All About Bodies–A Book Review

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary, translated by Philip Boehm. New York: Henry Holt and Company/Picador, 2003 (1953). 261pp.


By YVIE YAO      December 21, 2014

In 1945, as the heart of Berlin was penetrated by the Red Army, Berlin women were penetrated by Russian men. A Woman in Berlin recounts the collective experience of mass rape shared by all women in Berlin. The rape was indiscriminate, commonplace and destructive. However, is the book all about women’s collective memory of mass rape?

The German word Befreiung (liberation) was used when Berlin surrendered on May 8, 1945, symbolizing German people’s liberation from six years of war and their breakaway from twenty four years of radical National Socialist rule under the Nazis. Women were said to be the largest beneficiaries, unchained from the Nazis’ patriarchal oppression. This view, however, was an optimistic understatement, simplifying the gendered nature of Befreiung and overlooking the complexity of various forces restraining women’s rights and freedom.

Women’s bodies were targeted and inscribed with patriarchal misogyny during Befreiung. Berlin women became victims of Russian soldiers’ revenge and their bodies became an embodiment of the German nation. The narrator’s experience was typical among voluminous rape records that were found detailed police and medical reports in Soviet archives, with an estimation of 110,000 women raped by Soviet soldiers and many more than once. Raping was not only an act of violence against women’s bodies, but an emblem of defeat of the German nation. Resentment and hatred fueled Russian soldiers’ revenge:

One of the two men being reprimanded voices his objection, his face twisted in anger: “What do you mean? What did the Germans do to our women?” He is screaming. “They took my sister and…” and so on. (p.53)

German women’s bodies were the price to pay for German soldiers’ sexual crimes committed on Russian soil and their suffering became the humiliation of the German nation. The narrator directs the blame to National Socialism that makes women’s bodies subject to violent abuse, “We’re nothing but body, dirt. We unload our rage on Adolf.”

In her narration, clothing literally becomes the disguise of women’s sexualized bodies when young women try to make themselves appear old and dirty in the hope of repelling lust. Later, these soldiers cannot suppress their urge of eroticism and turn to indiscriminate mass rape, which situates every woman as a victim of this collective experience. She calls this a “communal sense of humanity” and remarks that all women should overcome this mass rape collectively by “speaking about it and airing their pain.”

German women’s pain, however, are not comforted. When German soldiers come back from war, they see their women not as victims, but “a bunch of shameless bitches” who profane their honor and deride their masculinity. In the writing of German history, Zusammenbruch (collapse) appears more often than Befreiung because German men think that their women’s abashing sexual misconduct effeminate the aggressive masculine image of the Third Reich. Men silenced and tabooized the discussion of rape among women. Mostly, they sought to punish their women to the point of divorcing them or killing them in order to preserve their own honor.

In this battle of masculinity, German men were not alone. French men also punished their women for their “horizontal collaboration” with German men. Men publicly humiliated women by shaving their hair parading them, naked. These Shorn Women’s bodies became the scapegoats of men’s re-masculinization and the property of men. Women’s transgressed codes of feminine behavior must be punished in their bodies by men. In this regard, women’s bodies were restrained for the vain sake of maintaining their men’s ego and superior masculinity.

The narrator, however, defies the notion of superior masculinity in her diary. In her narration, Berlin women are the ones who hide their men (who are left in Berlin) and protect them from the angry enemy. Women are the ones who sexualize their bodies as an “opfer,” or a sacrifice, which guarantee their children and themselves food and shelter through their voluntary sexual submission to Soviet soldiers. In contrast, German men are “miserable and powerless,” unable to protect their women from mass rape. They are “dirty, gray-bearded and old,” unable to uphold a masculine image of the nation. What a shame! The narrator witnesses how this crumbling and crippling fatherland of Germany become effeminated and how men prove themselves to be “the weaker sex.”

In the diary, women’s bodies face double threat: one from Russian soldiers and one from German men. Meanwhile, women’s bodies also experience double burden: one from maternal duties and one from forced labor. After Befreiung, Paragraph 218, which punished abortion, was still legally binding, took away women’s freedom to decide when and under what social and personal conditions they could bear children. Women lost their reproductive rights and had to juggle their maternal duties with horrible living conditions. They were also forced into hard labor during the reconstruction of new cities. This mandatory labor was thus burdensome to women in addition to their deprivation of reproductive freedom. The narrator works without a break, does strenuous and repetitive hard labor and receives dehumanized treatment when she felt like a “rat in the rubble.” She comments that to the rest of the world women “are nothing but rubble women and trash.”

“We went on washing for an eternity. Two o’clock, three, four, five, six. We washed without a break, under constant supervision. We soaped the clothes and wrung them out and fetched water. Our feet ached; our knuckles were close to bleeding. The Russians watching us enjoyed the spectacle; the rubbed their hands in gleeful revenge, thinking they’d really gotten to us with the washing. “Ha ha ha, now you have to wash for us, serves your right!”

Women’s labor during Befreiung was alienated from their bodies and women’s bodies were external and disconnected from their will. Marxists should not find unfamiliar to this idea of estranged labor. These women’s labor was not voluntary, but coerced; their bodies did not belong to themselves, but someone else external. Readers who are familiar with Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex should also read these women’s experience with carefulness when they internalized patriarchal misogyny and lived outside authenticity with entrenched false consciousness. However, while the theme of mass rape permeates the entire book, women’s experience of alienated labor is overlooked. Berlin women’s hard labor as rubble women thrived on euphemism. In West Germany, this image became rhetoric for the creation of a brave new world and the departure from its national socialist past. Women’s bodies were thus idealized and embodied with a national dream when these women’s real sufferings as hard labor were ruthlessly neglected.

A Woman in Berlin tells a powerful voice that demands us to show our solemn condolence to women who suffered from traumatizing experience from mass rape. But, it is not all about rape. It is a piece calling for us to relook at women’s bodies: their embodiment of patriarchal misogyny, revenge and pitiless estrangement.


References

Askanasy, Anna H. “Women and Men in Germany.” International Alliance of Women 42 (1948): 58-59.

Duchen, Claire. “Crime and Punishment in Liberated France: The Case of les Jemmes tondues.” In When the War Was Over: Women, War, and Peace in Europe, 1940-1956, edited by Clair Duchen and Irene Bandhauer-Schoffmann, 233-250. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2000.

Grossmann, Atina. “Gendered Defeat: Rape, Motherhood, and Fraternization.” In Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany, 48-87. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Katz, Hanna. “Men by themselves.” International Alliance of Women 43 (1949): 184-185.


Other Reviews on A Woman in Berlin

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/jul/02/featuresreviews.guardianreview5

http://michaelfergusonforallevents.blogspot.com/2011/10/woman-in-berlin-book-review.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/14/books/review/14KANONL.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

http://wordswithoutborders.org/book-review/a-woman-in-berlin-eight-weeks-in-the-conquered-city

http://www.kcblau.com/woman-in-berlin/

http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2010/03/a-woman-in-berlin-by-anonymous.html