A Woman in Berlin
Eight Weeks in the Conquered City
Seeing Kersten Lieff's Letters from Berlin among the Grayson Branch Staff Picks earlier this month reminded me of another firsthand account of the fall of Berlin and the savage free-for-all that followed. A Woman in Berlin is officially an anonymous work, but its authenticity has been verified and its author posthumously revealed to be journalist Marta Hillers. If you want to know what the end of civilization looks like, here it is.
Alone in a doomed city of women, children and men either too old or too infirm to fight, the author resolved to record Berlin's destruction. ("All these gifts of the modern age—they're nothing but dead weight if the power goes out. At moment we're marching back in time. Cave dwellers.") She was a magazine writer in her mid-thirties, wry, well educated, cosmopolitan and self-sufficient. Her account is devastatingly candid, without histrionics or self-pity.
Her description of what the women of Berlin had to endure in order to survive are clear-eyed and dispassionate, a blend of journalistic precision and utter physical and emotional exhaustion: "I think our men must feel even dirtier than we do, sullied as we women are.... [O]ne woman told me how her neighbor reacted when the Russians fell on her in her basement: he simply shouted 'Well, why don't you just go with them, you're putting us all in danger!' A minor footnote in the Decline of the West."
For all that, what's most moving about A Woman in Berlin are the flickers of humanity amid the darkness: the weak tea and black humor with which the women comfort one another, the surprising decency of some Russian officers, the childlike homesickness of teenaged infantrymen.
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Review by Don Beistle