Writing their stories: Women’s survivorship and the history of domestic abuse in divided Germany

The 16 days series continues as Jane Freeland looks at the spirit of survival women demonstrated in the face of domestic violence at other women’s shelters – this time in Cold War Germany.

What struck me most profoundly while researching the history of domestic violence in Cold War Germany was how women, either working alone or together, survived abusive relationships and took action against gender-based violence.

Looking in federal and state collections, alongside research at the FFBIZ, a feminist archive in Berlin, my research investigates how domestic violence was dealt with in East and West Berlin during the Cold War. In the western half of the city, action against domestic abuse began after women activists successfully opened a battered women’s shelter, or Frauenhaus, in 1976. This shelter was to act as a model-project for dealing with domestic violence in West Germany, and was closely followed by similar organisations in Cologne, Bremen and Frankfurt. Feminist politics guided the work of this women’s shelter movement, as activists sought to empower women through a system of self-help and consciousness raising.

Berlin women, 1972. Photograph by Rainer Mittelstädt. Image via the German Federal Archives.

In socialist East Berlin, however, domestic violence was officially understood as evidence of an outdated, bourgeois attitude towards women and antithetical to the equality created by socialism. Consequently, the issue of domestic abuse received little public attention. Women seeking assistance with a violent husband were often forced to turn to a system, whose raison d’être was the perfection of socialist citizenship. In divorce cases, judges were often more concerned with what domestic violence said about the man’s commitment to the proletariat than about the woman’s safety. It was only in the mid to late 1980s that action against violence towards women started in East Germany: women’s groups created agendas for the reform of the law or rape and a crisis shelter opened in East Berlin. This activism would grow following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when women’s groups across the former East began opening women’s shelters and services for women living with violence.

In researching this history, I discovered stories of the women living in the first West Berlin shelter who confronted a man who had broken in to forcibly take back his wife. Blocking the doors, these residents not only stopped him from finding his wife, but also prevented him from escaping before the police could arrive. Similarly, when a male bailiff looking for a mother and child arrived to conduct a search of the shelter, five women were arrested for obstruction. Demanding that he, along with the child’s father, be given on-the-spot access to all of the shelter’s secure personal files, the residents attempted to block his entry to the shelter. Concerned with the serious breach of privacy this would involve, let alone the possibility of allowing a potentially violent man in to the shelter, the women exposed themselves to criminal charges in order to stop this breach of women’s safety.

From fellow researchers, I heard about the underground networks that women in East Berlin used to escape violence. The serious lack of housing in the socialist state meant that there was often no way to leave a violent relationship. Although divorce processes were increasingly straightforward, courts would often order women to continue living with their former husbands until they could ‘swap’ apartments and find alternate arrangements in the collective economy. To get around this issue, some women moved to one of the few squats that existed, and there are even rumours of an underground shelter network.

Stories like these from the 1970s and 1980s are even more remarkable given how fraught the movement to deal with domestic violence has been both historically and in recent years. Although today it may seem like common sense that violence against women is a serious issue, if the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence and the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse have shown us anything it is that protecting women and children from abuse has not always been the priority it should have been.

Fall of the Berlin Wall, November 1989. Photograph by Raphaël Thiémard. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

This was certainly the case in Cold War Germany, where the women’s shelter movement in West Berlin struggled against popular attitudes that saw violence in the home as a private matter. Activists were heckled by the public as they held rallies calling for a shelter in West Berlin and politicians feared that women’s shelters would become breeding grounds for feminists. In the East Germany meanwhile, women’s groups were surveilled by the Ministry of State Security as were the organisers of the first crisis shelter in East Berlin. Social scientists in universities and research institutions didn’t dare investigate violence in the home for fear of personal and professional repercussions.

However, these stories of women’s survival and the extra-legal pathways women took to escape abuse are not only difficult to find, but also to substantiate. More often than not, they are unrecorded. The few examples I did find were rarely in the archive, but rather in women’s memories of things that happened to friends or in the workplace. This lack of substantive evidence makes it difficult to talk about these stories in wide-reaching ways. As a result, the stories of women’s survival of domestic abuse are often either missing from the history books, or exist as footnotes.

But these shortcomings only make telling stories about women’s survival and solidarity all the more important. And happily, there is further research coming out that addresses these short-comings. Not unsurprisingly, oral history plays an important role in uncovering women’s experiences of dealing with domestic violence in the past.

These are stories that need to be told: not only because the best source of knowledge on domestic violence comes from those who have experienced it, but because when we look at the stories of women’s experiences of abuse and survival, we see not only how far we have come, but how much more there is to be done. While some of the women entering the first women’s shelter in Germany in 1976 had been living with physical abuse for over twenty years, such long-term physically abusive relationships are now becoming less common. And yet, so much of what I read about how women living with abuse were treated – being disbelieved, being told by the courts that they encouraged the abuse, receiving second-hand justice, turning to suicide or self-harm as a way of escaping violence – closely parallels what women still experience today.

Taking these stories seriously then is essential to moving forward against domestic violence. If we know where we have come from, we can know where we need to go.


BIG e.V. – three cooperative organisations which include BIG Koordinierung, BIG Prävention, and the BIG Hotline – seek to put an end to domestic violence and violence against women in Germany.

Growth for Community Change

When every news story is about fear, hate and misfortune, and every person we pass has their nose buried in a phone or tablet it might be easy for us to start to think that we live in a time of individualism and social isolation. Working in the community sector, and reading the news, I am constantly confronted by staggering statistics on deaths due to gender-based violence, reports on terrorism, hate crimes and youth suicide and depression – and it cannot be denied that there are days when “big bad world syndrome” kicks in and the problems appear too great for the community to bear. Every so often however it is through the kindness of a stranger, a simple act of selflessness that I am snapped back to the reality of the time we live in. Our community faces huge challenges, but we can change that.

In the 1990s when I was growing up, buses and cafes were noisy places where people were talking to one another visibly. Today, people are looking down at their electronic devices appearing to ignore one another, which, has often been perceived by older generations as a failing of the younger generations – perhaps however, we are missing something. You see, in October of this year I put a post out over the Hobart Women’s Shelter (HWS) Facebook page requesting that individuals and community groups donate their time, and material goods to assist the HWS in providing a Christmas celebration worthy of the women and children who access our service each year.

I was overwhelmed with generous responses from people of all walks of life, individuals of every age, schools, Girl Guide Groups, social groups, men, women, families, businesses – even past clients wanting to give back to the community which once assisted them. One young woman in particular however, I feel deserves a special mention. So often, the younger generations are passed over as not having the work ethic and drive of generations passed, but let me assure you that the spirit of community, hope and giving is alive and well in the hearts of the youths of Tasmania. I received a Facebook message from Laura, a young woman living locally, asking what exactly she could do to assist with our upcoming Christmas preparations. I mentioned to her that we would love to put together some ‘party bags’ for the children attending our Christmas Party. Laura asked approximate ages and genders of children, and then proceeded to blow our minds.

Laura using Facebook rallied her peers to contribute donations of time and gifts to go into party bags for children of a variety of ages. In addition, she assisted me in contacting local bussocial-media-and-changeinesses to acquire further donations for the shelter. Erik Qualman Pulitzer Prize nominated author of Socialnomics and What Happens in Vegas Stays on YouTube, wrote that “The power of social media is that it forces necessary change,” and I could not agree more.

One of the laura-2Hobart Women’s Shelter’s (HWS) core values is growth. We embrace change and opportunities for learning. With this in mind I would like us to consider the individual contributions of community members, and the ways in which we can reach out to one another and connect as a ‘community’ be that online (with our nose buried in our phone, not talking to people on the bus because we are busy mobilising dozens or our peers to change the world) or in person – there is no right or wrong way, as long as we as an organisation and community continue to grow in our appreciation and realisation of the beautiful contributions that we can ourselves and those around us can make into making the world a better place, where not every news story need to fill us with dread.

Every Step Has to be Safe

Contemporary Turkish writer and thinker Mehmet Murat ildan wrote that “For stairs to be safe, every step on the stairs has to be safe,” an idea which generates images of sturdy pathways forward and seems an appropriate thought from which to begin this post about safety.

One of the Hobart Women’s Shelter’s (HWS) core values is safety. We prioritise physical and emotional safety in all aspects of our service and create a safe working environment. With this in mind, looking at the safety of both the clients we do and have served, and those we wish to service in the future, we are constantly reviewing our practices and looking at ways in which we can improve our service to ensure we are able to provide physical and emotional safety for women and their children.

Over the last few years, we have noticed that many women are reluctant to remove themselves and their children from situations of violence when there is a loved family pet involved, unless they can assure the safety of the pet. As not doing so may further traumatise children, or place the pet at risk of violence or neglect at the hands of the perpetrator.

It has been noted that for both women and children, moving without their special companions at this time compounds the stress and sense of loss and makes the trauma they are facing in their family life that much more intense. Unfortunately in the past our shelter has been unable to house pets, and the women accessing our services were often unable to afford to pay kennel/cattery fees to provide the care pets need which would have a multitude of benefits – health, mental health, and stability for children whose lives have been turned upside-down by homelessness and family violence.

Fortunately however, we have recently been the recipient of a Community Grant from Huon Aquaculture in order to fund our Pet Protection Project providing us with the funding required to provide kennelling/cattery services for the pets of women escaping from domestic violence.

So as Mehmet Murat ildan wrote “For stairs to be safe, every step on the stairs has to be safe,” I hope that the Pet Protection Program will provide another “safe step” to women and children escaping from domestic violence – by ensuring we are able to create and provide a holistic service in which every step is safe, providing women and children with a safe pathway from crisis to recovery. Please stay tuned for more exciting updates to our service!


As young boys in Trenton, New Jersey, my brother and I grew up behind the closed doors of a home often engulfed with the haunting cries and unspeakable images that predictably come with horrific acts of domestic violence.

Huddling together, we would squeeze our eyes shut, muffle our sobs and, without a sound, wordlessly agree that during those frequent occurrences of violence, our best survival plan was to blanket our pain and fear with silence.

We dared not to breathe, lest we further provoke the man who was hitting our mother. Instead, we silently and fervently willed the violence to stop. It did not.

Like so many children who are victims, witnesses or survivors of domestic violence, my brother and I regularly endured such inescapable and sickening violence in silence. Who would hear us anyway? Who would help our mother; who would help us? And most of all, who in the world possesses such all-encompassing power that they can, once and for all, make such harmful violence stop?

As an adult, the answer to that question is clear to me. We all have the power to help eradicate domestic violence. Instead of turning away, we must step forward. Instead of silence, we must speak up. For those who think their inaudible cries are not heard, let us be the ones who hear them. Let us be their voice.

Some have wrongly claimed that domestic violence is a “woman’s issue.” But the facts are more than sobering: Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women — more than car accidents, muggings and rapes combined. Ten million children witness some form of domestic violence every year; every day more than three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends; men are twice as likely to abuse their wives if they witnessed domestic violence as children.

It largely has been the voices of women speaking up for their sisters who face domestic or relationship violence. Women have been burdened with the responsibility to educate the rest of us, not only about the physical injury but also the devastation to a woman or child’s spirit and soul.

In the decades I’ve served as an advocate to end domestic violence, one truth is abundantly clear to me: Domestic violence is predominantly a man’s issue. As a man, husband and father, part of my mission in life is to break the silence. It is men who must not only hear but heed our call to action to end domestic violence.

Men have the power to say no to domestic violence. As men, we must speak up and say domestic violence will not happen in my home, in my neighborhood, on my campus, on my team, in my workplace or in my circle of family and friends.

As men, we cannot be silent; we must not be bystanders to this behavior. Individually and collectively men have tremendous influence over other men, especially young men. We must use our power and our platforms to bring hope to those who want to believe that a new life, a better life, awaits them.

Violence against women and children is a choice. Choices have consequences.

The choice to harm a woman or child has lifetime implications both physically and psychologically. I’m lending my voice and my platform to challenge all men to take a stand and demand that none of us allow violence against women and children to occur in our presence.

It is an honor to speak Monday at the 17th annual Mending Broken Hearts with Hope luncheon to benefit the Shelter for Abused Women & Children in Collier County.

I am in awe of the work that is being done by the shelter and am humbled to be a part of their mission.