The Brain Question?

Ulrike Meinhof


Germany in 1968

What is the RAF?

Early Life

Career as a Journalist


Meinhof and the RAF

Her Suicide

The Brain Question?


Bibliography & Links

Contact Details


Terrorism: a willful act or a mere brain damage?

Close-up image of neurons

The morbid fascination of scientists with Ulrike Meinhof’s brain is one of the lesser known details in relation to the RAF. The obscure metamorphosis of the intelligent, gifted, bourgeois girl into a cold-minded killer appalled many people.

Did a brain damage influence Ulrike Meinhof’s development into a terrorist?
The 26-year old Ulrike Meinhof had to undergo surgery because a tumor was suspected in her brain, which turned out to be a benign tumor. Scientists hypothesized that this operation might have affected Ulrike Meinhof’s emotional control center. Was she of sound mind? In retrospective, what effect does this debate have on the history of the RAF? Does brain research dismantle the “I”?

Ulrike Meinhof committed suicide in her prison cell on May 9th 1976, which can be interpreted as the ultimate act of free will or the ultimate act of resistance executed by an extraordinarily woman who strongly believed in a vision and that the means justified the ends.

In November 2002, Bettina Röhl, Meinhof’s daughter, discovered that her mother’s brain was stored in a cardboard box at the University of Tübingen without the family’s permission. The autopsy after Meinhof’s suicide was carried out by the neurologist, Professor Jürgen Pfeiffer, who noticed unusual deformations of Meinhof’s brain. He stated that a causality between the brain operation and a loss of a sense for the reality was more than likely, concluding that Ulrike Meinhof’s brain showed pathological abnormalities which should have led to reduced culpability or acquittal at the trial. In 1974, Ulrike Meinhof was sentenced to eight years in prison assuming that she was fully mentally fit and responsible for her actions.
Pfeiffer corresponded with Renate Riemeck who confirmed that Ulrike Meinhof underwent a profound personality change after the operation resulting in a partial self-estrangement. Bettina Röhl claims that Pfeiffer wrote a report on his findings that was published in 1976 and included the above mentioned thesis with photographic evidence. This report circulated among RAF sympathizers but never reached the mass media. Even the tribunal under Otto Schilly refused to inform the public about the report. Arguably, it would have destroyed not only the legitimatization of the RAF but also the credibility of the entire movement of the extra-parliamentary left if it had become known that a pathologically sick woman was the voice of their movement, the author of many central pieces that laid out the RAF ideological framework, and one of the founding members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang.
Ulrike Meinhof’s ex-husband, Klaus Rainer Röhl, had hypothesized independently from the findings mentioned above that his ex-wife suffered from the late consequences of her brain operation. As he states in his book “Fünf Finger sind keine Faust” (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1974), his wife had undergone changes, she had become cooler, more distanced and sexually unfeeling. During their divorce process, Ulrike Meinhof had devastated their mutual house. According to Klaus R. Röhl, the change in personality is connected with Ulrike Meinhof’s becoming a terrorist.
The medical history of Ulrike Meinhof was published by Dr. Kautsky in 1968, anonymous under the acronym U.R. as story of a successful operation and healing process.
In 1997, Pfeiffer gave the psychiatrist, Bernhard Bogerts, Ulrike Meinhof’s brain and he conducted research on her brain for five years at the University of Magdeburg. He claims that Meinhof had a brain operation in 1962 that may have contributed to her becoming one of Europe’s most feared urban guerillas and terrorists. Her right brain-half, which deals with emotional response, had been injured by the clamping off of a tumor in a brain operation in 1962. The operation led to pathological modifications of her brain possibly resulting in an increased aggression of Meinhof as well as behavioral changes that turned her from an aspiring journalist to becoming the co-founder of the far-leftist RAF terrorist group.
The Spiegel published before long an article on Ulrike Meinhof and her brain diagnosis. The Spiegel editor-in-chief, Stefan Aust, was an important figurehead in deciphering the Baader-Meinhof complex since he had undergone journalism training under Ulrike Meinhof, was present at the violent demonstration against the Axel-Springer publishing house, and was involved in returning her twins to their father.
Bettina Röhl has filed a lawsuit on charges of disturbing the peace of the dead for secretly removing Meinhof’s brain after her death and is seeking to have her brain buried with the rest of her remains in Berlin. Röhl claims that a dead terrorist has a right to be treated fairly and the right to a decent burial. In 2002, the brain of Ulrike Meinhof was buried in Berlin.

While the brain operation might have had a profound influence on Ulrike Meinhof’s behavior, it will always remain an unanswered question in how far external circumstances such as friends and society as well as a longing for adventure and a meaningful life have been decisive factors that influenced her transformation from an aspiring journalist admired by the high society, celebrated as highly sensible and gifted, and valued for her opinions into a woman devoted to the armed urban guerrilla struggle against the capitalist and imperialist German state.

In 2002, just after the daughters of Ulrike Meinhof had finally obtained the permission to burry her brain BBC reported missing the brains of Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe who committed suicide in jail in 1977. The director of the Neurological Research Institute of the University of Tübingen, Richard Meyermann, has no explanation concerning the whereabouts of the brain.

More about the brains of the RAF Terrorists:

Red Army Faction brains ‘disappeared’
Saturday, 16 November, 2002, 19:05 GMT

Meinhof brain study yields clues
Tuesday, 12 November, 2002, 23:30 GMT

Die Zeit (German)
Die Hirnforschung demontiert das Ich

Andreas Sentker, 47/2002

Warum der Schädelinhalt großer Untäter so begehrt ist

Richard Herzinger, 47/2002

ZDF (German)
Was Ulrike Meinhof schuldunfähig?
Annika Schipke

Bettina Röhl (German)
Bettina Röhl, the daughter of Ulrike Meinhof, has researched the topic extensively and published an article in which she comments on the brain trail, freedom of the press, and the dignity of the death on her webpage.
The dignity of the dead Ulrike Meinhof. The madhouse republic? Is the German Terrorism imaginable without the media? Or: The story of Ulrike Meinhof’s medical brain diagnosis that was suppressed for 26 years.”

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