Ulrike Meinhof's Suicide

Ulrike Meinhof

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Ulrike Meinhof commits suicide:

politicization of a private decision

During the night of Saturday, May 8th 1976, the anniversary of the war, Ulrike Meinhof hung herself in her prison cell. She was found the next morning. The post-mortem examination was carried out that afternoon by Professor Rauschke and Professor Mallach at the Stuttgart Citizens’ Hospital. The brain and parts of organs were removed from the body for detailed examination of the tissue at a later stage. The definite conclusion reached that day was suicide by strangulation with no extraneous factors. Another autopsy requested by her sister led to the same conclusion.

The press sparked an intense debate: Was it murder or suicide? Did the German government or justice system kill Ulrike Meinhof? Certainly, the isolation of the prisoners led to this outcome.

In hindsight, it almost seems as if the death of Ulrike Meinhof was used by the extra-parliamentary left to further politicize the German population as well as increase the influence of their ideology and doctrines. According to the RAF theory, Meinhof did not commit suicide but was murdered. Even if she hanged herself, the RAF argued it was the entirety of the hated German state – the judicial system, the police “Bullenschweine,” and the capitalist ruling class – that murdered Ulrike Meinhof. She was the victim of a political show trial that deprived her of other alternatives so that she had to kill herself by default in order to be heard. Months before her death, she had noted on the margin of a paper on strategy “Suicide is the last act of rebellion”(Aust 1985, 1998).

Among others, Otto Schilly, who later became the Federal Minister of the Interior, called for an ‘International Investigatory Commission’ that subjected the official results to another critical evaluation. The commission looked into the findings of the chemical examinations carried out by the Stuttgart Police which at first suggested rape, but plausibly explained that the protein traces could not result from spermatic filaments. Moreover, the length and texture of the toweling rope used by Ulrike Meinhof to hang herself was cause for doubt according to the Commission. In addition, the absence of a farewell note stroke the commission as highly untypical.

Among the extra-parliamentary left, everybody was suspicious: from SPD Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to the wardens. They all were partly to blame for the death because they were moral accomplices and belonged to the corrupt system. Rumors of special agents of the secret service that intruded the cell and murdered her disguising their act as a suicide made the rounds. Many such theories circulated and provoked a heated political debate.

Why did Ulrike Meinhof commit suicide?

The next Sunday would have been mother’s day. Was it Meinhof’s guilty consciousness that plagued her? At this point, she had broken off all contact to her daughters whose letters she returned unopened.
Did Ulrike Meinhof commit suicide as an act of last resistance, the ultimate expression of free will and rebellion? Or was it the last refuge of a completely exhausted, desperate woman who could not bear the isolation in prison anymore and was simply worn out by the many arguments with Ensslin and Baader as well as torn apart by the cruel group pressure. Instead of fighting united against a defined goal, the RAF leadership spent more time fighting against each other in a psychological warfare that was not only cruel and pointless but also self-destructive and counterproductive. It was partly a consequence of living under the strict prison conditions, but also an expression of the emergence of subliminal conflicts that had influenced the group latently since its foundation. They were foremost a result of the interactions of incompatible human beings that were overcoming difficult interpersonal relations. Peter Jürgen Boock who had to decode secret messages between the RAF prisoners remembered having read that the best that Ulrike Meinhof could have done with her miserable life was to kill herself. Group internally nobody doubted her suicide and the extent of the disagreements within the group became clear. The sorrow seemed to be a mere mask to support the murder thesis.

As a result of her suicide, the proceedings against her were at end, however, the trial continued against the defendants Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe.

On May 16th 1976, Ulrike Meinhof was buried on the cemetery of the protestant Holy Trinity church in Mariendorf, West Berlin. Over 4000 supporters followed her coffin, but her daughters had to stay home for security reasons. On the graveside, people remembered Meinhof’s commitment to the anti-atomic bomb campaign, the Vietnam War, her journalistic work that she ultimately regarded as ineffective, and her fate-determining decision to go underground to fight the system. The Berliner publisher, Klaus Wagenbach, attributed her going underground partly due to the external conditions which labeled people as extremists who questioned the status quo.
The theologian, Helmut Grollwitzer, posed the question whether Ulrike Meinhof might have made a different decision if she had had a larger group of supporters to work with towards a more humane society.
One year later on April 7th 1977 when the so-called command Ulrike Meinhof shot down the Federal Prosecutor General Siegfried Buback, the revenge for the supposed murder was completed. A letter claiming responsibility for the deed read: “History will always find a way for such protagonists of the system as Buback. On 7.4.77 the Ulrike Meinhof Commando executed Federal prosecutor General Siegfried Buback…” (Aust 1985, 1998).

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