A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous

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The Independent Online

Fierce air raids send her hurrying to the basement of her apartment building, where she observes the feverish excitement of her fellow "cave dwellers", and evokes her situation with tense immediacy ("My fingers are shaking as I write this"). During quieter periods, she joins meat queues and forages for food and drink, plundering the deserted police barracks where there are stockpiles of bread, chocolate, coffee and brandy.

Then, on 27 April, the moment they have all feared for so long: "They're here... the Russians have the streets entirely to themselves." She has some basic Russian, and is elected to deal with the Red Army soldiers. Showing off the watches they have looted, they ask her whether she is married, and when she answers no, she is subjected to some "crude flirting". After the diarist saves the baker's wife from being raped by one "hunting party" by persuading an officer to intervene, she herself is raped twice. Thereafter, along with many other German women of her acquaintance, she falls into bargaining with her captors, offering sexual compliance in return for food and protection from rapists. She has become one of the spoils of war.

A Woman in Berlin was originally published in 1954 in translation in the United States, and the following year in Britain. It remained unpublished in Germany until 1960 when the appearance of the book was met by hostility and silence. One reviewer complained of the diarist's "shameless immorality", and the swift disappearance of the book bore testimony to Germany's unwillingness, a mere decade and a half after the end of the war, to confront the uncomfortable truth that many German women in 1945 - including between 95,000 and 135,000 Berliners - were the victims of rape. In 2003, the republication in Germany of A Woman in Berlin was met with phenomenal success, and this new English translation by Philip Boehm, with an introduction by Antony Beevor, and an afterword by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (partly responsible for keeping the book's reputation alive during its long period of neglect), has followed as a result. Today, most Germans are prepared to face issues that were previously taboo and, like Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel's recent film about Hitler's last days, this diary presents a sympathetic scenario, conveying a picture of ordinary Germans at the mercy of a crazed dictator, who refused to countenance the evacuation of the civilian population of Berlin while there was still time.

Antony Beevor writes that he was initially suspicious of whether the diary was genuine. Its literary merit, its long, compelling entries with their ability to summon up a character or chilling incident in a striking phrase, written in the midst of so much suffering and terror, almost count against it (though we are told that the writer was later able to copy and edit her notes). The diary chronicles two tumultuous months from the last weeks of April 1945, when it was often literally written underground, by only the light of a candle, to the life of the occupied city towards the end of June that year.

The author wished to remain anonymous. The original reception of the book clearly scarred her and it was only after her death in 2001 that republication could go ahead. In the diary we glimpse her as "a pale-faced blonde always dressed in the same winter coat", a 34-year-old former employee of a publishing house, and clearly an experienced journalist who had travelled in Moscow, London and Paris. Her identity has since been confirmed, with a fair degree of certainty, as roving reporter Marta Hiller.

This diary of the sacking of a once great city is both an important work of social history and a remarkable human document. The diarist's spirit rises from the ashes of degradation as she reasserts her belief in her own physical strength and, ultimately, her wish to survive.