When I started reading the German original of A Woman in Berlin in the autumn of 2011, I had no idea my fascination with its author would culminate in the publishing of her biography almost two years later. In that time I managed to track down her next of kin, consulted archives from Basle to Bremen and even as far as Moscow, found with no little surprise many famous names among her friends and acquaintances and realised that lot of literature existed that filled in the blanks in the author’s story.
During my research I also realised that A Woman in Berlin was as popular, if not more so, abroad as it was in Germany. The rape of German and – often neglected or forgotten in the discussion – Austrian women and girls by Allied forces has always been known in their countries. Especially the brutality of Red Army soldiers had become a kind of national trauma following the arrival and settlement of refugees from the former German provinces of Eastern Prussia, Silesia and Pomerania. Academic research into it, however, did not start until the fall of the Iron Curtain; and only in recent years has it become a topic in geriatric care as long-buried traumas started to emerge in a generation now well into their eighties and nineties.
Those facts, of course, are virtually unknown in other countries except among historians. History lessons in school stop at the capitulation of Nazi Germany – they do so in Germany, too. A Woman in Berlin therefore has become the primary voice of the ignored events of 1945 and a poignant reminder of the price of war.
I always felt A Woman in Berlin should be of special interest in the states of the former Soviet Union, not as an accusation (as certain nationalists there seem to think) but as a more lively, more human depiction of the battle of Berlin and its hero-villains than Soviet history books with their strict exclusive adherence to military action can convey.
I have frequently been asked about an English translation of Marta Hillers’ biography. A literal translation, I think, would be of no great use abroad. Many persons discussed in it are unknown outside of Germany, and many events would require lengthy explanations. For example, the dramatist Hans Wolfgang Hillers (a cousin once removed from Marta Hillers) is a major character in the biography as he features quite prominently in the literature of his time and was named as a possible candidate for the real-life “Gerd” of A Woman in Berlin. All this means very little abroad since none of the literature interested persons could consult for further reading has ever been translated. I realised that a different approach was needed in conveying Marta Hillers’ story to the international public. A sad effect of this was losing the “voice” of some of the principle characters whom I quoted from their works.
Questions have been asked about the authenticity of A Woman in Berlin almost from the start. A major point in researching its author’s life therefore became establishing the truth of the events and the identity of the persons mentioned. What I found was a puzzle. The persons existed; some of them were actually quite easy to identify once I knew more about Marta Hillers’ life and the neighbourhood she lived in in 1945. But in order to keep their anonymity intact she had changed facts. Again taking as an example her cousin Hans Wolfgang Hillers: He features as the nameless colleague in whose apartment she finds refuge after the bombing of her house. Not a lie as such – he was a fellow writer, editor and journalist. She even took details of one person and exchanged them for the details of another. So the facts as such are true, but not always in connection with the people they are ascribed to. As for herself, Marta Hillers described herself as a “pale blonde”. In reality, she was dark-haired. Not so surprising if one recalls that she wanted to remain anonymous!
To understand the reality behind A Woman in Berlin, it is therefore necessary to keep in mind that details in the description vary from the actual events. I’ve dedicated a post to the persons of the book and their real-life counterparts, if identifiable, as well as to the neighbourhood. A chapter I was very keen to keep in my English series of posts is a comparison of the first edition of A Woman in Berlin and the new edition. The first English translation of 1954 by James Stern (who wrote a book of his own on his experiences in post-war Germany, The Hidden Damage) features passages not contained in the first German edition of 1959 and, subsequently, in any of the new editions since 2003. English readers will find how both translations differ from each other in the same passages, as well.
I will include a post on further reading (and watching) of material available in English or with English subtitles.
Of course any reader may feel free to quote from here – please be so polite as to mention your source.
”Why are you interested in this?” A question, asked in countless varieties. Certainly a justified question, from the point of view of the person asking. Yet to find an answer wasn’t always easy for me.
But: Who had not been interested, who hadn’t wondered when reading her insightful, at times witty and remarkably optimistic diary of April 20 to June 22, 1945, who this „woman in Berlin“ might have been – and what had happened after? What happened after she left the reader in the middle of a Berlin about to be quartered and divided, in the middle of ruins and hunger, insecurity about personal as well as national future and a tentative new beginning?
A few glimpses into the „afterward“ she offered through the notes later added to her diary, always concerning other persons than herself. She mentions Americans in her city district.
What happened after?
On June 16, 2001 Marta Dietschy-Hillers died in Basle at the age of 90 years. Probably no one except relatives and friends and perhaps some dignitaries of the town took notice of it. And why should they? Who after all remembered the name of an unimportant journalist who had published several articles in German and Swiss papers and a booklet since the 1930s?
All this changed, however, when her friend and executor of her literary estate Hannelore Marek, the widow of bestseller author Kurt W. Marek (C. W. Ceram), contacted the publisher Hans Magnus Enzensberger after Marta’s death. In 1985, after the founding of his publishing house, Enzensberger had tried to find the author of a book published anonymously 26 years ago under the title Eine Frau in Berlin. As Kurt Marek had written an introduction to its American first edition in 1954 (not included in the new English edition of 2005) in which he explained his role in the publishing of the diary, Enzensberger tried his luck at Hannelore Marek’s. Mrs. Marek did indeed know the author but had to report to Enzensberger that she refused a new edition of her book during her lifetime.
Now, after the author’s death, Hannelore Marek agreed to the republishing of Eine Frau in Berlin. With a few changes from the original text the new edition was published in 2003 and became an instant bestseller. Translation into, as of now, 30 languages followed. The director Max Färberböck adapted the story for a movie that has little in common with the book but by way of its Russian actors generated some interest in their homeland where criticism of the Red Army is still a social and political taboo. German, English and French language adaptation for the theatre followed.
Already in the year of the book’s success 2003, journalist Jens Bisky of the Süddeutsche Zeitung revealed the name of its author as well as details on her life and threw doubt on the book’s authenticity. What followed was a heated media debate on Bisky’s arguments. An examination of the book manuscript and the original diary that formed the basis of it by renowned expert Walter Kempowski did not yield any final results; however, he judged the diary, at least, to be genuine.
That was how things still stood in 2011.
When I read Eine Frau in Berlin, the storm had abated, an article on Wikipedia existed, and presumptions were accepted as facts. Without having read Mr. Bisky’s article (I had heard too many negative things about it and tried to avoid it for a long time), I started my own research.
On a mild January day in 2012 I stood at Marta’s grave for the first time. I had no idea what the future held in store for me; at this point my interest in the author was purely personal. Yet as time progressed and the amount of information I gathered grew larger and larger, I realized that no one had come this far before. No one had even bothered to. People were content with going with what they could find on Wikipedia and spin their own ideas as to the rest. Marta’s life was either going to remain a mystery or becoming a fantasy, distorted by false information and half-investigated facts. And I would be the only one to know better. It was at this point that I decided to do something about it.
Who was this mysterious Marta Hillers beyond her “conversation with herself in writing”? She spent more years not being the “woman in Berlin” than she did being it, and it seems strange that everyone tries to fix her on that short moment in her life. A lot of things have been written about A Woman in Berlin and Marta Dietschy-Hillers has always been seen and judged in that context alone. A disservice. Can you equate a woman who reached the ripe age of 90 with the 34-year-old who recorded her experiences in a diary? With the 23-year-young and already widely travelled journalist who adopted the tone of Nazi Germany because there wasn’t any other tone except abroad or in some underground movement?
Marta Hillers certainly did not define herself as the victim of multiple rape who finally “tamed one of the wolves” to keep the rest of the pack away, though I do not doubt that the events stayed with her to the end. She was a cultured and well-informed woman who valued the exchange of ideas, who was quick in finding contact. People who had known her described her to me as charming, as refined, as quite a character, even as “cool”. A person one would have loved to meet – and whose fascinating story one would love to know.