A Woman in Berlin
In the early spring of 1945 the Russians had fought their way into Berlin. The Nazis were still fighting in some parts of the city; nerves were on edge. The Russian troops set about doing what soldiers have been doing since long before the Sabine women: looting, pillaging, and most of all, raping. In 1959 a book was published anonymously by a woman who had lived through it. The book caused a scandal in Germany, where many could not believe that a good German woman would willingly submit to a Russian sugar daddy rather than be raped by the regiment. Russians were pissed, too, as it sullied the name of the great Red Army. This movie is based on that book.
It stirred conflicting emotions in me. I will state unequivocally that rape is wrong, it is horrible, brutish, and disgusting, in any and all situations. No exceptions, ever, no matter who the victim. But I have to say I was maybe a trifle less sympathetic to these particular victims than I would have been to others. The movie begins with a scene of merriment, when things are going well, and these smug, pampered, oblivious Nazi wives are having a nice party and sending their best wishes to their brave troops in the field. And what were those brave troops doing, at that precise moment? Why, they were raping every Russian woman they could get their hands on, and killing Russian men, women, and children by the millions. It is useful to remember who invaded whom here. So, I totally loathe what those Russian soldiers did to those German women … but I can’t help remembering, as one German soldier told his wife, that what was happening in Berlin was not one tenth of what the Russian people were subjected to by their Nazi invaders. Not one hundredth. I do not excuse for one second the rape of a German woman by a Russian soldier or anyone else, but think about what that soldier saw Nazi troops doing to his people. To his family. Odds are good that some Nazi sub-human raped and killed his wife, his sister, his mother, his daughter. Payback’s a bitch, even if it is unfair.
Our anonymous heroine, after being raped several times (as all the women in the bombed-out house they live in are) determines that she will decide who touches her from now on, which means she will find a powerful Russian, a major, and “willingly” submit to him. Become his girlfriend, rather than his revenge fuck. It also means she and the other women will get better food, and they’ve been desperately hungry for months. And why not? It’s better than being brutalized every day.
It got me to thinking about war, and rape, which historically have gone hand in hand … until very recently. Ever since war began, soldiers, warriors, have viewed the spoils of war as their right as conquerors, and women were definitely part of those spoils. I mean, does it make sense to risk getting your guts spilled in the dust by an enemy sword if there isn’t some reward for winning? That’s always the way it’s been. Men die on the battlefield, women are raped when it’s over. Both are horrible fates … but which would you choose? Then, finally, the concept of a “limited” war arose. It’s ironic that it happened mostly in the 20th Century, the bloodiest century in human history. And of course it was by no means a concept that all armies subscribed to. But our army does, and it’s something to be proud of. America, and most civilized nations, now classify shooting prisoners, poison gas, rape, and other atrocities as war crimes. You can be tried and sentenced to prison, by your own side. It’s not perfect, otherwise George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld would be in prison, but if you expect war to be perfect, or to ever be just a bad memory … I envy you your optimism.