It seems obvious that a civilian population would experience and have a perspective on warfare than members of the military, but for those who perpetrate warfare – mainly the multi-national moneyed corporate interests, the bankers and stockbrokers, and the politicians who ultimately give the orders while rarely – if –ever – suffering the direct consequences, it seems to matter little. It has been this way throughout human history, but up until the advent of mechanized warfare, it was primarily soldiers, whose job it is to carry out orders, who experienced the consequences first-hand.
Civilian populations have suffered these consequences periodically throughout history as well, but it was after the development of mechanized slaughter that civilians became regular first-hand victims of the horrors of war. The American Civil War and the First World War had brought this to civilian populations on a wide-scale basis to some extent, but it was really the Second World War in which mechanized warfare had been perfected to the point that virtually any civilian population could be affected – including that of Germany.
The Germans had been subject to humiliation and hunger following the First World War as well as major economic upheavals – conditions that allowed Hitler to come to power in the first place. Nonetheless, German villages, cities and infrastructure had survived the 1914-1918 conflict nearly intact. This was not the case during the Second World War. Germany, for a brief time had been the world’s great superpower, which seemed only fitting to its people – particularly after the country’s spectacular rise prior to hostilities, and the apparent ease with which German forces had secured lebensraum for the deutsches leute.
The anonymous author of A Woman In Berlin, a day-by-day account of Berlin’s fall and subsequent occupation by Soviet military, gives us a vivid account of the subsequent disbelief, the initial clinging to hope in the face, the changed perspective on everyday life, and the various survival tactics employed. Mainly however, it is a story of the transition from feelings of power over one’s fate to powerlessness, and what issues, formerly trivial, take on monumental importance in the face of a struggle simply to survive: “Heart, hurt, love, desire – how foreign, how distant those words sound now.
Evidently a sophisticated, discriminating love life requires three square meals a day. ” 1 It is also an experience of life stripped to its bare essentials: “Once again, we see what a dubious blessing technology is. Machines with no intrinsic value, worthless if you can’t plug them in somewhere. Bread however is absolute. ”2 In light of this, it is fascinating to see how people – at least in the beginning – grasp on to any semblance of order as civilization collapses about them.
On page 13 is a stark example of the unique cultural traits of the German people of that time; cultural traits that had allowed Hitler and the Nazi party to seize the power that eventually led to the downfall: despite the lack of enforcement, despite the fact that the tram is nearly empty, the narrator walks alongside it in a pouring simply because she does not have the Class III ticket that would entitle her to ride. “Order. It’s rooted deep inside us; we do what we are told. 3 As the Russians enter the city, suddenly, they are no longer a distant, faceless enemy; they are humans like the German civilians, but unlike the Germans, they are predominantly young, male, relatively well-fed – and enraged. It is not always acknowledged that the Russians suffered far greater casualties than the U. S. , Great Britain and the free garrisons from countries such as France and Poland combined. According to the official Nazi party line, Slavs, i. . Russians, were little better than Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals. Despite ukaz Stalina (Stalin’s decree), repeated acts of rape and assault occur. As one Russian insists: “What did the Germans do to our women? ”4 revealing that these are not acts of lust or sexual hunger; these are acts of vengeance. Ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, hunger and safety needs – the lowest needs on Maslow’s hierarchy – take priority as the vanquished adapt in order to survive.
The narrator is willing to submit to “Only one” in order to avoid being gang-raped. Even during the act itself, she’s “only half present, and that half is no longer resisting. ”5 Eventually, she must find “a single wolf to keep away the pack. ”6 Ultimately, even the men “adapt,” surrendering and serving the conquerors; despite orders not to surrender, the desire to live wins out.
One difference between Soviet combat troops and that of every other combatant is the presence of women: “We’re amazed to see so many woman soldiers, with field tunics, skirts, berets and insignia”7 It is unclear from the narrative if the presence of Russian women prevented the brutish behavior from being worse than it was, but it is noteworthy that eventually, victor and vanquished are on first-name basis, actually interacting on a human level. One stark difference between the civilian and the military perspective stands out in bold relief: in the military, there is usually a bond of brotherhood among the soldiers of a given unit.
In the heat of battle, a soldier isn’t fighting for his flag, for geo-political advantage or territory; they’re fighting for their comrades. On the other hand, among the civilians, it seems to come down for every man or woman for his/herself: “I couldn’t care about the lot of them…all my feelings seem dead, except for the drive to live. ”8 This story is a history of a little-known chapter of World War II, but it is more importantly a testament to the overwhelming power of the survival instinct.
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