July 2015

Laura Michele Diener


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

"Protest is when I say I don't like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don't like. Protest is when I say I refuse to go along with this anymore. Resistance is when I make sure everybody else stops going along too." In 1968, journalist Ulrike Meinhof wrote these lines, paraphrasing a Black Panther activist, in reference to the student riots in Berlin following the attempted assassination of Students for a Democratic Society leader Rudi Dutschke. She herself crossed the boundary between resistance and protest on the morning of May 14, 1970 when she helped free convicted felon Andreas Baader. Meinhof used her publishing connections to arrange an interview with him at the German Central Institute for Social Issues, claiming they were writing a book together. While they worked in the Institute's reading room, one man and three women, Irene Goergens, Ingrid Schubert and Gudrun Ensslin, Baader's lover and cohort, burst in to rescue Baader, shooting an Institute staff member and blinding others with tear gas. In the chaos, Baader jumped out the window, Meinhof and the other women followed suit, and all took refuge in a nearby apartment while they planned their next move. The jump was only one floor down, but the distance was momentous. With the jump out the window, the Red Army Faction (RAF), the left-wing terrorist group that would confront West Germany throughout the 1970s and 1980s, was born.

Before she jumped out of the literal and figurative window, Ulrike Meinhof was the intellectual darling of the left, possessing a reputation as a keen observer of society who demanded that her readers place women at the center instead of the periphery of issues. She was an outspoken feminist with the intellectual and educational credentials to back her protesting and make it palatable to the public.

But how can the public react when, as happened with Meinhof's involvement in the freeing of Andreas Baader, that protest became resistance, and that resistance turned violent, involving guns, bombs, threats, kidnappings, hijacking, and executions? When it became what the state termed terrorism?

Patricia Melzer explores these conundrums in her book, Death in the Shape of a Young Girl: Women's Political Violence in the Red Army Faction. She is a professor of Women's Studies and German at Temple University, and the book demonstrates her interdisciplinarity and engagement with feminist theory and history. Two out of three of the founding members of the RAF were women, and the RAF as well as the offshoot terrorist group, Movement 2nd June, always possessed a large female presence -- more than 50 percent at one point. Women in these groups never pursued a consciously feminist agenda, prioritizing class struggles instead. Yet were their practices, from kidnapping to living underground to hunger-striking in prison, feminist? Melzer would argue yes, that feminist practices don't have to arise from self-consciously feminist agents. Certainly, state officials in West Germany viewed the women in the RAF and Movement 2nd June as women's libbers gone awry. Bewildered at the overwhelmingly female makeup of the terrorist gangs, Gunther Nollau, secret service chief, attributed it to "an excess of emancipation."

As Melzer demonstrates, both state officials and mainstream media focused on the femininity of the RAF, particularly what they viewed as the failure of femininity, and in doing so, depoliticized them, seeking to explain the origins of their deviant behavior via frustrated relationships, terming them rebellious daughters, angry wives, obsessed lovers, or, worst of all, negligent mothers, thus denying that violence could derive from a social consciousness.

Utilizing both mainstream newspapers and smaller feminist publications, Melzer focuses particularly on media representations of Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof, which focused on their abandonment of their children as much as their violent behavior. Both served, in their lifetimes and in representations after their deaths, as cautionary tales -- the dangers for women who never develop affective bonds with their children (Ensslin) or who privilege a political consciousness over maternal obligations (Meinhof). According to both liberal and conservative papers, Ensslin was the femme fatale of the RAF, a cold ice queen who achieved erotic satisfaction through the execution of violence alongside her lover Andreas Baader, while Ulrike Meinhof was a successful intellectual who went off the rails, losing everything (home, career, children) in a misguided effort to play at politics. Melzer argues their attitudes towards mothering were far more complex than traditional narratives would indicate. Using correspondence from prison and published accounts from relatives, she demonstrates that neither Meinhoff nor Ensslin abandoned the role of mother even if they redefined it. Rather than focusing on their unmothering, Melzer suggests we understand their relinquishment of traditional motherhood as itself constituting a feminist practice, given that it both challenged standard gender roles and provoked (and still does provoke) extreme discomfort in both sexes.

This book is a thoroughly academic monograph, heavily reliant on textual analysis and theory, not for the casual reader. Although she does give coherent chronologies of RAF and Movement 2nd June activities, Melzer's focus is on implications, rather than activity. A reader unfamiliar with the RAF during the 1970s and 1980s may wish to consult Stefen Aust's Baader-Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F. (or even the film that closely follows it, The Baader Meinhof Complex) before tackling Melzer's analysis. However, fans of Aust's work will certainly be surprised at the gendered complexities he glosses over, particularly in regards to Meinhof and Ensslin.

In her conclusion, Melzer states that her book is her "intervention into theorizing feminist politics." While focusing on the historical specificity of the RAF, she nevertheless poses dilemmas of contemporary relevance. How do we react when women turn violent and when they claim that violence as political agency? Can feminist practices be unethical if they challenge existing hierarchical structures in an effort towards creating a more socially just world? As Melzer states, "Feminists' vehement answer 'No!' to the question 'Can violence be feminist?' clearly indicates that the feminist position has most at stake here [...] in order for the latter not to be discredited within the discourse on liberal democratic politics." But what if the taking up of arms allows women not only to present a challenge to the existing social order, but to gain autonomy from society's expectations regarding motherhood and domesticity?

And here we come to the moral quandaries inherent in Melzer's book -- why would feminists who have gained their consciousness through a realization of the social inequities that create victimhood -- whether at the hands of patriarchal forces of oppression, the state, the class system, colonial and racist policies, etc. -- willingly inflict a state of victimhood on others? That is to say, can any action that consciously creates victims be feminist? Melzer does bring up the necessity of not obscuring the victims of violent crimes of the RAF or other extremist groups, but allocates it to a few brief paragraphs. In addition to the RAF's immediate victims -- the bankers and businessmen they kidnapped -- there are the secondary victims: their widows and children, the people accidentally in the line of fire, and those traumatized through the presence of violence, such as the passengers on the Lufthansa plane that the PLO hijacked in 1977 in exchange for RAF prisoners. That these people could be casualties of feminist practices may be a moral contradiction difficult for readers to swallow.

But such theoretical engagements with morality will befall any writer engaging in what is, in the end, a reality, however uncomfortable. Women commit violence in the name of political action, not just in 1970s and 1980s West Germany, but around the world today. In the past two decades, the number of women participating in violent extremism has continued to increase, such as the cases of the female combatants of the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, female Palestinian and Chechen suicide bombers, and members of al-Qaeda. In many cases these women are coming from societies far more gender-proscribed than West Germany, so their actions can hardly be dismissed as "an excess of emancipation." And in defying repressive states or imperial powers and flouting gender norms, are these women indeed practicing feminism?

Certainly, there is not one definition of feminism, and women in the United States face different realities than women in Afghanistan or Palestine, where clean water and daily safety may be the priorities. Most Western feminists have embraced the expanding definitions of feminism in a global world, but an acknowledgment of violence as a potentially feminist practice, as Melzer argues for, may bring a Planned Parenthood advocate into unwitting companionship with a Chechen Black Widow. What can be useful for Western feminists who may find this idea unpalatable is to consider what challenges still prevent women from taking up full participation in their societies and how those inequities may lead them to perpetuate violence. By exploring not only present-day but historic examples, as Melzer does, one learns not to underestimate the urgent desire for social change among men and women, who, when faced with extremism, may react in kind.

Death in the Shape of a Young Girl: Women's Political Violence in the Red Army Faction by Patricia Melzer
New York University Press
ISBN: 978-1479864072
352 pages