"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“The essence of a nation,” the French historian Ernest Renan said in 1882, is that its citizens have much in common, but “that they have forgotten many things.” The Germans, it could be said, have forgotten things that most nations never knew. No single country has struggled so openly to reckon with its history, and the process has not been a short one. Germany has spent decades coming to terms with the atrocities perpetuated by the Nazi regime, but the penumbra of shame around these crimes also obscured the suffering visited on German civilians, 600,000 of whom were killed by Allied firebombing of cities like Dresden and Hamburg.
The publication of “A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City,” then, shines considerable light on a hidden history of the war. The writer, an anonymous 34-year-old journalist who recorded in her diary the events of the fall of Berlin in the spring of 1945, does not fashion herself a victim. But her diary, released by a German publisher for the first time 60 years after the war, meets the challenge that novelist W.G. Sebald put to Germans in his lectures on “Air War and Literature”: “to try recording what [they] actually saw as plainly as possible.” In unsparing prose that brooks no pity and assigns no blame, the diarist calmly describes the disintegration of the German capital. Her diary begins less than a week before the Soviets entered the city, hastily scrawled by candlelight in a basement shelter: “My fingers are shaking as I write this.”
What makes the book an essential document is its frank and unself-conscious record of the physical and moral devastation that accompanied the war. Sebald extols the virtue of “authentic documents, before which all fiction pales,” and what is most remarkable about “A Woman in Berlin” is what is most ordinary — or rather, the desperate measures rendered ordinary in a city under occupation. The diarist spends her days scrounging for coal, picking nettles for food, and searching out what little clean water may still be had. Berliners queue for pathetic rations in the streets onto which the Russians fired almost 2 million shells in the last two weeks of the war; when a mortar explodes outside a local meat market, killing three, the women “use their sleeves to wipe the blood off their meat coupons” and line up all over again.
Before the Nazis came to power in 1933, Berlin had the smallest proportion of National Socialist voters of any German city. By the time the Red Army arrived, most Berliners, with the exception of the deluded Nazi faithful, appeared all too eager to shed the enthusiasm they had since developed for Adolf Hitler, whom they had taken to calling “that man” — a turn in public opinion that seems not to have begun in earnest until long after it was apparent the war would be lost. Many have repurposed Nazi literature into fuel; if people keep burning it, the diarist quips, “Mein Kampf will go back to being a rare book, a collector’s item.” The discarded mottos of Nazi propaganda are no more than grist for gallows humor: “For all this,” people incant, turning around a wartime mantra, “we thank the Fuhrer.”
What little strength the regime still possessed was devoted to upholding the Nazi commitment to senseless brutality: “If the war is lost, the people will also be lost,” Hitler explained to Albert Speer in March 1945. “It is not necessary to worry about their needs for elemental survival.” In Berlin, the Nazis pressed prisoners of war into constructing useless barricades instead of building water pumps; 80,000 men were sent to their deaths on the western front in the failed Ardennes offensive while the eastern front crumbled. Concentration camps in the path of advancing troops were evacuated, with prisoners marched to their deaths or simply executed. The Nazi program of civil defense consisted of making the meaningless declaration that a city was a “Fortress,” and then attempting to terrify its inhabitants with tales of “Asiatic” barbarity. The Nazis rushed newsreel cameras to East Prussia, the site of the earliest Soviet atrocities, solely to terrify the remaining Germans into holding their ground. “Are they supposed to spur the men of Berlin to protect and defend us women?” the diarist wonders skeptically; “their only effect is to send thousands more helpless women and children running out of town.”
The diarist and her neighbors sweat out waves of air raids, knowing all too well that the respite from American and British bombers will only come with the Soviet occupation: “Better a Russki on top,” they joke nervously, “than a Yank overhead.” “Our fate is rolling in from the east,” the diarist laments, and early reports leave little room for optimism: “Let’s be honest,” one woman in the cellar ventures, “none of us is still a virgin, right?”
In a fateful gesture of incompetence and betrayal, German military authorities left oceans of alcohol in the path of the Russian army in the hope that drunkenness might impair their fighting prowess. (It is hard to say if this decision reflects a Nazi faith in Russian stereotypes or a rank ignorance of them.) “That’s something only men could cook up for other men,” the diarest laments archly. “If they just thought about it it for two minutes they’d realize that liquor greatly intensifies the sexual urge. If the Russians hadn’t found so much alcohol all over, half as many rapes would have take place.”
The first rapes in East Prussia were an eruption of pure rage, bloody revenge for Wehrmacht atrocities on Soviet soil in the march to Stalingrad; soldiers destroyed homes, raped women — some as young as 12 — and killed children. But revenge could not have been the sole motive, for even Soviet prisoners of war and Jewish survivors were not safe; some, as young as 16, were raped by the soldiers who set them free. By the time the first libidinous Soviet wandered into the diarist’s cellar a few months later — pointing menacingly to a teenage girl and asking “How many year?” — German women appeared to the Red Army simply as rightful spoils of war.
Though the precise statistics will never be known, existing estimates are breathtaking: 2 million women were raped in Germany, many of them more than once. In Berlin alone, hospital statistics indicate between 95,000 and 130,000 rape victims. Many women killed themselves rather than “concede” — as some women put it — to the Soviets; some men killed themselves and their wives rather than suffer the indignity of rape.
The diarist, who worked before the war as a journalist and editor and traveled to “a dozen or so countries,” speaks “very basic” Russian and is quickly drawn into mediating between the Germans and their unwelcome guests. After she helps to chase two would-be rapists out of the basement the first night after the Russians arrive, she peeks outside to ensure the coast is clear and the men, lying in wait, force her to the ground while those inside the shelter, ever the good Germans, bolt the door and abandon the diarist to her fate:
“He’s simply torn off my garter, ripping it in two. When I struggle to come up, the second one throws himself on me as well, forcing me back on the ground with his fists and knees … The door opens, two, three Russians come in, the last a woman in uniform. And they laugh.”
Later that night she is raped again, with a kind of perverse consent: when four men set upon her in her apartment, she begs for only one to stay. Thus the chaos begins: having been raped once, sadly, is no guarantee against further assaults. “Every minute of life comes at a high price,” the diarist observes. The next day she is raped again, by an older man “reeking of brandy and horses,” who rips apart her underwear — “the last untorn ones I had.” She writes: “Suddenly his finger is on my mouth, stinking of horse and tobacco. I open my eyes. A stranger’s hands expertly pulling apart my jaws. Eye to eye. Then with great deliberation he drops a gob of gathered spit into my mouth.”
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The proliferation of tales of individual atrocities often takes on the numb character of pornography: an endless litany of crimes against dignity, the same scenarios of cruelty replayed again and again; anyone who has pored over human rights reports soon finds that the accumulated evidence begins to dull as the brutalities mount. Yet here the opposite is true. The stories from those around her only multiply the disgust: a friend raped four times; a Jewish woman raped while her husband, shot by the Russians, bleeds to death; a woman whose three rapists smear marmalade and coffee grounds in her hair, just for kicks; the rape of “a twelve-year old girl … who was tall for her age”; the soldiers who “took the sixteen-year-old on the chaise longue in the kitchen”; one woman raped by “at least twenty men,” with “her breasts, all bruised and bitten.”
The diarist’s emotional register remains unfailingly calm. Her dispassionate chronicle of the disasters of war suggests a kind of stoic heroism, though she is quick to point out that her own travails have been minor by comparison: “It sounds like the absolute worst, the end of everything — but it’s not.” The diarist resolves after her third rape to take refuge with a senior officer, “a single wolf to keep away the pack.” But this gambit is not entirely successful; after her first benevolent rapist disappears, she is forced to take up with another one. Berlin’s men can do little, it seems, to protect its women.
In fact, German men are largely absent from “A Woman in Berlin,” and the ones who do pass across its pages do little to earn our esteem; those who refrain from expressing their ridiculous faith in the regime in the midst of Soviet artillery bombardments are busy surrendering their wives to marauding Russians. “I think our men must feel dirtier than we do,” the diarist observes, and goes on to recount the story of one German man who berates his neighbor as she’s about to be raped: “Well, why don’t you just go with them, you’re putting all of us in danger!” Even before the Soviets arrive, the diarist perceives in the failure of the German Reich the irreparable decline of the male archetypes it venerated: “The Nazi world — ruled by men, glorifying the strong man — is beginning to crumble, and with it the myth of ‘Man.’ … Among the many defeats at the end of this war is the defeat of the male sex.”
Indeed, what is perhaps the book’s most chilling insult comes not at the hands of a Russian rapist but from the diarist’s partner, Gerd, who returns from the front in June, casts his eyes on the diary that our heroine has been dutifully keeping for him, declares that she and the other women have “all turned into a bunch of shameless bitches” and disappears, presumably forever.
After the war there was clearly no shortage of rape stories. Though one Russian commandant dismissively assures the diarist that “our men are all healthy,” the spread of sexually transmitted disease — as well as the pregnancies that resulted — forced the Germans to take action. The Nazi authorities, for all their neglect of the civilian population, were sufficiently alarmed to relax eugenicist laws prohibiting abortion as an act of “sabotage against Germany’s racial future,” although women had to submit to what was surely a humiliating police interrogation to prove they had been raped. It has been estimated that 90 percent of those women who became pregnant had abortions; many of the children who were born were put up for adoption.
The diarist at first refuses to acknowledge that she might be pregnant — “no grass grows on the well-trodden path,” she suggests hopefully. Later, when her period is two weeks late, she heads to a female doctor who has hung out a shingle among the ruins (“she’d replaced the [broken] windowpanes with old x-rays of unidentified chests”). After being reassured that she is not pregnant, the diarist ventures to ask the doctor “whether there were indeed lots of women who’d been raped by the Russians” coming in search of abortions. But the doctor wants no part of such talk: “It’s better not to speak of such things,” she replies curtly. Though the diarist expresses her hope that women might “overcome collectively,” no such public reckoning would be possible in postwar Germany, as she anticipates ruefully: “We … will have to keep politely mum; each one of us will have to act as if she in particular was spared.”
After the war, a friend of the diarist, Kurt Marek, read the manuscript and attempted to have it published. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that “A Woman in Berlin” was first released outside Germany, when Harcourt, Brace published an English edition in 1954. The New York Times judged it “profoundly relevant,” but the reception in Germany, when a Swiss publisher released the book five years later, was precisely the opposite; the prevailing sentiment among the very few notices that did appear was expressed by a critic who excoriated the author’s “shameless immorality.” Clearly the diary broached what Sebald would later describe as “a tacit agreement … that the true state of material and moral ruin in which the country found itself was not to be described.”
Though the diary at first fell on fallow ground, it enjoyed a samizdat second life, circulating among leftists and a growing women’s movement after 1968. But what was once unspeakable out of shame was now prohibited by politics: Accounts of Soviet atrocities in the east, like attention to Allied bombing in the west, had become the sole province of the German far right. Where one taboo had lifted another settled: Helke Sander, a German feminist whose 1992 film “Liberators Take Liberties: Rape, War, and Children” chronicled the rapes and their aftereffects, was pilloried in some quarters as a revisionist. The woman in Berlin, still guarding her anonymity against the disgrace of rape, would not allow her diary to see the light of day again so long as she lived. But by the time of her death in 2001, a seismic shift in German consciousness had transpired, and the book, published in 2003, quickly became a sensation and shot onto bestseller lists; last summer the film rights were sold for an undisclosed amount.
The conventional narrative holds that in the first decades after the war, Germans struggled fitfully with the Nazi years, embracing a kind of blanket guilt yet indicting no one in particular, taking psychic refuge in the triumph of West Germany’s “miraculous” economic recovery. 1945, “zero hour,” marked an irreparable boundary between present and past that few Germans cared to cross. But it is a convenient myth that Germans have only now recognized their own suffering: Instead of forgetting the war in the years that followed, Germans remembered it selectively, with great attention to certain of their own victims, particularly prisoners of war and expellees driven from their homes in the east.
Still, during an era when it was common to decry the Soviet “rape” of eastern Germany, the very real rape of German women remained a forbidden topic — despite the number of women who suffered. “None of the victims will be able to wear their suffering like a crown of thorns,” the diarist told Marek. “I for one am convinced that what happened to me balanced an account.” Such self-effacement testifies to our diarist’s ethical fortitude, but that German women should have endured such pain on behalf of German men should satisfy no one’s sense of justice.
Pity for the German people was in short supply after World War II, and for good reason. But the prevalent understanding of Nazi barbarities as an evil beyond human comprehension is nevertheless a cunning absolution of the rest of us, a self-exoneration that the diarist, to her credit, vehemently refuses. To see Germany’s descent into madness as an incomprehensible anomaly outside the bounds of humanity is to forget the evils of which the rest of us remain capable. “We learn nothing by blaming them,” I.F. Stone wrote in 1961 as Adolf Eichmann went to trial. “We all marched with Eichmann … whether it was the human incinerator or the H-bomb, we built it.” The ensuing half-century of human brutality has illustrated this all too well, and those fateful place names that have joined Auschwitz in our atlas of evil — Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Halabja, Iraq; Srebrenica, Bosnia; Kigali, Rwanda — are a painful reminder that “never again” was a wish and not a binding vow on mankind. It has taken that half-century to allow the recognition that, in Germany as elsewhere, among perpetrators there are also victims; “A Woman in Berlin” reminds us that the exclusivity of these categories is little more than a fable.
Jonathan Shainin is on the staff of the New Yorker.More Jonathan Shainin.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)