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

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

Death in the Shape of a Young Girl

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 Girl questions 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 Patricia Melzer draws on archival sources, unpublished letters, and interviews with former activists to paint a fresh and interdisciplinary picture of West Germany’s most notorious political group, from feminist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 Girl offers 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.

I picked this up because, well, I mean, just look at it. Sure, like a lot of academic work it looks dry and specific and maybe even a little esoteric. Which, really, if you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time should ring some bells. Anti-capitalist gender nonconformity in a revolutionary context. With endnotes? Forgive me while I squee.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s be serious for a moment. One’s opinions about feminism, resistance versus the status quo, and even violence tend to calcify if one doesn’t continuously interrogate and investigate alternative and especially contrary opinions. Given the chance to read up on feminist political activism in cold war Germany I reckoned I could learn a lot.

And I did. I read through the book and wanted to say something erudite and impressive about it and all kinds of things happened and it never came together. I recently reread a few chapters and the thing is, I don’t have to. Patricia Melzer does that. Her primary sources do that.

I have to tell you that this book is absolutely worth reading. The scholarship is outstanding. The research is thorough, extensive, detailed, and nuanced. And the writing is engaging, authoritative, and even exciting at times.

That’s rare. I spent a long time in a library with more than six million books desperately wishing folks would stop reusing stock phrases and repeating themselves every chapter to pad out their word counts. I’ve read novels recently with less trust in their readers, less forward momentum, and clunkier phrasing.

That’s all great, you might say, but what about the subject matter? At it’s heart, this is a discussion of praxis and identity. What is a feminist versus what does a feminist do. The women of the RAF were engaged in political action that simultaneously expressed their feminism and challenged everyone else’s. The book shows how the metanarrative of the pacifist feminine was part of their revolutionary discussions. However it also points out that the popular media latched onto and reverberated that meme and placed it at the front of the discussion.

Thus we get the title, taken from a newspaper article positing that citizens might now need to fear confrontation with death in the shape of a young girl. ‘Cause girls aren’t violent, right? Mainstream feminism has traditionally defined violence as symbolic and symptomatic of patriarchy, reifying and reinforcing existing power structures even when it’s deployed in opposition.

The book tracks how that became common knowledge and mounts a strong challenge at the same time. It’s a concrete investigation of particular situation that nonetheless informs many others including our own. Take Ta-Nehisi Coates’ meditations on the establishment’s exaltation of the pacifism in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Or Anita Sarkeesian’s flat out dismissal of the most recent George Miller movie as simply not feminist because it foregrounded violent resistance.

Death in the Shape of a Young Girl problematizes the gender essentialism inherent in the notion that women are not violent and that political violence is therefore necessarily unfeminist. It proposes an examination of all feminist practices rather than the idealization of a feminist subject. And it challenges the reader toward the critical examination of historical contexts and practical results.

It’ll destabilize you. You should read it.

Recommended for fans of “We Have Always Fought,” The Baader Meinhof Complex, and Mad Max: Fury Road.

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