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A Woman in Berlin is a memoir first published in 1954. The memoir documents the experiences of a German woman as the Russian Army invades Berlin at the end of the Second World War. The book remained unpublished in German until 1959; until 2003, the identity of the author remained a mystery. Originally, the book was published as the work of an anonymous woman, but the author was eventually revealed to be journalist Marta Hillers. In this guide, Marta’s true name is used for the sake of convenience. With its horrific depictions of rape and sexual violence, the book remained controversial in Germany for many decades after publication.
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The diary begins on Friday 20 April 1945, Hitler’s 56th birthday. The Russian army is at the edge of Berlin, and the city is about to fall. A German woman named Marta scavenges for what little food she can find. She gathers with the other residents of her building in a basement shelter, where rumors of rape and violence abound. Society is collapsing and everyone is worried. One day, Marta’s apartment is hit by an artillery shell and she moves in with a widow who lives on the first floor of their building. As the Russians draw closer, Marta tries to remember the little Russian she knows. She hopes that her knowledge of the language will help her survive. The Russians arrive on 27 April. Already drunk, they look inside buildings, raping any women they find. Marta tries to use her Russian skills to ask senior officers for help, but the officers do not care about the plight of Marta and her neighbors. Marta is raped several times. The women she knows share stories, confiding in one another about how they have been raped and helping one another to deal with the trauma. The raping continues for days. Women are scared to leave their shelters. Marta decides that she needs to find a senior officer to protect her from the many men who chase after her. She finds a lieutenant named Anatol and the two enter into an arrangement. She provides him with sex, and he provides her with protection and food. Marta meets Russian soldiers who are not merely violent rapists, and she speaks about politics with one soldier named Andrei. Anatol returns to her most nights for sex and brings his men with him; they turn the widow’s apartment into a makeshift HQ.
The Russians become an occupying force. Marta continues her diary into the month of May, describing the sexual violence suffered by the women of Berlin throughout the duration of the Russian occupation. She hears rumors that Anatol will be leaving, but she meets a new officer—the major, an older man with a wounded leg—and enters into a similar arrangement with him. The major’s temperament contrasts with Anatol’s; while Anatol’s attitudes are rough, the major presents with a more refinement and politeness. Marta’s Russian skills make her a known person among the soldiers; they ask her for help with everything from sewing to finding a woman. The major brings food and gifts for Marta and the widow and for the widow’s injured lodger who has returned from the front. One day, the major visits with a bicycle. Marta rides it and feels happy for the first time in a long time. After many visits, the major announces that he is leaving, and Marta is surprised to find that she is sad to see him go. She also worries about what she will do for food. Eventually, it becomes safe to walk around Berlin again, so Marta and the widow begin to visit people across the city. The Russian military gives people various jobs, and Marta works as a translator and a washerwoman; she also helps remove all the zinc ingots from a factory. The work is exhausting, and Marta has access to very little food.
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Without the major’s gifts of food, the widow and her lodger focus on self-preservation, telling Marta to leave their apartment. She returns to her damaged attic apartment where she used to live. Soon, Marta meets a Hungarian man through a friend; the man dreams of opening a publishing company, a field Marta knows, and he asks her for help, but nothing meaningful comes of their efforts. Every day, Marta walks across Berlin to work on a magazine; she forages for nettles on the way home, trying to assuage her constant hunger. One day, Marta’s boyfriend Gerd returns from the front. They have not seen each other in six years, and Gerd is bitter and angry; he shouts constantly, and they argue all the time. When Gerd leaves, Marta wonders whether she will ever see him again. She decides to stop writing in her diary, and her writing ends with a question: will she and Gerd ever be happy again?