Death in the Shape of a Young Girl

Death in the Shape of a Young Girl: Women's Political Violence in the Red Army Faction

Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Death in the Shape of a Young Girl
    Book Description:

    In the early 1970s, a number of West German left-wing activists took up arms, believing that revolution would lead to social change. In the years to come, the bombings, shootings, kidnappings and bank robberies of the Red Army Faction (RAF) and Movement 2nd June dominated newspaper headlines and polarized legislative debates. Half of the terrorists declaring war on the West German state were women who understood their violent political actions to be part of their liberation from restrictive gender norms. As women participating in a brand of systematic violence usually associated with masculinity, they presented a cultural paradox, and their political decisions were viewed as gender transgressions by the state, the public, and even the burgeoning women's movement, which considered violence as patriarchal and unfeminist.

    Death in the Shape of a Young Girlquestions this separation of political violence from feminist politics and offers a new understanding of left-wing female terrorists' actions as feminist practices that challenged existing gender ideologies. Patricia Melzer draws on archival sources, unpublished letters, and interviews with former activists to paint a fresh and interdisciplinary picture of West Germany's most notorious political group, from feminist responses to sexist media coverage of female terrorists to the gendered nature of their infamous hunger strikes while in prison. Placing the controversial actions of the Red Army Faction into the context of feminist politics,Death in the Shape of a Young Girloffers an innovative and engaging cultural history that foregrounds how gender shapes our perception of women's political choices and of any kind of political violence.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-2022-1
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: “An Excess of Women’s Emancipation”: Gender, Political Violence, and Feminist Politics
    (pp. 1-34)

    On May 14, 1970, Andreas Baader, incarcerated in Berlin, Tegel, for arson, was granted permission to meet with the well-known journalist Ulrike Meinhof. The meeting was to take place in the research facilities of the German Central Institute for Social Issues.¹ The reason given for the unusual request was to discuss their collaborative project, a book on youth at risk. Instead, Meinhof’s visit with Baader was part of a plan devised by several women (and one man), including Baader’s lover, Gudrun Ensslin, to break him out of prison. The freeing of Baader and Meinhof’s subsequent flight underground is generally thought...

  5. 1 The Other Half of the Sky: Revolutionary Violence, the RAF, and the Autonomous Women’s Movement
    (pp. 35-72)

    During the early 1970s, a flyer with the image of a woman with her fist raised to the sky was passed around in radical political circles in West Germany. The upper part of the image displays a quotation from Mao Zedong: “Women carry half of the sky on their shoulders and they must conquer it” (see figure 1.1).¹ With the woman’s Afro and raised fist, the image connotes anticolonial movements, evoking associations with movement icon Angela Davis of the Black Panthers. This flyer and its distribution in activist circles speaks to one of the central issues of this book: the...

  6. 2 “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”: The “Betrayal” of Motherhood among the Women of the RAF and Movement 2nd June
    (pp. 73-108)

    In the mid-1970s in West Berlin, a young woman, Karin,¹ entered a hospital to terminate her pregnancy.² She was able to have the procedure done legally under a recently reformed abortion law, and shortly after, she left the hospital. Unlike the average West German woman claiming her right to reproductive freedom, this young woman accessed the medical care with a forged health insurance card. Fearing arrest by the police, she returned to an illegally rented apartment to recover from the surgery. For her, the decision to terminate her pregnancy was not only personal (she had never wanted children) but also...

  7. 3 “Terrorist Girls” and “Wild Furies”: Feminist Responses to Media Representations of Women Terrorists during the “German Autumn” of 1977
    (pp. 109-152)

    After three members of the Red Army Faction (RAF), two women and a man,¹ entered the house of Dresdner Bank CEO Jürgen Ponto on July 30, 1977, and shot him in what usually is understood to have been a failed kidnapping attempt, the incident became one of a series of events foreshadowing the dramatic climax of the German Autumn.² The confrontation between the state and the RAF escalated dramatically that year. Significantly, media coverage of the Ponto murder focused mainly on Susanne Albrecht’s “deviant” behavior, rather than the brutal shooting. Albrecht, the sister of the banker’s goddaughter, provided the terrorists...

  8. 4 The Gendered Politics of Starving: (State) Power and the Body as Locus of Political Subjectivities in the RAF Hunger Strikes
    (pp. 153-194)

    In 1981, four women in a Berlin prison participated in a hunger strike organized by forty prisoners throughout West German prisons.¹ When some of them were so weakened by their starvation that their lives were threatened, the medical director of the facility had them brought to the hospital tract of the prison and ensured that they had direct contact with each other as their health was monitored by the medical staff. Karin, one of the women on hunger strike, remembers how the proximity of the other inmates during this time strengthened her in her resolve to continue with the strike...

  9. 5 “We Women Are the Better Half of Humanity Anyway”: Revolutionary Politics, Feminism, and Memory in the Writings of Female Terrorists
    (pp. 195-230)

    At a meeting of a women’s group at the political collective Socialist Center, Berlin (Sozialistisches Zentrum, Berlin) in 1973, the issue of armed struggle was discussed—yet again. A young woman raised her voice as she asked the group, “What could possibly make us women more equal to men than a gun?”¹ Heike² vividly remembers the response of the women in the room as amused and dismissive: “Everybody laughed and nobody took it seriously.” Women had gathered to develop their self-confidence, articulate a criticism of sexism, and find ways to advocate for cultural and political change both within and outside...

  10. Conclusion: “Can Political Violence Be Feminist?”
    (pp. 231-244)

    The topic of women terrorists elicits a variety of responses: from the feminist “commonsense” reaction of condemning their political violence as morally indefensible while conceding that not every woman is a “feminist” assumed always to have nonviolent politics; to the equal-opportunity response of “gender does not matter in discourse on terrorism”; to the more conservative “yes, something is clearly off about these womenaswomen and see—women can be violent, too!” Feminists’ vehement answer “No!” to the question “Can violence be feminist?” clearly indicates that the feminist position has most at stake here: female terrorists necessitate a clearAbgrenzung...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 245-310)
  12. References
    (pp. 311-328)
  13. Index
    (pp. 329-338)
  14. About the Author
    (pp. 339-339)