Chernobyl: a reference point in a study of East German ecofeminism 1968-1989

In this fascinating blog based on her presentation at the 2023 WESWWHN Annual Conference on Women and the Natural World: Historical Perspectives on Nature Climate and Environmental Change, Charlotte Oakes explores East German women’s participation in the global ecofeminism movement.


The Democratic Republic of Germany (GDR) was not the first nor the last place for ecofeminist thought to proliferate. Existing research portrays ecofeminism as a globally resonant political ideology but one predominantly focused within the Western hemisphere [1]. To demonstrate that ecofeminism did exist outside of the former capitalist bloc, my paper looks closely at the form that the political ideology took in contemporary East Germany.

Ecofeminism, a strand of feminist thought reliant on the belief that women and nature are inextricably connected, flourished from the 1970s onwards [2]. In my period of study, 1968-1989, the woman/nature bond became a valuable tool for some women to justify their participation in the otherwise male-dominated political sphere.

My research begins in 1968 – the year that the East German constitution was revised. When researching the history of ecofeminism, it is Articles 15 and 20 that warrant particular attention. Together the constitutional clauses promised that East Germany would be free from environmental degradation and gender inequality [3]. In reality, life was very different. By 1976, the Head of State, Erich Honecker, had replaced the country’s communist ambitions with his notion of ‘real-existing socialism’ which ended the GDR’s pursuit of its constitutional Marxist-Leninist ideals [4]. 

The Fernsehturm, East Berlin (the Berlin TV Tower)

On 26 April 1986, governments across the western world reported high levels of radioactive fallout caused by a reactor explosion at a nuclear plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine. In the East, socialist states were resolutely quiet. Only after a week did the East German government (led by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, SED) allow the party-affiliated newspaper to publish nebulous information about events in the Soviet satellite state. Despite the SED’s attempt to deny its role in the fatal tragedy, East Germans quickly learnt about the scale of environmental degradation caused by the socialist regime [5].

Chernobyl had a profound impact across the contemporary world. Whilst it undoubtedly contributed to an increase in environmental activism, my research suggests that it was not the trigger for East German ecofeminism. Applying 1986 as a reference point reveals the East German women fighting for ecological survival before and continuously after the nuclear disaster.

To fully appreciate the trajectory of ecofeminism within the GDR, I regard the East German women’s movement as consisting of an official branch, unofficial branch and public branch. My three case studies were selected to respectively provide insight into how ecofeminism existed within the movement’s different strands.  

My first case study uses the Democratic Women’s Organisation of Germany (DFD) to represent the official branch of the women’s movement. Founded by the SED in 1947, the organisation was officially tasked with encouraging political participation amongst the female population. Investigating the DFD revealed how the official women’s organisation provided space for ecofeminist activism before Chernobyl but adopted an anti-ecological pro-industry stance following the disaster. The official branch of the women’s movement could only champion ecofeminism whilst it served in the best interests of the SED. [6]

The second case study uses the organisation, Women for Peace (WFP), to represent the unofficial branch of the women’s movement. Unfettered by an obligation to the state, WFP employed the woman/nature bond to condemn the falsehood of the GDR’s environmentally protectionist, gender equitable facade. Applying Chernobyl as a reference point did not find a resounding alteration in WFP’s employment of ecofeminism. Prior to Chernobyl, WFP applied ecofeminist ideology to campaigns against female military conscription as well as the SED’s militarisation of the school curriculum. The group continued their public fight for ecological survival with some members believing their greatest success occurred after the explosion, when they successfully prevented the construction of a motorway across the historically important, ecologically diverse Jewish Cemetery in Berlin. As a case study, WFP reveals how ecofeminism was a persistent presence in the unofficial branch of the East German women's movement. [7]

For my final case study, I looked at two novels by internationally-acclaimed East German author, Christa Wolf. Studying the 1983 text, Kassandra, and 1986 Disaster: News of A Day, may seem anomalous when positioned alongside two women’s organisations [8]. It was Nancy Lukens’ metaphor of GDR literature as a ‘seismograph of changing social consciousness’, however, that encouraged me to apply Wolf’s work to gain insight into the interaction between an ecofeminist ideology and the broader female population within the GDR [9].

Kassandra is a retelling of the mythological tale of the Trojan War. I considered the areas of the 1983 text which resonate with the DFD’s application of ecofeminism and alternately the more subversive politics of WFP. Considering how Kassandra balances between supporting and subverting the socialist state reveals how GDR authors and their readership were, like political organisations, shaped by the conditions of life in the GDR. Disaster proved incremental to my research as it was one of the first fictional texts to be published in response to Chernobyl. Unlike Kassandra, the 1986 novel renounces allegory and writes in explicit inference to the failure of real-existing socialism to resolve issues of female subordination and ecological degradation. I use the underlying ecofeminist narrative of Kassandra and Disaster as evidence of the sustained presence of ecofeminism within the East German public consciousness prior to and following Chernobyl. Through my comparative analysis, I suggest that although ecofeminism was known to the female public before Chernobyl, it was after 1986 that it truly became a tool for undermining the East German socialist state.

Chernobyl: a reference point aims to highlight the ecofeminist tenet running through the East German women’s movement.  The three case studies provide evidence that from 1968 until 1989, the GDR witnessed a female population mobilising in response to a large array of ecological issues. Whilst Chernobyl did have some effect on ecofeminism in the GDR, I argue that East German women were mobilising in relation to ecological issues long before and after the reactor incident of 1986. By writing about the East German women’s movement, I hope this paper convinces that the global ecofeminist movement was not confined to the capitalist West but traversed the Iron Curtain to bear significance in the Democratic Republic of Germany. 


[1] Examples of western ecofeminism: Greta Gaard, ‘Ecofeminism Revisited: Rejecting Essentialism and Re-Placing Species in a Material Feminist Environmentalism’, Feminist Formations, 23:2 (2011), p. 29; Ariel Salleh, Ecofeminism as Politics. Nature, Marx and the Postmodern (2nd ed.,London, 2017), p.52; Maria Mies and Vadana Shiva, Ecofeminism (Halifax; London, 1993), p.4.

[2] For the chronological origins of the movement: Salleh, Ecofeminism as Politics, p.51; In regards to the core ideas of ecofeminism: Valerie Padilla Carroll, ‘Introduction: Ecofeminist Dialogues’, in Douglas A. Vakoch and Sam Mickey (eds.) Ecofeminism in Dialogue (2018), pp.1-12.

[3] Articles 15 and 20 of the Constitution: ‘Verfassung der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik vom 9. April 1968’, Geschichte und Geschehen Oberstufe (Stuttgart, 2012) <> [accessed 10 May 2023], pp. 4-5.

[4] On the failures of ‘real-existing socialism’ see: Jane Freeland, Feminist Transformations and Domestic Violence Activism in Divided Berlin, 1968-2000 (Oxford, 2022), p.113.

[5] On the socialist bloc’s reaction to Chernobyl see: Dolores Augustine, Taking on Technocracy: Nuclear Power in Germany, 1945 to the Present (New York, 2018).

[6] I drew much of my research on the DFD from its state-sanctioned book: Ehlenbeck, Dr. sc. Marianne, Arendt, Prof. Dr. sc. Hans-Jürgen, Hauschild, Hannelore, Hübner, Johanna, Leuschner, Irene, Müller,  Prof. Dr. sc. Joachim, Roßmann, Prof. Dr. Gerhard and Wohlenberg, Ursula, Geschichte des DFD (Leipzig, 1989).

[7] The basis of my research on WFP came from a collection of essays produced by former members of the group: Almut Ilsen and Ruth Leiserowitz (eds.), Seid doch laut! Die Frauen für den Frieden in Ost-Berlin (Berlin, 2019).

[8] Christa Wolf, Cassandra. A Novel and Four Essays, trans. By Jan van Heurch (New York, 1984); Wolf, Christa, Accident/ A Day’s News, trans. By Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Takvorian (New York, 1991).

[9] Nancy Lukens,  ‘Gender and the Work Ethic in the Environmental Novels of Monika Maron and Lia Pirskawetz’, Studies in GDR Culture and Society (1988), p.67.

Image credits

Picture of the Fernsehturm, East Berlin taken by Charlotte Oakes, September 2020. 

Charlotte Oakes completed her BA in German and History at the University of Warwick in 2022. She then furthered her academic studies at the University of St Andrews where she graduated in 2023 with an MA in Modern History. In September 2023, Charlotte also began her PhD at the University of York’s Centre for Women’s Studies. Having been awarded funding from the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities, she is currently researching the global history of second-wave West German feminism.



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