Adrienne Gerhäuser, Corinna Kawaters and the ‘Red Zora’

Katharina Karcher is Schröder Research Associate and Affiliated Lecturer in the Department of German and Dutch at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include feminist theory, European women’s movements, and the history and memory of political protest, extremism and violence. Her forthcoming monograph ‘”Sisters in Arms?” – Militant Feminisms in the Federal Republic of Germany since 1968’ (Berghahn, 2017) analyses the role of confrontational and violent tactics in three major feminist struggles in post-WWII Germany: the movement against the abortion ban, the struggle against violence against women, and a solidarity campaign for women workers in the Third World.

In contrast to Britain, where it is widely accepted that militant and violent protest for female suffrage is a part of the long and varied history of feminist movements, it was long assumed that no such protest existed in the history of German feminism. Although most feminists in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) took the stance that only non-violent forms of protest could achieve real social change, some individuals and groups in the German women’s movement considered violent tactics imperative to overcome oppression and exploitation on a local and global scale. One of these groups was the Rote Zora (“Red Zora,” RZ). Between 1977 and 1988, the RZ claimed responsibility for forty-five arson attacks and bombings, most of which took place in the 1980s, and a few more followed in the 1990s.

The West German state classified the RZ as a terrorist organization. Against the background of Germany’s fascist past and political violence in the FRG, feminist activists in Germany rejected violence in all shapes and forms and were understandably reluctant to discuss ideas and activities that could associate the women’s movement with “terrorism.” While it is important to acknowledge the pivotal role of pacifism and anti-militarism in the history of the German women’s movement, it would be wrong to limit feminist politics to non-violent activism. A great part of the existing literature on the New Women’s Movement in the FRG suggests that it is possible and necessary to draw a clear-cut line between peaceful feminist protest on the one side, and “bad” patriarchal violence on the other. The members of the Red Zora wanted to challenge this dichotomy and have tried to spread militant protest in the German women’s movement.

The Red Zora took up central themes in German feminism including violence against women, transnational solidarity, as well as issues around population control, reproductive technologies, and genetic engineering. With its attacks, the RZ tried to encourage women and girls to form gangs to fight back against the many forms of violence and abuse that they experienced in their everyday lives. “Our dream,” explained two group members in an interview with the feminist magazine EMMA in 1984, “is that there are small gangs of women everywhere; and that a rapist, women trafficker, wife beater, porn dealer, creepy gynaecologist must fear that a gang of women finds him, attacks him, and humiliates him in public”. [1]

Unlike other militant political organizations in West Germany, the RZ focused on small-scale attacks against property and made it a priority not to hurt or kill people in their attacks. When I interviewed three former group members, they told me that their approach to violence was as much the result of personal ethics as of the life-affirming politics of the women’s movement. On the one hand, the RZ set itself the objective to convince other women that it was possible to fight back against everyday violence and abuse. On the other hand, the group wanted to challenge the commonly held view that violent tactics were irreconcilable with feminist politics. The RZ took the stance that violent attacks could serve as a form of “armed propaganda” for feminist struggles. [2] Although the Red Zora did not succeed in spreading violent tactics in the German women’s movement, its attacks sparked vivid debates on the scope and limits of feminist protest.

In April 1977, members of the Red Zora planted a bomb at the headquarters of the German Medical Association to protest against the organization’s insistence on the abortion ban. Shortly after the attack, they released a claim of responsibility that featured, for the first time in history, the name and logo of the Red Zora. The name Red Zora refers to a children’s book from 1941, which the group saw as a source of inspiration for its politics. Kurt Kläber’s novel Die Rote Zora und ihre Bande [translated into English as The Outsiders of Uskoken Castle], which he published under the pseudonym Kurt Held, provided an example of female leadership as the Red Zora envisaged it: the leading character was unconventional, wild, and subversive, but also responsible and caring.

In 1978, the RZ carried out a series of attacks against sex shops in Koblenz and Cologne. These attacks caused damage worth 200,000 Deutschmark. Shortly after the incident, a local newspaper received a letter, in which the Red Zora claimed responsibility for the attacks. Here, the group declared that it wanted to accept no longer that women were reduced to their bodies and degraded to “sex-machines” at the disposal of male consumers. With its campaign against the sex industry, the Red Zora sided with anti-porn feminists in the “sex wars” of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many feminists in West Germany shared this stance, and some expressed open support for the attacks. A few weeks after the attacks, the feminist magazine EMMA published excerpts of the claim of responsibility. A little cartoon figure next to the text, dressed like a suffragette, said: “Help!—I feel overwhelmed with clandestine joy.”

Retrospectively, members of the RZ admitted that their protest in the 1970s had failed to consider the views of women who worked in the sex industry and not paid enough attention to less visible forms of sexism and abuse. [3] Whilst trying to show solidarity with other women, a number of attacks by the Red Zora reinforced forms of hegemonic speech and silence. In the claim of responsibility for a bombing at the Philippine consulate in Bonn in 1983, the Red Zora accused the Philippine government and other “corrupt governments” in the Third World of profiting from sex tourism, trafficking, and prostitution. [4] The militant feminists declared that they wanted to express solidarity with Philippine women because the sexual objectification of women in Third World countries constituted an offence against all women, including themselves. By emphasising a shared experience of patriarchal oppression, the members of the Red Zora failed to account for the unspoken privileges of their identities.

In December 1993, a group of “old” and “new” group members released the brochure Mili’s Tanz auf dem Eis, which provides the first detailed comment on the history of the RZ. Here, the group stated that discussions with black women, Jewish feminists, and lesbian activists had helped them “to understand that there is more than one experience of sexism”. [5] Looking back at their campaigns against sex shops and alleged sex traffickers, the authors acknowledged that their living and working conditions as white and predominantly middle-class women in West Germany were very different from those of many of the women who they were trying to support. Against the background of widespread poverty, political repression, and a lack of job opportunities in the Philippines, the Red Zora admitted in 1993 for example, a marriage with a German man opened a window of opportunity to many local women. While the group has never declared its own dissolution, it carried out its last attack in 1995.

To this day, scholars, journalists and the police know little about the Red Zora and even less about its members. Drawing on previously unconsidered archival material and interviews with former group members, I have offered the first detailed study of the history and ideology of the RZ. [6] So far, only three women have been found guilty of membership in the group. They had surrendered to the police voluntarily after years of hiding. Corinna Kawaters stood trial in 1998, Adrienne Gerhäuser in 2007 and Juliane Balke in 2010. The three women were all acquitted due to time limitations on the charges against them.

While the biographies of Kawaters and Gerhäuser are not necessarily representative of those of other group members, they have a lot in common. Born in 1949, Gerhäuser completed a degree in German Studies and Political Sciences. In the early 1970s, she moved to Berlin, where she worked as a teacher. Kawaters was born in 1953 and grew up in Cologne. After studying Sociology in Bochum, Kawaters worked as a journalist for the leftist newspaper Die Tageszeitung in Bochum. Gerhäuser and Kawaters were actively involved in the women’s movement and other political projects. Rather than marrying and settling down, they worked in a range of jobs and moved frequently. In the early 1980s, Gerhäuser moved to Essen, where she completed training as a radio technician. Today, she works as a photographer in Berlin. Kawaters worked in a number of fields ranging from social work to gastronomy. In 1984, she published a detective novel. [7] Two books with same protagonist followed. In 2005, Kawaters opened a restaurant in Leipzig.

The main evidence in the proceedings against Kawaters and Gerhäuser was the purchase of small travel alarm clocks. By 1986, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was aware that the Red Zora had a preference for alarm clocks of the type Emes sonochron as incendiary time fuses (see Image below). In a massive surveillance exercise, prosecuting authorities began to monitor the sale of these clocks throughout Germany. In 1986, employees of the Federal Criminal Police Office confiscated thousands of alarm clocks in watch businesses all over the country, took them apart and engraved code numbers on the back of the clock faces. They then reassembled the alarm clocks and returned them to the shops, which they equipped with video cameras to collect evidence about every purchase of an alarm clock of this type.


Image: Alarm Clock Used for Bomb by the Red Zora
Source: Police evidence returned to Corinna Kawaters, photographed by the author

On October 15, 1986, Adrienne Gerhäuser fell into the trap. A police camera captured her buying a marked alarm clock that the Red Zora used in a time bomb a few days later. Due to a technical fault, the explosive device failed to detonate and was confiscated by police. Not knowing that all clock stores in West Germany were under police surveillance, Gerhäuser purchased another alarm clock in June 1987. Like Gerhäuser, Kawaters was on a list of suspected terrorists that the Federal Criminal Police Office had produced in 1987. During a raid on 18 December, the police found an alarm clock of the type Emes sonochron in her flat in Bochum. Gerhäuser, Kawaters and other suspects on the wanted list of the Federal Criminal Police Office were lucky: due to a timely warning, they narrowly escaped arrest.

Feminist activists in Germany have only begun to document and discuss the history and ideology of the Red Zora. A recent example shows that one does not have to agree with the tactics of the Red Zora to see the activities of this group as a part of the long and varied history of feminist movements and to productively engage with their history. Fifteen years ago, a group of feminist activists organised the first “Red Dawns” [Rdeče zore festival] in Ljubljana, Slovenia, to discuss the challenges that women faced in radical politics, art, and everyday life. Since then, the festival has taken place annually and has become an important platform for feminist art and queer activism in the Balkans, Western Europe, Turkey, and a range of other countries. On their website, the organisers of the festival discuss the history of the Red Zora and state:

Even though Red Dawns festival refrains itself from political violence, it supports Rote Zora in their belief that the struggle for women’s rights is undone, that it goes hand in hand with struggles for social justice, and that we cannot be contended with reformist politics. [8]

The statement by the festival organisers illustrates that there are feminists who take inspiration from the Red Zora without promoting violence. It shows that one does not have to agree with the political views or tactics of militant feminist groups to see their activities as a part of the long and varied history of feminist movements.




[1] ID Verlag (ed.). 1993. Die Früchte des Zorns, Amsterdam: ID Verlag, 462. All translations from Germn by the author.

[2] Interview with three former members of the Red Zora on August 17, 2012.

[3] Die Rote Zora. 1993. ‘Mili’s Tanz auf dem Eis. Von Pirouetten, Schleifen, Einbrüchen, doppelten Saltos und dem Versuch, Boden unter die Füße zu kriegen’. Retrieved 20 July 2016.

[4] ID Verlag, Die Früchte des Zorns, 467.

[5] Die Rote Zora, ‘Mili’s Tanz auf dem Eis’.

[6] K. Karcher. 2017. ‘Sisters in Arms?’ Militant Feminisms in the Federal Republic of Germany since 1968, Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

[7] C. Kawaters. 1984. Zora Zobel findet die Leiche: Roman, Frankfurt: Zweitausendeins.

[8]Red Dawns Herstory.” 2014. Retrieved 20 July 2016.