The terrorist who became a victim

Forty years ago, the Italian-German terrorist Petra Krause was arrested in Switzerland. She went on a hunger strike to protest against her solitary confinement, and this caused a major storm in the media. By Urs Hafner

​(From "Horizons" no. 106, September)
Image: © Keystone / AP Photo / Gianni Foggia

The 1970s were the era of left-wing terrorism in western Europe. Armed groups carried out a struggle against capitalism. The goals of the Red Army Faction (RAF) and the Red Brigade were world revolution and the establishment of a "just" society. Anti-fascist revolutionaries were active in Switzerland too. In 1975 the police arrested the "Petra Krause Group". Petra Krause was a young anarchist of dual Italian and German nationality. After taking part in an arson attack in Italy, she had fled to Switzerland. Here, she had linked up with Zurich-based anarchists and continued her struggle, stealing weapons from Swiss Army depots to pass on to like-minded comrades in southern Europe.

Krause spent nearly three years in solitary confinement before being extradited to Rome in 1977. She went on hunger strike three times in Switzerland to try and achieve the following demands: the abolition of solitary confinement for all those in detention while awaiting trial, permission to get exercise in the prison yard for one hour every day and the right to choose one’s own doctor. These hunger strikes proved a major source of controversy in the Swiss media. Just how this controversy came about is something that the historian Dominique Grisard from the Center for Gender Studies of the University of Basel has been investigating.

A woman on the offensive

Grisard’s doctoral thesis, published in 2011, dealt with ‘The gender history of left-wing terrorism in Switzerland’, and she sees the gender aspect of the Krause case as the key to it all. On the one side there was a woman who was becoming increasingly frail and who only weighed 35 kilos at the end of her third hunger strike, which lasted from 19 June to 16 July 1976. Krause had survived Auschwitz as a child, and when she became an adult she had resorted to using violent, implicitly "male" means to attack the state. On the other side was the Swiss state, essentially a centuries-old male club that demanded obedience from all its members, and that had only deigned to offer political rights to its female population five years earlier, in 1971.

Krause was supported by feminist and left-wing groups, and Grisard believes that she came to be seen as a threat to the binary order of the genders. With her body – a woman’s body, emaciated by prison and hunger – she made visible the repressed vulnerability of the male citizen and his dependence on the state.

Shifting perceptions

This shift in perceptions is striking, says Grisard. First Krause was a terrorist, someone depicted as an irrational perpetrator who was using her body as a weapon. But then she became stylised as a fragile victim. "The left-wing press saw her body as a victim of state oppression, while the right-wing press saw it as a means of blackmail", says Grisard. When confronted by the concept of "terrorism" in the form of a woman’s emaciated body, the general public was unsettled, because this seemed to blur the conventional demarcation between the legitimate force of the state and the illegitimate force of terrorists. The figure of Petra Krause was transformed from a capricious culprit into a vulnerable victim, while the notion of a sovereign state that protects its citizens from terrorists was increasingly replaced by the image of an impotent state that injures those entrusted to it.

Did Krause’s hunger strike have any real impact? Hardly, says Grisard. Several questions were asked in parliament about prison conditions, but no laws were changed. All the same, Krause achieved a certain improvement in the conditions of her imprisonment. Before her protests, she had been harassed in prison, apparently even being denied tampons by the guards when she asked for them. But her actions brought about no changes in the practice of solitary confinement.