The Art of Hunger

  • Leith Passmore


By the tenth and final collective hunger strike in 1989, the West German public had grown tired, and the Red Army Faction (RAF) prisoners, for their part, had grown both sick and tired.2 The hunger strike declaration from February 1989 combined familiar demands with a new tone of desperation and a recognition of the physical toll the campaign of selfstarvation had taken: “We have embarked on nine hunger strikes, two prisoners have died as a result, the health of many of us has suffered. Now this eighteen-year-long torture must end.” 3 Exhaustion had dulled it, and historic circumstances had marched by the RAF strategy of political self-starvation, but for a decade and a half the collective hunger strike shaped West German terrorism and counterterrorism. The carefully choreographed spectacle of hunger dragged the organization up from its knees after the arrest of its leaders, it helped underpin a RAF prison identity, and it allowed the group to confront what it saw as a mainstream medicalization of terror. The performative strength of the hunger campaigns rested on Meinhof’s ability to tailor the RAF struggle to the prison environment by encoding the starving prisoner with the group’s established rhetoric and victimhood during the three major strikes of the first generation.4


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Franz Kafka, “A Hunger Artist,” in The Complete Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), 270.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    There was another hunger strike in 1994 from July 27 to August 3 with different demands and a different focus. The strike was limited from the outset, and the striking prisoners were seeking the release of an individual prisoner, Irmgard Möller, see RAF, “Hungerstreikerklärung vom 27. Juli 1994,” in Rote Armee Fraktion. Texte und Materialien zur Geschichte der RAF, ed. ID-Verlag (Berlin: ID-Verlag, 1997), 498–99.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    “Neun Hungerstreiks haben wir gemacht, zwei Gefangene sind darin gestorben, viele von uns haben Gesundheitsschäden. Jetzt muß schluß sein mit dieser achtzehn Jahre langen Tortur,” RAF, “Hungerstreikerklärung vom 1. Februar 1989,” in Rote Armee Fraktion. Texte und Materialien zur Geschichte der RAF, ed. ID-Verlag (Berlin: ID-Verlag, 1997), 389.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Self-starvation can be approached as a performative act within a specific cultural context and placed within a history tracing the cultural currency of food abstinence from the food practices of medieval spirituality, through the demonic selfstarvation of the Reformation, the eighteenth-century naturalization of hunger with the rise of empiricism, the spectacle of “hunger artists” and “living skeletons” of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century, the emergence of a medicalized anorexia nervosa in the late-nineteenth century, to the particularly twentiethcentury phenomenon of the political hunger strike. For broad histories of hunger, see Walter Vandereycken and Ron van Deth, From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls: The History of Self-Starvation (London: Athlone Press, 1996); andGoogle Scholar
  5. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa (New York: Vintage Books, 2000). Bynum frames fasting—as male saints or female “miraculous maidens”—as central to spirituality of the medieval period, seeGoogle Scholar
  6. Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). In her study of anorexia, Ellmann writes of hunger as a form of speech and starving flesh as inscribed with social codes, seeGoogle Scholar
  7. Maud Ellmann, The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing, and Imprisonment (London: Virago Press, 1993). Like Ellmann, Feldman employs the metaphor of inscription from Kafka’s Penal Colony to describe the enmeshing of the body with social codes and cultural discourses in his work on the political hunger strikes of the IRA, seeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Allen Feldman, Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991). Interestingly, Meinhof draws on the same Kafka metaphor when writing down comparisons and concepts that come to her when she thinks of her time in Cologne-Ossendorf Prison, see notes in Hamburg Institute for Social Research (HIS), File (F) Me,U/009,002. Feldman explicitly frames this encoding as not merely expressive of a given discourse, but as an affective process that can shape social and cultural reality. In her work on the dirty protests in Ireland, Aretxaga argues within a similar Foucauldian paradigm for an understanding of encoded and textualized bodies, seeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Begoña Aretxaga, “Dirty Protest: Symbolic Overdetermination and Gender in Northern Ireland Ethnic Violence,” Ethos 23(2) (1995): 123–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 5.
    “ab heute fresse ich nichts mehr, bis die Haftbedingungen geändert sind,” as cited in Stefan Aust, Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (Munich: Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, 1998), 281.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    Wesemann writes of eighty prisoners, see Kristin Wesemann, Ulrike Meinhof. Kommunistin, Journalistin, Terroristin—eine politische Biographie (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2007), 392. Aust had earlier written of forty participants, see Aust, Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, 293.Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    Butz Peters, Tödlicher Irrtum: die Geschichte der RAF (Berlin: Argon, 2004), 317.Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    Kurt Oesterle, Stammheim. Der Vollzugsbeamte Horst Bubeck und die RAF-Häftlinge (Munich: Heyne, 2003), 125.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    In terms of the physical condition of the prisoners, Psychiatrist Wilfried Rasch attested in September 1975 that all four prisoners (Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin, and Raspe) were underweight, see Martin Jander, “Isolation. Zu den Haftbedingungen der RAF-Gefangenen,” in Die RAF und der linke Terrorismus, ed. Wolfgang Kraushaar (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2006), 982. Baader, for example, also developed kidney stones, which doctors assumed were the result of water being withheld during a strike, see GFA, H 362, F 3370: XVI/21 RS.Google Scholar
  15. 17.
    A 2007 article in Der Spiegel suggested forty prisoners participated in the strike, see Michael Sontheimer, “Terrorzelle Stammheim,” Der Spiegel 41 (2007): 100. However, a statement of solidarity signed by “80 prisoners in Stammheim” who joined the strike on November 18, 1974, is held in GFA, H 362, F 3363. This greater number is also in line with RAF policy to strike only in numbers between fifty and one hundred, see “2. Strafsenat Verfügung vom 19. Dezember 1974” in GFA, H 362, F 3172.Google Scholar
  16. 21.
    The evolution of the state response to self-starvation outlined here expands on the position taken in Leith Passmore, “The Art of Hunger: Self-Starvation in the Red Army Faction,” German History 27(1) (2009): 36–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 30.
    “ein infosystem aufzubauen,” as cited in Olaf Gäthje, “Das ‘info’-System der RAF von 1973 bis 1977 in sprachwissenschaftlicher Perspektive,” in Die RAF und der linke Terrorismus, ed. Wolfgang Kraushaar (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2006), 719.Google Scholar
  18. 47.
    Koenen writes of the public debates surrounding the hunger strikes as ensuring the history of the RAF was not a short one, see Gerd Koenen, “Camera Silens. Das Phantasma der ‘Vernichtungshaft,’” in Die RAF und der linke Terrorismus, ed. Wolfgang Kraushaar (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2006), 994–5.Google Scholar
  19. 48.
    Alexander Straßner, “Die dritte Generation der RAF,” in Die RAF und der linke Terrorismus, ed. Wolfgang Kraushaar (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2006), 495–96.Google Scholar
  20. 52.
    George Sweeney, “Irish Hunger Strikes and the Cult of Self-Sacrifice,” Journal of Contemporary History 28(3) (1993): 422, 435.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 55.
    “‘heiligste waffe’ wie die ira sagt,” see “u,g, (car) ni/hi/ne” in HIS, F RA 02/014,010. See also Pieter Bakker Schut, ed., das info: briefe von gefangenen aus der RAF aud der diskussion 1973–1977 (Plambeck: Neuer Malik Verlag, 1987), 205.Google Scholar
  22. 65.
    “du blöder idiot. / fängst sofort wieder an und machst weiter—wenn du das nicht sowieso schon gemacht hast. das und nichts anderes … das einzige was zählt ist der kampf,” see “du blöder idiot” in HIS, F RA 02/005,004. See also Bakker Schut, ed., das info, 183. Sections of this entry that include insults such as “asshole” (arschloch) were omitted from Bakker Schut’s edited collection. Gätje has argued that the editing of Bakker Schut’s collection renders the source unsuitable or of limited and conditional use for a linguistic study of the info system, see Gäthje, “Das ‘info’-System,” 716; and Olaf Gätje, Der Gruppenstil der RAF im ‘Info’-System. Eine soziostilistische Untersuchung aus systematischer Perspektive (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), 22–26. Colvin cites from the anthology while also conceding the anthology is a problematic source, seeGoogle Scholar
  23. Sarah Colvin, Ulrike Meinhof and West German Terrorism: Language, Violence, and Identity (New York: Camden House, 2009), 161. Where possible, original passages have been cited.Google Scholar
  24. 66.
    Meinhof’s case appears under the name “R. U.” (Röhl, Ulrike) in H. Finkemeyer and R. Kautzky, “Das Kavernom des Sinus cavernosus,” Zentralblatt für Neurochirurgie 29(1) (1968): 23–30.Google Scholar
  25. 69.
    “Die Ergebnisse der Untersuchungen legen vielmehr den Schluß nahe, daß Ulrike Meinhof tot war, als man sie aufhängte, und daß es beunruhigende Indizien gibt, die auf das Eingreifen eines Dritten im Zusammenhang mit diesem Tode hinweisen,” see Internationale Untersuchungskommission, ed., Der Tod Ulrike Meinhofs. Bericht der Internationalen Untersuchungskommission (Münster: Unrast Verlag, 2007), 6.Google Scholar
  26. 93.
    Cornelia Brink, “Psychiatrie und Politik: Zum Sozialistischen Patientenkollektiv in Heidelberg,” in Terrorismus in der Bundesrepublik. Medien, Staat und Subkulturen in den 1970er Jahren, ed. Klaus Weinhauer, Jörg Requate, and Heinz-Gerhard Haupt (Frankfurt: Campus, 2006), 138.Google Scholar
  27. 95.
    Brink, “Psychiatrie und Politik,” 138. Overath writes of a total of more than thirty SPK members sentenced to prison for between one and four-and-a-half years in relation to RAF activities. This number includes Müller, Jünschke, Schiller, and Roll, as well as second-generation members Siegfried Hausner, Lutz Taufer, Hanna Krabbe, Sieglinde Hofmann, and Elisabeth von Dyck, see Margot Overath, Drachenzähne. Gespräche, Dokumente und Recherchen aus der Wirklichkeit der Hochsicherheitsjustiz (Hamburg: VSA-Verlag, 1991), 74.Google Scholar
  28. 100.
    “einen Mut und eine Kraft dokumentiert,” see RAF, “Die Aktion des Schwarzen September in München,” in Rote Armee Fraktion. Texte und Materialien zur Geschichte der RAF, ed. ID-Verlag (Berlin: ID-Verlag, 1997), 151. Bernd Weisbrod writes of this sort of emotional claim making as one element of the performativity of violence, seeGoogle Scholar
  29. Bernd Weisbrod, “Terrorism as Performance: The Assassinations of Walther Rathenau and Hanns-Martin Schleyer,” in Control of Violence: Historical and International Perspectives on Violence in Modern Societies, ed. Wilhelm Heitmeyer, Heinz-Gerhard Haupt, Andrea Kirschner, and Stefan Malthaner (New York: Springer, 2011), 366–67.Google Scholar
  30. 104.
    Habbo Knoch, Die Tat als Bild. Fotografien des Holocaust in der deutschen Erinnerungskultur (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2001), 894. Zelizer also writes of a “visual amnesia,” seeGoogle Scholar
  31. Barbie Zelizer, Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory through the Camera’s Eye (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 141.Google Scholar
  32. 105.
    Petra Terhoeven, “Opferbilder—Täterbilder. Die Fotographie als Medium linksterroristischer Selbstermächtigung in Deutschland und Italien während der 70er Jahre,” Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 58(7/8) (2007): 392.Google Scholar
  33. 123.
    Such connections did indeed exist: in the early postwar context of behavior modification programs in U.S. prisons, researchers studied the “brainwashing” techniques used in North Korea and China to develop techniques for the U.S. prison system, see Alan Eladio Gómez, “Resisting Living Death at Marion Federal Penitentiary, 1972,” Radical History Review 96 (2006): 62. Such links were also made at the time, for example, in a committee publication that places the scintigraphy and forced anesthesia in West Germany, and specifically in relation to Meinhof, in context with practices in U.S. prisons, such as the severing of neural pathways, electroshock therapy, and paralyzing drugs that mimic death, see “FOLTER MIT MEDIZINSICHEN MITTELN,” 131. In terms of international cooperation, West German Professor Johann M. Burchard brought a Prague researcher to Hamburg in 1968, in what was an act of scientific cooperation across a border that seemed otherwise impenetrable by diplomacy and politics, see Koenen, “Camera Silens,” 1001.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Leith Passmore 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Leith Passmore

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations