We are closer than ever to 1930s-style totalitarianism: Atwood

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - The world is closer to the dark days of the 1930s than at any time since, Canadian author Margaret Atwood said on Saturday in Frankfurt, where she was due to receive a prestigious German literary award.

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Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”, first published in 1985, has shot back up the bestseller lists after being made into an award-winning TV series depicting a totalitarian future in a United States where women are forced into sexual servitude.

Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president has, for some critics, brought that vision closer to reality as he uses social media to browbeat opponents, and lawmakers in a number of states seek to restrict women’s reproductive rights.

“It feels the closest to the 1930s of anything that we have had since that time,” the 77-year-old Atwood told a news conference, drawing parallels with the fascist and communist regimes which then ruled parts of Europe.

Atwood was attending the annual Frankfurt Book Fair, where she receives the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade on Sunday. The award citation praises Atwood’s “political awareness and alertness for developments beneath the surface”.

Past winners include Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, American writer and film-maker Susan Sontag and Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian-born writer and politician.


Atwood, author of more than 40 books of fiction, poetry and critical essays, said it was surprising to many that signs of totalitarianism were manifesting themselves in the United States of today.

It’s a far cry from the Berlin of the Cold War, still surrounded by the wall that divided Germany, where she started writing The Handmaid’s Tale, she recalled.

“People in Europe saw the United States as a beacon of democracy, freedom, openness, and they did not want to believe that anything like that could ever happen there,” she said.

“But now, times have changed, and, unfortunately it becomes more possible to think in those terms.”

Although work on the TV series starring Elisabeth Moss began before last November’s U.S. presidential election, Trump’s victory changed the setting “quite radically”, said Atwood.

“That is one of the reasons that the show has been so popular ... people suddenly feel that it’s a possible reality for them,” she said.

Women’s rights activists clad in the distinctive white bonnets and red gowns worn by handmaids in the fictional theocratic state of Gilead have taken part in recent protests in several U.S. state capitals.

“The book has escaped from the covers, the television show has escaped from being just a show,” said Atwood.

“It’s out in the world.”

Reporting by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Andrew Bolton