Feminism and Terrorism

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

By Patricia Melzer
New York: NYU Press, 2015, 352 pp., $35.00, hardcover


After the Red Army Faction

Gender, Culture, and Militancy

>By Charity Scribner
New York: Columbia University Press, 2015, 294 pp., $50.00, hardcover


Reviewed by Elizabeth Heineman

From the moment the Red Army Faction (RAF) burst onto the West German scene, women have been its face. Images of such violent female radicals as Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin filled tabloids and wanted posters during RAF’s heyday. Women were overrepresented in such iconic artistic representations as Gerhard Richter’s 18 Oktober 1977. Critics of radical chic feminized the notion with the (admittedly clever) label “Prada Meinhof”—a play on the alternative appellation for RAF’s first generation: the Baader-Meinhof Gang. (Andreas Baader, together with Meinhof and Ensslin, led the group until their capture, convictions, and prison suicides in the mid-to-late 1970s.) All this, despite the fact that women probably made up only about one-third of West Germany’s far left, according to Charity Scribner’s After the Red Army Faction. What did leftist terrorism mean for the women who committed themselves to its secretive and violent world, and what can we learn from the representation of gender in portrayals of the RAF and West Germany’s other far left groups?

It is always difficult to tease apart representations from the subjective experience and meaning-making of those represented. The problem is exacerbated in the case of those who lived underground and thus left few traces other than their actions—until they were caught, at which time their communications were sharply surveilled by prison apparatus. Among the projects of Patricia Melzer, an assistant professor of German and Women’s Studies at Temple University, is to recapture far left women’s own perspectives on their actions. Employing both a close reading of radicals’ correspondence and journals as well as interviews of movement veterans, she explores their understanding of feminism, motherhood, and armed political violence with great sensitivity. Media accounts typically dispatched RAF women’s rejection of motherhood, for example, with reference either to their purported unnaturalness or to their supposed unambivalent adoption of RAF’s ideology of immersion in underground life. Closely analyzing the cases of Ensslin and Meinhof, Melzer instead discovers the women’s genuine struggles over the question of how to reconcile their revolutionary politics and their roles as mothers—not just in the abstract, but in their own highly charged relationships to their children, those children’s fathers, and their extended families. Rather than understanding motherhood and armed action as paradigmatic opposites, which would suggest that the adoption of the second requires the rejection of the first, Ensslin in particular articulated the notion that “the form women’s oppression takes [especially in their maternal roles] should logically lead to armed resistance.”

The yellow press of the day—and a fair number of more “serious” commentators—saw women’s prominence among radical left terrorists as evidence of “excess feminism.” Yet women of the RAF and other radical left groups denounced feminism as a bourgeois concern, and major feminist outlets such as the monthly magazine Emma denounced terrorism as contrary to the feminist values of pacifism and maternalism. Complementing her insistence on a more nuanced discussion of far left women’s understanding of women’s oppression, Melzer also calls into question the notion of a West German feminism unified in denouncing violence. Rather, she discovers contrary strands within feminism, which were subdued by the wave of terror.

Prior to the rise of RAF and other violent far left groups, West German feminist radicals had discussed the uses of political violence. Yet terrorist actions—and the media’s fascination with “emancipated” women’s role in them—made it politically necessary for feminists to distance themselves from RAF, and many feminists who might have engaged in debates about political violence were horrified by what it meant in praxis. The feminist field thus narrowed. The feminist response to evidence of women’s capacity for political violence was, ironically, to develop a feminist theoretical framework rigidly linking violence to maleness and masculinity. The dominance of maternalist, pacifist feminism in 1980s West Germany was in part a legacy of far left terrorism in the 1970s.

What about the triangular relationship among Far Left terrorism, feminism, and liberalism? RAF created a genuine crisis for the West German liberal project, as the state responded with illiberal measures regarding both the rights of prisoners and the rights of political expression and association in civil society. How does feminist analysis help us to understand RAF’s challenge to liberalism?

Melzer posits that prison hunger strikes constituted a feminized politics without a feminist subject (since the revolutionaries disavowed feminism). Hunger strikes, according to Melzer, challenged liberalism’s premise of the rational (disembodied) subject, since liberalism, at least in its origins, had prioritize the rational propertied white male over those who were presumably driven by their bodies, such as women, people of color, and colonized subjects. Hunger strikers’ turn to self-starvation to achieve political ends, and prison officials’ performance of politics through the rape-like process of forced feeding, made the body the locus of politics. Furthermore, rather than perform individual self-abnegation (as in religious fasting), political hunger strikes subverted the liberal subject in a second way: they subordinated the individual to the collective identity (they starved for the larger political project) and elicited a response in which the state treated them as a collective threat.

Charity Scribner’s insights into RAF, feminism, and liberalism are broader. Scribner, an associate professor of Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center and Lafayette Community College, City University of New York, draws on the Frankfurt School’s observation that in rejecting theory in favor of action, the RAF collapsed the political and the aesthetic. The results were not only offensively uninformed, for example, in the RAF’S conflation of its struggle with those of national liberation movements, such as those in Vietnam and Palestine, and the rebellion of African Americans in the burning cities of the US. They were also irresponsible and deadly. Having declined to grapple with “the question of how and when a revolutionary subject could be identified and defined,” the RAF “wagered their lives and those of their victims before developing a viable social alternative” to the state’s monopoly on violence, explains Scribner. It was this “blind demand [for] the priority of action over theoretical elaboration,” and not just anti-Semitic actions, that aligned the RAF with fascism.

What would it mean to reject this collapse of the political and the aesthetic? Scribner finds clues in artistic responses to the RAF, ranging from literature to visual art to film and dance. Some of this work reiterated the media-driven tendency to prioritize narrative over critique (for example, in curatorial decisions at the Berlin Kunst-Werke’s 2005 exhibit on the RAF). Some was downright problematic, presenting Germans collectively as feminized and sexualized victims of the RAF (in novels by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Friedrich Christian Delius). But the more successful work allowed for precisely the kind of contingency, uncertainty, and multiple points of view that the RAF rejected, and these qualities, according to Scribner, are key elements of a “postmilitant” stance that seeks to disentangle the possibility of radical political change from terrorism.

Feminist analysis is a key to Scribner’s understanding of such aesthetic products. Delius’s novel (translated as Windowseat at Mogadishu [1987]), for example, emerged at precisely the moment the trope of Germans as feminized and sexualized victims of the Red Army in 1945 was gaining currency. These mutually reinforcing discourses revealed yet another subterranean link between fascism and RAF terrorism: Germans’ desire to believe themselves to have been victims of both. In a fascinating chapter, Scribner contrasts the “shattered” body of Ulrike Meinhof, in Johann Kresnik’s eponymous dance piece, and the fate of Meinhof’s literally disembodied brain to—of all things—the vulnerable yet healed body resulting from the radical-turned-cabinet minister Joschka Fischer’s fitness program.

Yet feminism here is not simply an analytical tool. For Scribner as for Melzer, it is a historical phenomenon in dialogue with far left politics. Second-wave feminism’s critique of the public/private divide applied equally to RAF and to liberalism, both of which denied the relevance of the private sphere to politics. In bringing to light the fallacy of the public/private split, feminism offered (and continues to offer) a paradigm-shifting critique of liberalism that does not have as its logical outcome the nihilism of terrorism, but rather that opens the door to a productive reworking of the Enlightenment project. Scribner locates this possibility not only in political practice but also in such aesthetic artifacts as the films Marianne and Juliane (1981), by Margarethe von Trotta, and The Edge of Heaven (2007), by Fatih Akın, which transgress the public/private divide to critique RAF terrorism and suggest a postmilitant but not postpolitical subject.

The legacy of the RAF has hardly faded into history, and scholars who write about it confront difficult questions about their own positioning. Melzer, who interviewed movement veterans and plunged deeply into their writings about such personally painful matters as their separation from their children, emerges as more sympathetic to the RAF women than does Scribner. Does this matter for the authors’ evaluation of RAF’s actions? Perhaps it is Scribner’s relative distance from RAF that sensitizes her to artworks that tally and name the RAF dead while leaving their victims uncounted and anonymous. Scribner appears to accept the notion that RAF support for the Palestinian national project was necessarily anti-Semitic; Melzer challenges the conflation of anti-Semitism and a pro-Palestinian position. But then, Scribner also notes the attempted bombing of Berlin’s Jewish Community Center in 1969—an act far harder to describe as anti-imperialist, and one which Melzer does not mention.

Both authors acknowledge the difficulty of writing about far left terrorism in an age of renewed worry about terrorism, although in very different contexts. Both offer incisive feminist readings of a past that is far from past. Taken together, Death in the Shape of a Young Girl and After the Red Army Faction signal a necessary rereading of feminism, liberalism, and radical violence.

Elizabeth Heineman is professor of History and Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. She is author, most recently, of Before Porn Was Legal: The Erotica Empire of Beate Uhse (2011) and the memoir Ghostbelly (2014), and editor of Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones: From the Ancient World to the Era of Human Rights (2011).

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