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.
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In socialist East Berlin, however, domestic violence was officially understood as evidence of an outdated, bourgeois attitude towards women and antithetical to the equality created by socialism.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.
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.

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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.