Wartime memoirs by women in vogue

In the 1950s, few people in the United States or Europe paid attention to a German woman's memoir of civilians fighting off starvation, sexual assault, and sudden death during the Russian occupation of Berlin.

Readers might have blanched at the descriptions of soldiers routinely raping helpless women left in the city at the end of World War II. Perhaps no one wanted to think about German suffering. Or maybe the author's wry personality lacked appeal at the time.

Now, more than five decades later, the reissued version of "A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City," is making waves across the globe, lauded as a journalistic masterpiece and a stunning literary achievement.

The book also has joined an exclusive club: It's one of a handful of war-related works that took decades - even generations - to be appreciated.

For example, "Parade's End," British novelist Ford Madox Ford's epic 1920s fiction series about World War I, has been rediscovered and is now being lauded for its depictions of the psychological effects of war. Just last month, "Winter Soldiers," a seldom-seen 1972 documentary about Vietnam veterans who protested the war, began hitting movie screens to wide interest.

"A Woman in Berlin" is most similar, however, to another long-forgotten but recently rediscovered war work: a Southern aristocrat's detailed recollections of life on the Civil War home front. After more than a half century of obscurity, the diary of Mary Chesnut - full of sharp commentary and sharp observations - has become a priceless historical document and a respected piece of American literature.

Why do the experiences of these two female authors resonate more now? The answer, historians say, lies in how we look at war and women. "Our interests have evolved," says historian Jay Winik, author of "April 1865: The Month that Saved America." "We've developed a larger appetite and appreciation for the soft underbelly of war, the social and cultural issues."

Indeed, "A Woman in Berlin" has reappeared in an era when the horrors of wartime rape are openly discussed. Some victims even allow their identities to be known in order to tell their stories. By contrast, the book's author, a journalist, chose to be anonymous, a decision that allowed her to fully tell the stories of the Berlin women's desperate attempts to avoid assault. She herself submitted to a high-ranking Russian officer to get protection from multiple assailants.

The author got little sympathy upon the book's initial publication, however. One of the few reviewers accused her of "shameless immorality."

"This was a real document of defeat. It's about Germans losing the war," says the book's American editor, Riva Hocherman of Metropolitan Books. "Nobody wanted to talk about it, nobody wanted to know that it happened, and certainly German men didn't want to have to confront their own powerlessness."

Now, several years after the author's death, Germans are more willing to explore their past and discuss once-taboo issues.

Similarly, greater interest in women's history has brought Mary Chesnut to the forefront. A high-society Southern matron and an opponent of slavery, she wrote a diary of her life in South Carolina from 1861 to 1865, putting a human face on a war whose passions seem almost impossible to fathom at a distance of 150 years.

Ms. Chesnut's story of encroaching defeat became familiar to viewers of the PBS documentary "The Civil War" in 1990. Before the 1980s, however, she was virtually unknown, even though her diary had first been published in 1905 in expurgated form.

A century ago, says historian Winik, "I'm not so sure that the country at large would have been willing to accept the observations of a woman about something as significant and manly as the Civil War." It certainly didn't help that Chesnut, a feminist years before the word came into use, writes that "There is no slave after all like a wife."

The diarist of "A Woman in Berlin" also tackles the divide between the sexes. "Deep down we women are experiencing a kind of collective disappointment," she writes. "Among the many defeats at the end of this war is the defeat of the male sex."

Chesnut and the anonymous author are united by more than commentary about gender. They also share an admirable ability to resist despair.

Despite her struggles, Chestnut is "incredibly strong and has a true love of love," writes Elizabeth Muhlenfeld in her biography of Chesnut. Anonymous, meanwhile, preserved her dignity under the most extreme circumstances, writes Hans Magnus Enzensberger, her book's German publisher. In the forward, he says she "never abandoned her fundamental sense of decency, a trait too rarely found amid the ruins of her time."

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