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Rape Culture and Changing Gender Roles in Postwar Berlin: The Survival of German Women Among Wolves
by Kristin Van Ramshorst
for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
About Kristin Van Ramshorst
I am a senior history and psychology double major. I have family in Germany and have been interested in the sociopolitical issues arising from the World War II era. My specific interests are the United States' foreign policies during the Hitler era, spy networking, and military occupation in Germany during the 1940s. I chose to write about A Woman in Berlin because I am interested in writing my pro-seminar paper on the occurrence of rape culture under the liberation occupation as well as to tie personal experiences to the militarism of the Nazi regime through diaries and first-hand accounts.
Abstract (back to top)
The diary focuses on the savagery and chaos the impending Russian occupation front posed upon the devastated city of Berlin. The author gives a ghastly first-hand account of the violence, pestilence, and commonality of rape. In the paper I argue that the raping of German women by Russian soldiers epitomized the final victory for the Allied forces by shifting the social paradigm within German society itself. I also argue that the very nature of rape and gender relations shifted, German women turned violent acts of rape into a beneficial form of prostitution that would ensure their survival.
Essay (back to top)
A Woman in Berlin is a tumultuous and heartbreaking anonymously published diary of a woman in her thirties faced with the impending occupation by foreign victors at the end of World War II. With the collapse of the Third Reich and the capture of many German cities, occupying forces plundered these cities of rubble. In documenting the extensive looting of desolate city buildings, flats, and shops as well as the frequency and violence of rape among German women, the author of the diary candidly describes the ugliest form of war. Though her experiences are authored as a form of self-therapy rather than a political piece, the clarity and bluntness of her writing implores readers to understand the emotions such experiences—that of loss, victimization, anger, and persecution—mustered as the war was coming to an end and the victors laid claim to their wasted cities. The author describes how at the end of World War II Berlin transformed into a morally corrupted semblance of a city where Russian soldiers savagely looted possessions and claimed German women as spoils of war. Although the author’s experiences shake the emotional foundations and moral grounds of Berlin society in 1945, the diary is also significant for its insight and clarity about gender roles and the female voice in German society. Prior to Nazi defeat during World War II, German women were second class citizens, the weaker of the two genders. As the need and dependence upon German men diminished—due to the combination of an overwhelming male absence, their cowardice, or lack of strength—German women rose as breadwinners within their own society in postwar Berlin. At times capitalizing on the violent Russian rape culture, German women bartered their bodies to survive and challenged preconceived notions of gender roles once their men returned. This diary shows that Russians soldiers used rape as a form of revenge and as a final signal of victory; an act that went past the tangible possessions of German society by shattering the sanctity of female sexual autonomy.
To properly analyze the diary in its historical context, it is necessary to provide background knowledge on the subject. Starting in 1945, Allied troops had begun to liberate Nazi-occupied territories. Concentration camps, centers of mass murder, were in the beginning stages of dissolution, the victims of which were sent to refugee camps spread out across western Europe. Millions of non-Aryans had been brutally persecuted, thousands upon thousands had fallen victim to genocide. Hitler and his top officials had been captured or taken their own lives. The infrastructure of Germany had been shattered, the heartland demolished, buildings and the markings of a once civilized, cultivated society ravished by the exchange of fire, lories, and constant overhead aerial attacks. Berlin, once a metropolitan center of commerce and culture, laid in ruin, its population cowered in cellars, shelters, and bombed out flats. Pestilence and primitive tendencies took over as the manifestations of social Darwinism began to become the normative dogma. As reiterated several times in the diary, Homo homini lupus (Anonymous, 214). Roughly translated, humans become as wolves.
What is rape? Rape can be defined as a forced violation of one’s self, a forceful defiling of one’s body with actions which go against one’s will. Histories of victors and vanquished offer little on the subject. In fact, most instances are skimmed over, forgotten, blotted out of histories altogether. Especially for women during wartimes, whether medieval or within the last century, the prevalence of rape is exercised as a form of power by the conquerors upon the conquered. Liberating troops, in this specific case Russians, went to war not only to stop the spread of Nazism but also to avenge the atrocities Germans caused during World War I and the first half of World War II. The author describs one Russian soldier:
For the Russian soldier, the Germans were receiving what they had doled out. Unfortunately, with many men dead and lost in the postwar chaos of the frontiers, the diary shows that German women served as the scapegoats for Russian vengeance.
Although arguably violent and against all moral convictions of civilized society, the occurrence of rape in postwar Berlin was seen as a window for survival. Many German women like the author of the diary, turned physical and mental violation into business. As the initial wave of plunder and pillage slowly subsided, rape in Berlin became a form of barter. Where Russian soldiers were seeking clean German women, there were many willing to sleep with them regularly, in exchange for food, protection, or money (Anonymous, 135). The author was forcibly raped several times, at one point in the diary she had been locked out of a cellar of her peers whom she had helped (Anonymous, 67). She took matters into her own hands, described in the diary as she writes: “I felt much better now that I was once more planning and wanting something, instead of being nothing but a silent victim” (Anonymous, 79). As her diary reflects, the author sought out high ranking officials in the Russian military and in exchange for regular sex brought in enough material and food to survive several months (Anonymous, 60, 134). Many times throughout the diary, the author questioned her new acceptance of rape as a mainstay for survival. She argued that while her situation forcibly encouraged her and other women on their situation in order to survive, she maintained that it was a temporary means to live.
Desensitization, both in its emotional and social manifestations, was strengthened through the rape culture, loss, and chaos of postwar Berlin. Homo homini lupus. As her ominous proverb implies, humans become as wolves (Anonymous, 214). When hungry enough, humans were desensitized to emotion, physical pain, and personal ties. This can best be summed up when the author writes:
The will to continue one day longer became the central goal for individuals living in Berlin during the liberation of Nazi territories. Rape became the culture of survival, and although unpleasant and violent, resulted in many women being able to obtain food and supplies. Rape culture also strengthened the intensity of emotional and social desensitization by drawing a correlation between social Darwinism and forcible sex. By this correlation, social Darwinism refers to the struggle of survival in that the most resourcefully fit individual will prosper. Women turned sex into a form of prostitution; high ranking officers were resources for survival. In turn, the physical act of sex became devoid of love and passion (Anonymous, 15).
The emotion of love and the act of love-making became unknown words, concepts which evaded the “society of wolves,” as she calls it. For German women, passion was remote and useless. Love did not guarantee bread. Passion did not guarantee protection. Trickery and the transition of a body from one man to another provided these things, desensitizing even the most innocent of young German girls (Anonymous, 107-109).
A question that continued to plague the author during this period of “compulsory intercourse” was if Berlin women were seeking opportunity in rape were they now professional whores? (Anonymous, 135, 237) From previous social rules and moral obligations, German women maintained the status quo. Men were procreators, breadwinners, and the future of Germany. Masculinity brought one closer to the Fatherland (Anonymous, 55). As German women became less dependent upon men, in light of the fact that the majority were either at the front lines or already dead, their own methods of survival and both the emotional and social desensitization influenced by rape encouraged a shift in gender roles. Female gender roles in postwar Berlin shifted dramatically, although not permanently. The author comments on this shift in the following diary excerpt:
Not necessarily holding a gun, women now shared in the burden of war. They stretched every ounce of physical and emotional strength to live, regardless of the inhumanity and chaos of bombed out cities and foreign conquerors. German men emerged from the war far less capable of coping with defeat.
This does not mean that all German women asserted themselves as rebellious outliers of a once highly patriarchal society, but the prominence of female voices had changed. Men returned to Allied occupied cities where German women had emerged as resilient victims. German men became passive observers of rape culture, shocked by the morally low standards which their cultivated “little women” submitted themselves to in order to survive (Anonymous, 91, 137, 283). In this sense, German women defied preconceived gender roles by sacrificing their bodies to gain the tools necessary to continue living. Women gained the knowledge of self-reliance and the ability to persevere, with or without their male companions. For example, the author utilizes the conversational Russian she had learned while travelling as an artist to converse with soldiers. Several times in the diary she uses her knowledge of the language to better her own situation. One such instance is when she uses both Russian and her intelligence to impress two of the officials, the major and Anatole, she regularly sleeps with (Anonymous, 87-143). In trying to gain enough food for herself, the widow, and Herr Pauli by sleeping with and entertaining these men, she tries to gain independence by securing her own flat once again.
The challenges postwar Berlin posed on German women encouraged the need to survive and the importance of the female as a manipulator of men.
A Woman in Berlin by far outshines the moral weight and impact of other books on this topic. I have read numerous books, memoirs, and documentations on pre- and postwar Berlin, but this is one of the staunchest examples of human struggle I have encountered. I think that in addition to the author’s message of survival, the diary uses postwar rape culture as a soundboard for female resiliency. It is of my opinion that without works such as A Woman in Berlin, the literary community would merely be a series of commentary on the past. Personal accounts, after all, tie the significance of human emotions to experience. Although painful and understandably difficult to have been revealed to the literary world, the anonymity of the author is preserved in the publication of the book. The importance of keeping the characters’ identities and that of the author private keeps the diary from becoming a political piece and preserves it as a personal reflection in the midst of chaos. Names are withheld not due to embarrassment, but for a higher aim: to shed light on inhumanity, the corruption of social moorings and ethics, and the degradation of a subpopulation. The author is not paying lip service to political fervor, but providing first-hand insight into the experiences of the defeated. The diary is a self-mediated form of healing, a breathing space for the author to cope with the savagery of the liberation occupation. Transforming the diary into a political statement would have tarnished the message conveyed, so in as much, the anonymity is kept intact. In writing the diary, the author lays bare the savagery that plagued Berlin during the Russian occupation and documents the breakdown of society’s moral compass. In addition, it can be argued that women in turn changed the nature of sex from a forced act to a form of prostitution, and with this change women were able to use it to gain some power and independence.
Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/09)
Picador, “From the Publisher” (July 2006), (Barnes
John Mangarella, “A Woman in Berlin: A Diary by Anonymous” (Date Unknown),
Wikipedia, “World War II” (December 2003), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II
U.S Department of State, “Allied Occupation of Germany, 1945-1952” (Date
Eyewitness History, “The Battle of Berlin, 1945” (2002), http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/berlin.htm
Books and Articles
Karin Finell, Good-Bye to the Mermaids: A Childhood Lost in Hitler’s
Berlin (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006), 352 pages. UCSB:
D757.9.B4 F56 2006.
Michael Pye, The Pieces from Berlin (New York: Knopf, 2003),
335 pages. UCSB: PR6066.Y4 P94 2003
Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi: