Row over naming of rape author

Fury after German war diary writer's identity is revealed

Luke Harding in Berlin
Sunday October 5, 2003
The Observer

A bestselling memoir describing the rape of German women by Red Army soldiers in Berlin in the spring of 1945 was at the centre of a literary row last night after a German critic revealed the identity of its dead author. The book, A Woman in Berlin, was republished in Germany earlier this year to massive critical acclaim. In a series of unsentimental diary entries, the book's author - an anonymous German woman in her early thirties - describes the final days of the Third Reich, and the ordeal she suffered after Russian soldiers found her hiding place in a basement in east Berlin.

The woman recalls how, on the 'catastrophic' night of 27 April 1945, she was dragged out into a corridor and gang-raped by the soldiers.

In the days that followed, the woman - who was well educated and spoke Russian - sought out the highest-ranking Soviet officer in the neighbourhood and made herself available to him. She describes the arrangement as 'sleeping for food'. Many of the woman's neighbours had made similar deals with Russian soldiers in the desperate final weeks of the war.

Earlier this year the distinguished German poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensburger republished A Woman in Berlin, insisting that its author, who had died two years ago, should remain anonymous. Last week, however, one of Germany's leading literary editors, Jens Bisky, identified the author as Marta Hillers - a German journalist who had studied at the Sorbonne, travelled extensively in Europe, and had written for German newspapers and magazines.

Enzensburger, furious at the revelation, accused Bisky of 'shamelessness'. 'These are the hidden investigations of snoopers,' he said. 'The author knew very well why she wanted to remain anonymous. She wanted to spare herself further indignity until after her death. After reading the text her partner at that time wanted nothing more to do with her.'

Enzensburger added: 'She didn't agree to a new edition in her lifetime after she was accused of besmirching the honour of German women.'

Bisky, however, is unrepentant, claiming last night that the diary could only be regarded as an accurate historical document if the identity of its author were known.

The circumstances surrounding the original publication in 1959 were mysterious - and although the diary had clearly been written during the fall of Berlin, it had probably been revised in the years immediately afterwards, he suggested.

'Enzensburger has made a mistake,' Bisky told The Observer last night. 'He wasn't careful enough in editing the book. It is important we judge it as history and not as a novel.'

The memoir, which has been on the bestseller lists in Germany for the past 19 weeks, is the latest in a series of recent works that explore the idea that Germans were not only aggressors, but also - to a previously unrecognised extent - victims during the Second World War.

After the original publication, the book sank without trace in a country that had decided to deal with the horrors of its immediate past through collective silence. But since the end of the Cold War, and German reunification, writers and historians have begun to deal with the theme of German suffering.

Günther Grass's latest novel Catwalk describes the sinking by a Russian submarine of a German liner crowded with refugees; and the late W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction ponders the deaths of 600,000 civilians during the relentless Allied bombing of German cities.

British historian Antony Beevor's bestselling Berlin: The Downfall 1945 , published last year, also chronicles the mass rape of German women by the advancing Red Army. An estimated 100,000 Berlin women were raped by Russian soldiers between 1945 and 1948 - an aspect of history that until recently has been taboo, not only in Germany but also in Russia, where Beevor's revelations provoked outrage.

A Woman in Berlin also impressed critics with its dry, laconic tone and lack of self-pity. 'The writer is too reflective, too candid, too worldly for that,' one reviewer said.

The author also shrugs off her own suffering. 'I laugh right in the middle of all this awfulness. What should I do? After all, I am alive, everything will pass!' When the author learns of the Nazi concentration camps, she turns to Greek tragedy, and leafs through a volume of Aeschylus's plays. 'Millions of people turned into fertiliser, mattress-stuffing, soap and felt - Aeschylus never saw anything like this,' she notes.

According to Bisky, A Woman in Berlin was Marta Hillers's only major work. After the war, she circulated her diary among friends. One of them, German author Kurt Marek, recognised its value, and had it published in America.

Hillers later married, moved to Switzerland, abandoned journalism, and disappeared. It was only after her death in June 2001, at the age of 90, that her memoir could be republished.,00.html