Of all the differences between Britain and the rest of Europe, the greatest is that Britain won both World Wars. We do not know what defeat is, or humiliation, or starvation, or the breakdown of civil society. These two books can tell us.
In fact no one ever wants to know about such things, least of all if they’ve happened to them. It took twenty years for anyone to listen to Holocaust survivors, and much longer than that in Israel, where the Shoah is still a source of shame. And it is only now that people are starting to listen to German and Austrian stories like these. Partly this is because the horrors perpetrated by Germans and Austrians under the Nazis were so extreme that their own sufferings seemed merited, even to many of them. But it was also because of this matter of shame. A Woman in Berlin – an unsparing account of starvation, stealing and mass rape in the Russian sector of Berlin in 1945 – was first published in English, and appeared in German only in 1960, when it was attacked as ‘besmirching the honour of German women’. It wasn’t published again until 2003, a year after Almost a Childhood, whose author had sensibly delayed writing his book for sixty years. That is how long it takes for such truths to be told.
Both these books are based on diaries, and have the ring of immediate and urgent truth. Both are also the work of acute observers and experienced writers: the author of A Woman in Berlin was a journalist at the time, and Hans-Georg Behr writes for Die Zeit and Der Stern