Death in the Shape of a Young Girl

Women's Political Violence in the Red Army Faction

352 pages

22 b/w halftones

April, 2015

ISBN: 9781479864072


Patricia Melzer is Assistant Professor of German and Women’s Studies at Temple University. She is author of Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought.

All books by Patricia Melzer

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 Patricia Melzer draws on archival sources, unpublished letters, and interviews with former activists to paint a fresh and interdisciplinary picture of West Germany’s most notorious political group, from feminist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


  • "Death in the Shape of a Young Girl is a stimulating case study that encourages us to look twice: at media representations and ideological discourse, certainly, but also at our own established ways of seeing and the precarious roles allocated to women in the course of revolutionary aspirations."

    Times Higher Education

  • “Clearly written and convincingly argued, the book makes original contributions to both feminist theory and the history and interpretation of the RAF, especially in key chapters about motherhood among terrorist women and the body politics of RAF hunger strikes.” 


  • “Melzer’s work establishes a strong platform upon which the next, crucial stages of feminist research should unfold.  It anticipates a critical comparison of political violence as it has been waged across the turn of the last century, from the transnational terror commandeered by the RAF to the contemporary vicissitudes of radical Islamism.”

    The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics, and Culture

  • “Melzer meticulously reconstructs these uncomfortable discussions, which have been largely omitted from the history of the women’s movement...In pushing us to reconsider certain assumptions about the relationship between gender, feminism and violence that we take for granted, Death in the Shape of a Young Girl is undoubtedly a powerful and important contribution to the field.” 

    CritCom: A Forum for Research & Commentary in Europe

  •  “In Death in the Shape of a Young Girl, Melzer offers a valuable intervention in the history of West German terrorism.”

    Canadian Journal of History

  • “In Death in the Shape of a Young Girl, Melzer offers a valuable intervention in the history of West German terrorism.”

    Canadian Journal of History

  • "Employing a close reading of radicals' correspondence and journals as well as interviews of movement veterans, [Melzer] explores their understanding of feminism, motherhood, and armed political violence with great sensitivity."

    Women’s Review of Books

  • “Absorbing and provocative, this study of West German women who carried out political violence will be of great importance to those concerned with gender, violence, and the ways in which each so centrally informs the other in unexpected ways.”

    —Belinda Davis, author of Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin

  • Death in the Shape of a Young Girl is so deeply revealing of how the actual complex gender politics of a radical movement get swept under the media's rug of stereotypes. Melzer shows us in gripping detail how intensely the women inside this 1970s German underground movement interacted with the feminist debates of the time. Anyone interested in social movements, feminism in the Cold War, and the genderings of political violence will have their minds opened by reading this book.”

    —Cynthia Enloe, author of Seriously! Investigating Crashes and Crises as if Women Mattered

  • "Women were central to the urban armed struggle in Germany in the 1970s, at some points even more numerous than men. This is a little known fact that has gone under-researched in the US until now. Patricia Melzer’s Death in the Shape of a Young Girl goes a long way to addressing this omission."

    —Paul Hockenos, author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic