Shocked by The Handmaid's Tale? A Woman in Berlin documents a real-life dystopia

Both the fictional handmaids and the real Berlin women have been anonymised. 

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Damn this to hell! I say it out loud. Then I make up my mind. 

No question about it: I have to find a single wolf to keep away the pack. An officer, as high-ranking as possible, a commandant, a general, whatever I can manage. After all, what are my brains for, my little knowledge of the enemy language?

The Handmaid’s Tale, which came to an end on British TV this week, has gripped imaginations on both sides of the Atlantic. It is a distinctly modern story of the oppression of women, state control, ideological transformation, and human-engineered catastrophe. Margaret Atwood wrote the book on which the series was based in West Berlin, in 1984, when the city was still divided between communist and capitalist powers. Reflecting in 2017 about the book’s beginnings, Atwood said she drew on historical incidents, including mass rape: “If I was to create an imaginary garden I wanted the toads in it to be real.”

It seemed fitting that Atwood wrote in Berlin, not only because of its history of oppresive regimes, but because that is also the setting of a 20th century book which captures many of the same themes as The Handmaid’s Tale.  Like the Handmaid, too, the woman is a modern-minded one in her thirties, who worked in publishing. Unlike Atwood's Offred, she is real. 

A Woman in Berlin, from which the above excerpt is quoted, is a diary written over just two months, April to June 1945, during the fall of Berlin. It begins among the “cave dwellers” – the writer and her neighbours sheltering underground from the Allied bombs. Unlike the rest of Europe, they have been relatively shielded from the war, while existing at the heart of Nazi society. 

While Handmaid chronicles the rise of a new totalitarian ideology, A Woman in Berlin records its end. The writer is no Nazi, but a journalist who travelled the world, could have avoided Hitler’s Germany, and yet ignored the advice of friends and chose to return to Berlin. She has a fiancé fighting in the German army. Her reflections of her complicity are reminiscent of Gilead’s characters:

What about me? Was I for… or against? What’s clear is that I was there, that I breathed what was in the air, and it affected all of us even if we didn’t want it to.

She recalls how, three years after Hitler came to power, she encountered a student in Paris and they played a guessing game of where each other was from. The student, a Jewish Dutchman, realised she was a German when unconciously she tried to march in step with him.

The overwhelming story of A Woman in Berlin though, is one still hardly discussed today, of the mass rape of German women by Russian soldiers as they took the city. In the space of a few days, the writer and her female neighbours are raped repeatedly, and gang-raped. The victims include a Jewish woman who has been in hiding, and whose husband is shot trying to protect her. It is after a soldier rapes her, and spits in her mouth, that the narrator of A Woman in Berlin concludes she must seek the protection of the “single wolf to keep away the pack”.    

What stands out about A Woman in Berlin, and what perhaps most links it to The Handmaid's Tale, is the frank, cool and detailed way in which the writer describes what is happening to her. The society she documents is one where middle-class German women respond to their trauma by cracking jokes about their vaginas. Meanwhile, their husbands become submissive shadows and the black van comes for those who enforced the Third Reich. As the reader knows, and the narrator is gradually learning, the atrocities she is experiencing take place in the context of another horror - the Holocaust. Soviet soldiers jostle among themselves to create a new order, as one dystopia is being replaced by another. A German neighbour, a former Communist, tells the writer: “A new world is being born, the world of tomorrow, and it’s a painful birth.”

A Woman in Berlin ends with the return of the writer’s fiancé. Unlike the TV series of The Handmaid’s Tale, where Offred is sustained by memories of her liberal husband, the reunion soon turns into a confrontation. Gerd calls the women “shameless bitches” and eats up all the food. He reads the writer’s diary, but has to ask what her references to “schdg” mean. “I had to laugh,” the writer says. It was an abbreviation of Schändung – rape. Gerd leaves, and in her final entry, she wonders whether she'll ever see him again: "I only know that I want to survive - against all sense and reason, just like an animal."

Both The Handmaid and A Woman in Berlin depict worlds where rape and dehumanisation are normalised, and in both of the books, at least, the victims remain anonymous. In The Handmaid, this is because of an institutionalised attempt to strip away the identity of the woman. 

In A Woman in Berlin, on the other hand, the anonymity was self-imposed, and all the more poignant as a result. In Berlin alone, 100,000 women are estimated to have been raped during the city's fall. Yet when the book was first published in German in 1959, it caused such an outrage – one critic called it “shameless immorality” – that the author refused to have it reprinted in German again in her lifetime. She died aged 90 in 2001. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.