Germany: the role of women in radical right terrorism

Women must not be underestimated in their function as active participants in radical right terrorist groups.

‘National Socialist Underground’ (NSU) member Beate Zschaepe sitting between her lawyers in the courtroom on 3 July 2018 in Munich. | Picture by Peter Kneffel/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

When the German radical right terrorist group “Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund” (“National Socialist Underground”) (NSU) was revealed in 2011, one aspect particularly intrigued the media and the general public: A woman, Beate Zschäpe, had been a key member of the group. The public astonishment at this fact often dominated the coverage of the group`s crimes and the following trial.

Indeed, when talking about radical right terrorists one generally assumes the perpetrators to be men. It is a common, often implied assumption that, unlike in other terrorist groups, women played – and still play – almost no role in radical right terrorism. Beate Zschäpe is regarded to be a remarkable exception.

As a matter of fact, male members have always outnumbered women in radical right terrorist groups in Germany. Yet a closer look reveals that women have regularly taken part in radical right terrorist activities but their role has been widely neglected so far.

This disregard corresponds with a general perception of women in the radical right scene as being passive and apolitical. Actually, their position is ambiguous. On the one hand, the scope of action for women within the radical right is constrained; radical right ideology as well as male activists allot them to the domestic sphere. Many female members of the radical right scene can thus be located in a supporting and stabilizing setting, often by entering in a relationship with a male activist. On the other hand, radical right women have also claimed leading positions in the neo-Nazi scene despite the challenges coming from within. That means that these women had to defend their positions against concerns from within the scene.

This observation also applies to women in radical right terrorism where three types of female members can be identified:

First, there are the more or less unobtrusive women who play no particular role in the group but are rather associated to the male members and sometimes confidants to the groups’ interior. These women are often the girlfriends or wives of male group members and witness the activities and plans of the groups. Very few research has been conducted on this group of radical right women, therefore it is hard to estimate how many women belong to it.

Second, there are female members – albeit not leading figures – who can be supporters or helpers in committing specific crimes. Some of these women are deeply involved in organizational and logistic matters concerning the activities of the terrorist groups. For example, the “Deutsche Aktionsgruppen” (“German Action Groups”), that was active in the year 1980, stand out due to the high percentage of female supporters to carry out the group’s attacks. In 2005, members of the radical right terrorist group “Schutzgruppe” (“Protection Group”) that planned a bomb attack at the Jewish Centre in Munich, were convicted by the Bavarian Higher Regional Court. Among the defendants were two young women, both members of the “Schutzgruppe”.

Third, there is a – relatively small – number of female group members who took a vital function within their groups; for example:

Sibylle Vorderbrügge was a member of the „Deutsche Aktionsgruppen“. Together with her accomplices, she committed several attacks including a lethal arson attack in Hamburg in August 1980 which killed two young Vietnamese refugees. She was arrested shortly after and sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in 1982.

Christine Hewicker was a member of the “Otte Group” and the “Uhl/Wolfgram Group” in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Among other crimes, she participated in a bank robbery after she had gone underground to France in 1981. In 1983, the Munich Higher Regional Court sentenced her to six years in prison.

Last but not least, Zschäpe was a full-fledged member of the NSU as stated by the Munich Higher Regional Court in its verdict. Together with Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, she had gone into hiding in 1998. Between 2000 and 2011, the group murdered ten people and committed several bomb attacks. While the two men killed themselves in 2011, Zschäpe was brought to trial and sentenced to a life term in 2018.

Looking into the role of women in radical right terrorism adjusts a bias in the gender perspective. Even if they were involved in terrorist crimes, female activists have often been perceived as mere supportive and passive subjects, not as autonomous and political thinking persons.

Actually, it is a striking feature that many of the known female radical right terrorists had either sexual or familial bonds to male companions. This has to be seen in the context that these relationships often ease the entrance into the radical right scene above all when we look at the violent spectrum. Interestingly, many female terrorists emphasized their position as apolitical domestic partners afterwards in order to protect themselves from criminal prosecution.

However, those personal ties provide no sufficient explanation why radical right women choose to participate in terrorist activities in the first place. Particularly the deep involvement of some individuals in radical right terrorist structures and their autonomous roles as group members disprove the assumption that women were mainly influenced by personal, especially sexual relationships and played no particular role inside the groups. More emphasis should be given to ideological motives.

Hewicker’s biography, for example, depicts the story of a young woman who had not only gained an equal and fully accepted position in a radical right terrorist group but also participated in preparatory crimes. Her announcements in court, as well as her autobiography reveal her political motivation, driven among other things by racism, anti-Semitism and the glorification of National Socialism.

Female radical right terrorists are, as well as women who were part of supporter networks for neo-Nazi terrorism, yet another issue for future research. Generally, women must not be underestimated in their function as active participants as well as stabilizing agents for radical right terrorist groups.

Dr Barbara Manthe is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Researcher at Faculty of Social Science and Cultural Studies, University of Applied Sciences, Düsseldorf. See her profile here.

© Barbara Manthe. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

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