cultural issues."


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