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FILM

Film confronts rapes of German women in WWII

One of the long-ignored chapters of World War II hit German screens this month with a harrowing account of the mass rapes of German women by Russian soldiers as the Nazi regime crumbled around them.

Film confronts rapes of German women in WWII
Photo: DPA

“Anonyma – A Woman in Berlin” stars A-list German actress Nina Hoss and has returned a victim’s anonymous diary to the forefront of an extremely tentative debate about German suffering during and after the war.

“There were tens of thousands (of rape victims) – that is for certain. Perhaps even hundreds of thousands,” US historian Norman Naimark, director of the Center for European Studies at Stanford, told German weekly Die Zeit. “Some estimates go up to two million if you include all the Eastern European territories with German populations.”

While the horrors inflicted by Nazis troops across the Soviet bloc are well documented, the price German women paid for the revenge taken by Russian soldiers was long unspoken in Germany- overshadowed by the overwhelming guilt of Hitler’s followers.

The new film by Max Faerberboeck, 58, was inspired by the intimate journal a Berlin woman kept from April 20 to June 22, 1945 in which she recounts the excruciating hunger and repeated violations she suffered in the vanquished German capital.

The nameless author bears witness in a laconic tone, with searing insights into the apocalyptic world around her.

The chilling journal was first published in the United States in 1954 and then in several other countries before arriving in West German bookstores in 1959 thanks to a small Swiss publishing house.

It was an era in which no one cared to hear about German suffering after the horrors wrought by Nazi troops – least of all the guilt-wracked Germans.

And in communist East Germany, a Soviet satellite, a blanket of silence suffocated any public discussion until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

The diary disappeared into obscurity for nearly half a century until noted writer Hans Magnus Enzenberger had it re-released in 2003. It became a bestseller in Germany.

The author appeared to have been in her 30s, well-educated, with a passion for photography and a basic knowledge of Russian picked up on her extensive travels before the war.

The daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung claimed to have unmasked her in 2003 as Marta Hillers, a journalist who made a name for herself with pro-Nazi propaganda – the prevailing theory to this day.

Although researchers such as Naimark and Britain’s Anthony Beevor have documented the enormous scale of sexual assaults of German women at the war’s end, such first-person accounts are extremely rare in the historical record.

The University of Greifswald in northeastern Germany has just launched what it says will be the first scientific study of the rapes of German women at the end of the war.

The study will focus on Berlin, the surrounding state of Brandenburg and the northeast of the country near today’s Polish border.

It will concentrate on the long-term psychological effects suffered by the affected women, all of whom, if still alive six decades on, are elderly.

The research team is advertising a telephone number for volunteers, just as the film has whipped up renewed public interest in the story.

“Anonyma” itself has received mixed reviews despite a riveting performance by Hoss in the lead role, with critics incensed about the introduction of a love story to the plot.

The journal recounts the woman’s decision to seduce a high-ranking Russian officer so he will protect her from the other soldiers – “packs of wolves”, as she calls them – preying on her and her neighbours.

There was no mention of love.

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CULTURE

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

Germans have an international reputation for enjoying functional clothing. A top German fashion expert told The Local whether the stereotypes of German fashion are really true - and what Angela Merkel has to do with modern style.

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

‘Comfortable and practical’

“It’s pretty easy to define German style,” says Bernhard Roetzel, the author of books on men’s fashion such as ‘Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion’. “Nowadays the basic dress of a grown-up man is mainly blue jeans, some kind of sweatshirt and an anorak. The shoes are usually comfortable sneakers. This is the basic German fashion that everyone from workers to doctors wears, and it is suitable for 90 percent of occasions.”

The basic theme, he says, is comfort and practicality. “That is very important.”

According to Roetzel, this love for the practical stretches all the way back into the 19th century when most other Europeans still had strict public dress codes.

“It began with a movement called Lebensreform, which valued things like vegetarianism and woollen clothes, which were supposed to be healthy,” he says.

“Even if Germans at the time didn’t like political freedom, they loved the freedom to wear sandals. Freedom for Germans is to wear sandals in places where it is not appropriate!”

A woman lies on the shore of the Schwarzachtalsee in Baden-Württemberg still wearing her sandals. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Thomas Warnack

Dressing down became even more acceptable after the First World War, when Germany became a republic and the aristocracy, with its formal sense of dress, lost its importance. “The Nazis also propagated being active outdoors,” Roetzel notes. “Fashion was seen as something awful created by the French and the Jews to bring about the downfall of German culture.”

When the craze for casual wear crossed the pond from the US in the 1960s, Germans were slow to adopt it. But now jeans are even standard clothing for septuagenarians, he says. “Twenty years after jeans arrived people started to realise that they are great for all occasions – and now everyone wears them. This was the last blow to formal German clothing.”

Dress down for work

The German love for all-purpose clothes means that it is perfectly appropriate to wear jeans to work, according to Roetzel. 

“If you don’t work in a bank or law firm you can probably wear jeans in most offices. A non-iron, short sleeve shirt is also very important. German men love these shirts, despite the fact that you get hot in them.”

You can even wear sneakers in the office. Or, if you have to look a bit smarter “some very cheap, comfortable leather shoes” will make you fit right in.

“In business, it is very important that you don’t stand out,” Roetzel advises. “If you are smartly dressed people will ask if you have an important meeting or will think you are looking for a pay rise. For everyday business, you dress as casually as possible.”

A woman cycles to work in jeans and a simple jacket in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Christin Klose

Nothing too sexy

Meanwhile, women’s workplace style, perhaps even more than men’s, is based on the principle of ‘the more forgettable the better.’

“Women in German business must not look too sexy,” says the fashion writer. “If you wear a skirt, for example, it should not be too short and heels should not be too high.” A “boxy, mouse grey suit” including a jacket that doesn’t complement one’s figure completes the look.

“Whereas in Italy, businesswomen carry Chanel bags, in Germany they usually carry a laptop bag or something very practical. Makeup is also rather reduced, not too much lipstick, nothing that is too obvious,” he says.

No door policy

Ties are basically a redundant piece of apparel in modern Germany, meaning wearing one really is a matter of choice in most settings.

“There are very few places where you are not allowed in if you don’t wear a tie,” says Roetzel. “I don’t know a single restaurant that wouldn’t admit you if you don’t wear a tie. You might not be allowed into Cologne Cathedral if your shorts are too short, but basically, you can wear everything everywhere and Germans love this!”

Funerals and weddings

Even the most formal occasions, such as weddings, funerals and important birthdays are much more informal events than they once were.

“At funerals, people will wear black but they rarely wear a black suit, most people will wear a black sweatshirt and jeans,” says Roetzel.

Copy Merkel

Angela Merkel’s unpretentious style appealed to Germans. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Fabian Sommer

Anyone looking for inspiration need look no further than recently retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who famously wore variations on the same trouser suit for most of her career.

“She had different colours and fabrics but that was her uniform and she also found her hairstyle and that was it. I don’t think she had a stylist,” Roetzel says. “That’s what Germans love. It’s recognizable and it doesn’t look expensive.”

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“In Germany, one thing you should never admit to is wearing expensive, tailor-made clothes,” he explains. “As a politician, you can admit that you like drinking but you should never admit to having an expensive wardrobe.”

In fact, the cheaper the better. “Olaf Scholz has always earned a lot of money but his clothes are awful, his suits are awful – this is just perfect for Germany,” says Roetzel.

Splash the cash subtly (or on outdoor clothes)

This is not to say that all Germans wear cheap clothes, but they don’t make a big fuss about the brands that they do wear.

“People want to express status by wearing certain brands,” Roetzel points out. “But in Germany, this is done in a very subtle way. You will see small details in the clothes and glasses of a professor or doctor that will tell you a lot. Class exists but people hide their status because it is negative to show it off. This can be hard for foreigners to detect.”

There is one major exemption thought to the rule of not flaunting your wealth – outdoor apparel.

“Outdoor clothes are really a big thing here,” Roetzel says. “It gives people a sense of freedom and healthiness. Spending €800 on an outdoor jacket is perfectly okay. But it is a sin to spend the same amount on a tailor-made suit – you will destroy your image if you admit to doing this.”

Moreover, anyone who wants to impress Germans through their possessions would be better advised to buy a good car or modern kitchen, the fashion expert says. “It is perfectly normal to have a very expensive kitchen, but your clothes should still be cheap.”

Focus on inner beauty

The German (dis)interest in fashion can actually tell us a lot about deeper German values.

“There is an old Prussian saying of mehr sein als schein (content is better than appearance). Germans feel that if something is too beautiful there must be something fishy about it. Anyone who is too smartly dressed could be a conman,” says Roetzel.

“Germans are very honest, they like to be very direct. They say “what’s the point in not wearing sandals if it’s hot?’”

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