Thursday, July 12, 2007


I originally posted this on Sir Humphreys back at the beginning of May. I don't want the work I did on the translations to go to waste, so I'm posting it again here. Apologies to those who've already read it:

Long post warning. The arguments I had with other bloggers over my view of ANZAC Day got me thinking, and a couple of other things prodded me towards a post on what it actually means to lose a war, something the English-speaking world doesn’t have a lot of experience with.

I spent the Sunday following ANZAC day in Auckland on the way to Melbourne, and went for a visit to the War Memorial Museum, seeing as I’ve never been there before. One of the exhibits covering the NZ forces in Italy included a soldier’s comment that it was easy to buy women for cigarettes or food. That struck me, because coincidentally I’d just started reading “Eine Frau in Berlin: Tagebuchaufzeichnungen vom 20. April bis 22. Juni 1945” (A Woman in Berlin: Diary Entries from 20 April to 22 June 1945) by “Anonyma” (for reasons which will become clear if you read the exerpts I’m going to paste below), and it was interesting to be confronted by both takes on the subject at the same time. The edition I’m going to quote from is the paperback from BTB Verlag, 2005 – apparently there is an English translation, but I’ve never seen it, so the translations below are by me.

Some may find it offensive that I draw their attention to German suffering in WW2. I’m well aware that plenty of other places suffered similar fates in the war, sometimes at German hands. That’s not the point. It’s true that I happen to have lived in Germany, speak German and generally love the place, so I care about Berlin in a way that I couldn’t possibly about Warsaw or Volgagrad - but if it that really gets on your wick, just read the quotes with your own preferred contenders replacing mine – the experience wasn’t greatly different elsewhere.

The diary begins as the Red Army approaches Berlin. “For all this we have the Fuehrer to thank!” has changed from a propaganda boast to dry wit. The writer is a professional woman, an editor for a publishing house, who now has no job, no idea where her boyfriend is (last letter 9 weeks ago from the Western front), has been bombed out of her apartment with the loss of pretty much everything, but can live on the fourth floor of a surviving building because that’s where the bombs go off and no-one wants to live there. Everyone knows what’s coming, but waddayagunnado?


As we came out of the shop, a truck drove by; German troops on it, red shield, ie Flak. They were driving towards the city, away from us towards the CBD. Sat silent there and stared into the distance. A woman called after them: “You doing a runner?” She got no answer. We looked at each other, shrugging our shoulders. The woman summed up: “Just poor bastards anyway.”

Again and again I notice in these days that my feeling, the feeling of all the women towards the men, is changing. We feel sorry for them, they look so decrepit and powerless. The Weaker Sex. Below the surface, a kind of collective disappointment spreads among the women. The male-dominated Nazi world, worshipper of the Strong Man, is falling – and with it the very concept of “Man. In earlier wars the men could boast that the privilege of killing and being killed for the Fatherland was their duty. Today, we women get our share. That is changing us, making us contemptuous. At the end of this war, among many other defeats will be the defeat of men as a sex.

The Russians arrive, and you don’t need the details of what happens, I’m sure.


What is the word “rape” anyway? As I said the word aloud the first time, Friday evening in the cellar (27 April, raped for the first time by two Red Army soldiers - PM), it sent shivers down my back. Now I can think it, even write it down with a cold, steady hand. I say it out loud, to get used to the sound of it. It sounds like the final and worst thing, but it isn’t.

All that stuff about the veneer of civilisation being thin? You bet – here’s what it can come to when your leaders decide to throw their country down as the stake in a crap shoot:


Otherwise we’re constantly filled with the sense of being completely at the mercy of others. If we’re alone, every sound, every step scares us. (…) We crouch for hours in the dark, ice-cold room. Ivan has us very low. To some extent, literally: because there are in our block still-undiscovered households, families that live in the cellar since Friday and only send their water-carriers out in the early morning. It seems to me that our men must feel even dirtier than we defiled women. In the queue for the water pump a woman told me how, as the Ivans were trying to drag her from the cellar, a male neighbour had shouted at her “For Christ’s sake just go with them, you’re endangering us all!” A small footnote to the downfall of the West.

The thing is, although you can tell yourself that rape isn’t the final and worst thing, that doesn’t make constantly enduring it any easier:


As I stood up, dizziness, nausea. The torn underwear fell around my feet. I staggered through the lobby, past the sobbing widow into the bathroom. Threw up. The green face in the mirror, the vomit in the toilet. I sat on the edge of the bath, didn’t dare flush, still retching and with so little water in the flush bucket.

Said then out loud: Verdammt! and came to a decision.

Absolutely clear: I needed a wolf to keep the other wolves from my body. An officer, as high as possible, Commander, General, whatever I can get. Why else do I have my savvy and my little knowledge of the enemy’s language?

She gets her wolf. Of course, that doesn’t alter the fact that the losers in a war are the property of the victors:


I sit next to Anatol on the edge of the bed (...) when suddenly the door opens, even though the chair is up against it as usual. Anatol looks up, annoyed at being disturbed. It’s the widow, very red in the face, with disarrayed hair. Behind her a Russian pushes his way in, I recognise him, and remember: it’s the handsome Pole from Lemberg, him with the head wound from Stalingrad that left him with a particular talent for fits of rage. It looks like he’s well on the way to one of those fits of rage right now. He immediately starts shouting, directing his attention at both Anatol and me, calling us to sit in judgement: He’s a young man, he doesn’t care what others think, he hasn’t had a woman for ages… hell, it would be over in no time! And he stares wildly, balls his fists, tears at his hair – obviously full of his absolute right to the widow, whose ability to speak a few words of broken Polish had obviously stuck in his memory. He even tries it now, throws Polish words at her – all in the greatest agitation, while the widow wipes the flowing tears from her face.

Anatol looks at me, looks at the widow, clearly wants nothing to do with it. He turns to me and says it’s really no big deal, I should talk the widow into it, it’d be all over pretty quickly and she really wouldn’t want to cause trouble for herself. Then to the Pole, waving him off: he’d prefer this to be taken somewhere else, he’s in a hurry, needs to get back… and he makes to put the chair back under the door. I quickly whisper a few words to the widow, remind her of the Pole’s head wound and resulting fits of rage. The guy is nuts and goes crazy when he doesn’t get his way… And Anatol is about to leave, then he won’t be able to help any… (…) And she cries. The Pole, already calmer, strokes her. They both disappear.


The whole afternoon the widow didn’t speak to me. She was angry. Only towards evening did she give in, told me… Afterwards the young rage-devil was tame and peaceful, in fact tiringly boring, before he let the widow go. He also left her with a compliment, at first she didn’t want to say what it was, but finally gave in and told us: “Ukrainian woman – so. You – so.” He illustrated this with a circle made out of two thumbs and index fingers at the first “so,” and at the second a little circle made out of one thumb and index finger.

Eventually she snares a Major. And starts to blame herself. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that so many bloggers try and explain rape away – hell, the victims do it too:


This is a new situation. It would be impossible to claim that the Major rapes me. I believe that a single cold word from me would be enough to make him leave and not come again. So I’m voluntarily at his service. Do I do it out of sympathy, out of the need to be loved? God no. By now I’ve had it up to here with the entire world population of blokes and their manly urges, can’t even imagine that I’ll ever again in life feel a desire for such things. Do I do it for bacon, butter, sugar, candles, tinned meat? A little, sure. It was bringing me down, having to eat up the widow’s meagre stores (her 4th floor apartment was destroyed just before the Russians arrived – PM). I’m glad that now, at the Major’s hands, I can bring something to the table. I feel more free that way, eat with a clearer conscience. (…) With all that I still haven’t answered the question of whether I now have to consider myself a prostitute, as I am in essence living from my body and giving it for food.

Which brings me back to the War Memorial Museum in Auckland, and a NZ soldier’s jovial news that women can be bought for cigarettes or food. No doubt the Russian soldiers considered their own rapes the same way. I’ve written elsewhere in one of the threads in SH that starting a war is a sacrifice on the altar of unforeseen consequences. Bush and Blair at least will only get to experience that through depressing poll results and disdainful treatment by historians – others get to feel it directly, on a very personal level.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, like the victims of 9/11 for example.

Anonymous said...

My own grandmother tells me of her last day at work in Eastern Germany, out of cologne. Prussia. 18 year old girl. Air force base. Turns up at 8am, the place is deserted . The soldiers and airmen had run, not telling the civilians of the red army advance, The Russians were animals but the NAZIS equaled or bettered that lowly description

Psycho Milt said...

Anon: exactly. How could any of those people have guessed their govt's Middle East policy would lead to their deaths? Likewise, the amount of death and destruction Bin Laden's brought to Muslim countries for the sake of killing a couple of thousand Americans is just about the gold standard of stupidity. Bin Laden makes Hitler look reasonable though, so stupidity's probably not the right word.

Frederico: in similar fashion, the only good-quality air raid shelter in Dresden was for the personal use of the Gauleiter and his family. Living under a dictatorship is dangerous for ordinary people. I doubt many of the soldiers and airmen who deserted your Grandmother in Ostpreussen were Nazis though.

Kent Parker said...

There is more than one way to be defeated.

I understood that most of the Russian troops were young and many had never had sex. Add to that the isolation from fellow womenfolk, and the intense hatred they had for the Germans after the wanton death that the SS inflicted on them several years earlier and the pressure their own generals were putting on them to capture Berlin, and the flames of rape once alight were swept right across Germany.

In comparison, Japanese and German surrender to the Allies was an immense relief to the defeated populations, because it meant the end of the death and destruction.

ZenTiger said...

Likewise, the amount of death and destruction Bin Laden's brought to Muslim countries for the sake of killing a couple of thousand Americans is just about the gold standard of stupidity.

1. What makes you think that Americca would retaliate in any meaningful way?

2. What makes you think Bin Laden would prefer a "no trouble" response?

3. If America did retaliate (and obviously, to the surprise of many they did), then wouldn't that be an opportunity to ferment more trouble closer to home and wait until the peace-nik backlash causes America to self-implode? (Which appears to be happening)

ZenTiger said...

Hmm, ended up off topic - sorry. Powerful post. The thin veneer of civilisation indeed. We never really have it, and this is why I wonder if religion can be a good thing, in its purest form, where we are taught to be good and do good, and to strive for good and that includes mastering our lusts and thinking in terms of love and respect.

Not all men would have acted like animals in the war, but we are often judged by our worst and not our best, for the worst appears to make a deeper impact on us all.

Psycho Milt said...

1. Not sure what you're asking me Zen. Didn't they retaliate in a meaningful way?

2. I don't doubt Bin Laden is well chuffed to see America out there killing Muslims cos he thinks it's all fuel for his fire. Doesn't alter the fact there's a sizable civilian population suffering for his unilateral decision to declare war on their behalf, without reference to what they might want.

3. I don't think either Bin Laden or Bush will get the outcomes they would have liked from all this killing and mayhem, which is exactly my point.

Kent: the brutality of the Red Army towards civilians in Germany (deliberately not using the term "German civilians," because nationality didn't make much difference) was a fine example of just how successful a hate propaganda campaign can be in a totalitarian state that controls all the media. All else is apologia.

Psycho Milt said...

Idiot - answered your first comment without noticing the second.

Certainly, secularism in the Soviet sense wasn't a roaring success...