A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary – by Marta Hillers – book review

A powerful but exceptionally bleak read — here are eight weeks of diary entries (April 20 – June 22, 1945) by a German woman (Journalist Marta Hillers – 1911-2001) living in Berlin, just before and after the end of World War II. It is a dark tale of mass rape (by conquering Soviet soldiers), starvation, widespread lawlessness, and human desperation. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.

I think those of us who live in the U.S. often forget how lucky our country was that our mainland was not bombed during World War II. Because this book certainly paints a savage portrait of how the end of the war looked in areas that were — where shortages were already widespread before the war’s end, and where the end of the war actually unleashed a new kind of brutality that made life even more difficult. It’s certainly not the image most of us have seen of crowds gathering in New York’s Time Square, people kissing strangers and throwing confetti.

In essence, Berlin in 1945 was in chaos. Scrounging for food, everyday, was a universal preoccupation. Services were non-existent. No jobs, government, banks, running water, electricity, mass transit, or news media. Heavily damaged buildings forced people to randomly seek shelter with neighbors or friends, only to be suddenly kicked out if food ran short. Information was so scarce that no one had any idea what was happening from day to day.

Hardly ANY women (young or old) escaped rape. It was so pervasive, with some women were attacked multiple times a day. So often that many began to accept it as just another regular feature of daily life.

The lesson I took away is that when society’s civilizing rules are stripped away and people are forced to struggle everyday for their very survival, there is an opportunity to see both the worst and best humans under stress will do. At one moment, you find yourself warmed by an unexpected act of kindness or generosity. The next, you witness people ransacking their neighbor’s meager possessions or stealing food from family members. And you will find yourself celebrating even the small victories — when boards are nailed up to keep soldiers from spontaneously entering a damaged apartment, when flowing water returns to a faucet, when the sight of a public bus means someone doesn’t have to walk 12 miles to work.

This book has an interesting history. It was first published anonymously in 1954 in the US and the translated into seven languages — all editions with reasonable success. But when published in Germany, in 1959, the book was reviled. German readers were horrified at the pragmatic descriptions of German women accepting Soviet lovers, to ensure protection and steady supplies of food. And they accused the author of besmirching the honor of both German women AND German men (who obviously were unable to protect their women). The book was so criticized that the author refused to have another edition published in her lifetime. But when Hillers died in 2001, the book WAS republished under her name and won widespread critical acclaim, even in Germany.

Author Marta Hillers

If you a student of World War II or interested in the subject of war and how it impacts us humans — you should definitely read this one. Just understand going in, that you probably will find it hard going.