Ulrike Meinhof and the RAF

Ulrike Meinhof

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Germany in 1968

What is the RAF?

Early Life

Career as a Journalist

Family

Meinhof and the RAF

Her Suicide

The Brain Question?

Conclusion

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A detailed and informative overview about the activities of the
Red Army Faction/Baader-Meinhof Gang can be found here.

 

The prominent RAF members including Baader, Ensslin, and Meinhof

The birth of the Baader-Meinhof Group

On May 14th 1970, Andreas Baader imprisoned for setting fire to two department stores, was allowed to meet the journalist, Ulrike Meinhof, at the German Central Institute for Social Questions (“Deutsches Zentralinstitut für Soziale Fragen”) to write a book together about young offenders. However, during this “meeting” Baader was forcefully liberated, which marks the birth of the Baader-Meinhof Group also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang and later on as the Red Army Faction (RAF).

After the Baader liberation, Ulrike Meinhof was interviewed by Michèle Ray, a French journalist, whom she gave three reasons for her action:
” First, of course, because Andreas Baader is a cadre and because among those who have now grasped what must be done, and what is right, we can’t afford the luxury of assuming we can dispense with certain individuals. Second, we freed a prisoner as our first action because we believe that the people whom we want to show what politics is all about today are the kind who will have no difficulty in identifying with the freeing of a prisoner themselves…Third, another reason we began by freeing a prisoner was to make it quite clear that we mean business” (Aust 1985, 1998).
When asked about the police, she follows the argumentation “that they are naturally brutal because of their job, beating and shooting people is their job, repression is their job, but then again that is only the uniform, only the job and the man who wears the uniform and does the job may be a perfectly pleasant character at home… This is a problem, and of course we say the cops are swine, we say a man in uniform’s a pig, not a human being, so we must tackle him. I mean we mustn’t talk to him…of course there may be shooting” (Aust 1985, 1998). This Ulrike Meinhof sounds radically different from the young journalist and peace activist. It seems that Ulrike Meinhof has become disillusioned by the influence she had as a journalist and has turned to more radical means to change Germany. Many speculations exist for her unusual development from a prestigious journalist to a revolutionary embracing violence ranging from a fanatic disposition to the hypothesis that her brain had been damaged during an operation.

On the 21st of June 1970, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin (the two most influential members of the RAF fulfilling leadership roles), and Ulrike Meinhof traveled to Jordan along with other members of the RAF where they were educated in guerilla tactics including shooting with Kalaschnikovs, throwing of hand grenades, robbing of banks. The stay in the camp gave rise to many conflicts between the Germans and the Palestinian Fedayin regarding food, living quarters, and the training itself. Baader believed that the training the RAF received in Jordan was irrelevant for the task awaiting them in Germany. Another source of conflict was the conviction of the Germans that anti-imperialistic struggle and sexual liberation go hand in hand.
Ulrike Meinhof was judged by Baader as useless, a comment that she accepted without contradicting him. It was during their stay in Jordan that the RAF forged ties to Abu Hassan, a specialist in guerrilla tactics and a famous fighter for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, PLO, and member of the Fatha. He later became one of the top terrorists worldwide.

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The struggle

Back in Berlin, the Baader-Meinhof Group prepared for a secret, underground struggle that would have to be conducted with great efficiency. Ulrike Meinhof contacted people she knew from her days as a journalist. Although not many appreciated the idea of an armed struggle central to the RAF doctrine, she was fairly successful because people empathized with her now that she was classified as a public enemy and searched for by the police.

In contrast to what the name Baader-Meinhof Gang implies, Ulrike Meinhof’s influence in the group was rather weak during this time because she was very insecure when it came to interpersonal relationships within the group even though she was assertive, strong, and convincing in her publications,.

Ulrike Meinhof started to adapt to life in illegality, planning attacks, and coordinating their survival. Numerous banks were robbed to secure the financial basis, cars were stolen (by the famous ‘doubles method’), and flats were rented. The justification for these actions was that they did not harm the little man, only the capitalist. Ulrike Meinhof learned how to break into cars and carried a pistol at all times. She did not prove to be very successful at practical things, she broke off a wheel of the car she tried to steel, she left most of the money in the bank after a robbery, and she wrote wrong addresses on parcels with blank passports and identity card forms, official stamps as well as official papers she had previously stolen.
The group was much smaller than people expected. About 25 people planned the revolutionary overthrow in the Federal Republic of Germany. The members of the RAF thought of themselves as the spark for a mass revolution led by the working class. The group itself was influenced by a new sense of the importance of the ‘primacy of praxis.’ The right to act is justified by its feasibility.

In November 1970, Ulrike Meinhof started to drive through Germany in a VW-bus with Karl-Heinz Ruhland. On the way they visited many friends of Ulrike all of whom later were charged with aiding and abetting a criminal association. The purpose of their journey besides networking and obtaining forged papers was to investigate how to break into an arms depot.

Ex-members of the Baader-Meinhof Group claim that Ulrike Meinhof was the most nervous person with the least stabile stimulus threshold. Apparently, she kept rubbing her fingers together and often made little paper balls, which the police later started looking for in suspicious flats. Moreover, she was the most politicized and was obsessed with overanalyzing every situation by imposing a political line of argumentation that involved the creation of an independent and politically conscious proletariat. Political discussions within the group decreased so that Ulrike Meinhof, who was in charge with finding apartments for the group to stay in, had to rely on discussions with her acquaintances that often offered refuge to the group.

On Christmas 1970, the remaining members of the RAF met in Stuttgart. However, after only living six months underground, more members had been arrested than met that day. On this day a fundamental argument between Baader and Meinhof about the way the group was organized permanently changed their relationship. Ulrike Meinhof argued that the RAF was too unorganized, not precarious enough, and not taking enough time to adequately prepare their actions. According to Baader, all mistakes made in the past had been solely the responsibility of an individual and not of the structure of the group. The rude use of language among group members led to increased social isolation.

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The origin of the name Red Army Faction

The Baader-Meinhof Group or Baader-Meinhof Gang had not expressed themselves in writing since the organized interview with the French journalist, Michèle Ray, after Baader’s liberation. In 1971, Horst Mahler wrote a “Statement of Position” while he was imprisoned that was unfavorably looked upon by the rest of the group. In response, Ulrike Meinhof was instructed to produce a manifesto that would present the group to the outside world. As a result, the Urban Guerrilla Concept originated in which the name Red Army Faction was used for the first time. In this document, the well-known logo of an H&K machine pistol with the abbreviation RAF above it and a red star in the background is depicted.

A clear cut line must be drawn between us and the enemy! Mao
Red Army Faction: The Urban Guerilla Concept

The Urban Guerrilla Concept begins with a Mao quote:
“ If the enemy fights us, that is good, not bad” and further “If the enemy opposes us vigorously, paints is in the blackest colors, and will allows us no good points, that is even better; it shows that not only have we drawn a clear dividing line between ourselves and the enemy, our work has also proved brilliantly successful” (Aust 1985, 1998).
Furthermore, Ulrike Meinhof states that “We do not ‘make reckless use of guns.’ The cop who finds himself in the contradictory situation of being a ‘little man’ and a capitalist lackey, a low wage-earner and a police officer of monopoly capitalism, is not under absolute compulsion to act. We shoot when we are shot. We spare the cop who spares us” (Aust 1985, 1998). This might have been true for the initial phase of the RAF but towards the end of the first generation when more and more members were captured, the others became increasingly tense, bearing arms at all times.
Ulrike Meinhof concludes that “People are right when they claim that all the resources expended on hunting us down are really intended for the whole socialist left in the Federal Republic and West Berlin. The small sums of money we are said to have stolen, the occasional thefts of cars and documents with which we are charged, the attempted murder they are trying to pin on us, are their justification for it all.
Our rulers are afraid to the marrow of their bones…” (Aust 1985, 1998).

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Give up, Ulrike

In November 1971, Renate Riemeck tried to reason with her foster daughter. She published a letter in konkret titled “Give up, Ulrike!” (Aust 1985, 1998: The full text is printed in Chapter 2, subsection 31). This letter was a mixture of criticism of the actions of RAF and praise for her past political engagement and benevolent character. Riemeck tried to change Meinhof’s point of view by charming her and reasoning with her. In this letter, she pointed out that she believed Ulrike was “too intelligent and reasonable to confuse anti-authoritarian rebelliousness with the beginning of a broad revolution.” She also wrote that “Germany is not a place for an urban guerrilla movement in the Latin American style” and asked “Who… still understands the political and moral impulse behind your actions? A spirit of sacrifice and the readiness to face death become ends in themselves if one cannot make them understood.” She continues by commenting on the recent deaths of three victims, demanding “You must correct yourselves.” She concludes with an appeal: “I do not know how far your own influence within the group extends how far your friends are amenable to rational considerations. But you should try to measure up the chances of an urban guerrilla movement in the Federal Republic against the social reality of this country. You can do that, Ulrike.”

An emancipated Ulrike Meinhof?


Ulrike Meinhof’s answer was found in a garbage can three weeks later. It was titled: “A slave mother entreats her child” (Aust 1985, 1998: The full text is printed in Chapter 2, subsection 32). Ulrike Meinhof has rewritten the letter from the point of a slave mother, Renate Riemeck, asking her daughter to deny freedom, turn around and be content with being an obedient, exemplary slave who could become an overseer if she accepted the authorities and her life as a slave. With this sarcastic response, Ulrike Meinhof cut the last bond to her past and consciously decided to dedicate her life to terrorism, ironically believing to be acting on higher moral grounds, fighting for the right thing, even if nobody except the Baader-Meinhof-Group understood this reasoning.

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Terrorism and the German response

Meanwhile, the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA) appointed a new Chief Commissioner, Horst Herold, who invented a computer program that was able to save data of tens of thousands of suspects. Horst Herold was a main character in fighting the inner-state war, the military and political conflict between the bourgeois and capitalist state, and its radical opponents.
Herold is quoted as saying: “The first question is to decide whether terrorism, in its manifestations in Germany or indeed all over the world, is a product of the brains of its perpetrators, …or whether terrorism is a reflection of certain social situations in the Western and indeed in the Eastern worlds, so that its superstructure only mirrors problems which have an objective existence. In so doing, we would have to consider who… should be primarily engaged in the struggle against terrorism: The police or the politicians…we are concerned with exerting influence on historical causes and effects.” (Aust 1985, 1998) Furthermore, he added that Germany was forced to increasingly think in terms of international law on top of traditional military terms because the RAF tried working together with terrorist groups worldwide to build up a counterweight to the state system. This was a complicated subject matter for Germany because the problem exceeded the national boundaries. It was revealed much later that the Stasi of the GDR was well-informed about the actions of the terrorists, had arrested and questioned many of them, and then helped them re-enter into the Federal Republic of Germany.
Germany reformed the BKA to transform it into German version of the American FBI which required of the Interior Ministers of the Länder to waive some of their power to a centralized institution, thus constructing a new system of communication between the Federal Criminal Investigation Office and the regional police authorities with special anti-terrorist commissions.
A so-called Radicals Edict aimed at preventing the bureaucracy from being invaded, allowed for the rejection of an applicant on the grounds of his political membership profile if it was doubtful whether a person would remain loyal to the principles of free democracy under all circumstances.

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The game continues…

While the German state prepared its response to the terrorists, the RAF killed a police officer while robbing another bank in December 1971.

In March 1972, the press reported the alleged death of Ulrike Meinhof but in reality she was in Italy during this time and later returned to Hamburg where she recruited members. The year that followed was hectic: bombings of the US army in Frankfurt and Heidelberg, the police station in Augsburg, the Munich Regional Criminal Investigation Office, the car of the Federal Judge Budenberg, and the Axel Springer building in Hamburg.

Ulrike Meinhof seemed very depressed after the Springer bombings. Many friends told her to stop her terrorist activity but she replied that this was only the beginning of a long struggle.

On June 15th 1972, Meinhof was arrested in a flat where she had hidden. At first, the police officers failed to notice that they had arrested Ulrike Meinhof since she had changed dramatically in appearance – she was much thinner and looked sick. To verify the identity of the woman, she was forcibly anaesthetized and x-rays were taken of her head to look for the silver clamp put in ten years ago during her brain operation.

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Imprisonment

From June 16th 1972 until February 9th 1973, Ulrike Meinhof was imprisoned in the ‘dead section’ of Köln-Ossendorf, completely isolated from normal life in prison and from the other RAF members who had been captured in the meantime. She was only allowed to see her family every two weeks for 30 minutes under supervision during her stay in the ‘quiet section’ for eight months.

She summarized her feelings during this time:
“ The feeling that your head is exploding. The feeling that the top of your skull must be going to split and come off. The feeling of your spinal cord being pressed into your brain…The feeling that the cell is moving. You wake up and open your eyes: the cell is moving; in the afternoon, when the sin shines in, it suddenly stops. You can’t shake off that sense of movement… Furious aggression for which there is no outlet. That’s the worst thing. A clear awareness that your chance of survival is nil. Utter failure to communicate that. Visits leave no trace behind them. Half an hour later, you can tell if the visit was today or last week only by mechanically reconstructing it. On the other hand, a bath once a week means a moment’s thawing out, recovery- and that feeling persists for a few hours.
The feeling that time and space interlock” (Aust 1985, 1998; Original Version in German).

It was incredibly hard for Ulrike Meinhof to be alone and acoustically as well as physically isolated. Sometimes she talked to the wardens although that was against RAF policy. It was also a maxim not to provoke, but to defend yourself with all methods.
Once after Ulrike Meinhof had disregarded these rules, she noted: “I hit one of the cop-nuts here over the head with a lavatory brush. The same old crap: I was only thinking of myself – wanted to let of steam in a fight – self criticism: I didn’t think of the consequences, how the cops could use that against the RAF.”

On September 5th 1972, the drama in the Olympic village in Munich resulting in 11 dead Israeli athletes, one German policeman, and five dead terrorists unfolded before the eyes of millions of spectators. This event led Ulrike Meinhof to write a manifesto entitled “The Action of Black September at Munich – Towards the Strategy of the Anti-imperialist Struggle” in which she reflects about the relationship of Germans, Palestinians, and Israelis as a result of World War II. She summarized the manifesto in a letter to Gudrun Ensslin stating that it contained a summary of the common aims of the RAF and Black September: “Material annihilation of imperialist rule. Destruction of the myth of the all-powerful system. The propaganda operation expressed in material attack: the act of liberation in the act of annihilation” (Aust 1985, 1998). She was also deeply impressed by Berthold Brecht’s didactic play The Measure (Die Massnahme) from which she took the line: “How low would you not stoop, to destroy the low?”

Because she had time on her hands and was inspired by Brecht, she rewrote the song “Praise of the Party” as “Song of the RAF” with a subtitle that reads “Praise of the Anti-imperialist Struggle”.

“The RAF is in the can of the masses,
It fights their battle
With classic methods
Strike the fascists where it hurts.”

(As quoted in Aust 1985, 1998)

During this time, she also kept up correspondence with her two daughters.

In September 1972, Ulrike Meinhof was flown to Zweibrücken where she was to take part in an identity parade.

In October 1972, the ten year-old twins came to visit her mother for the first time after they had not seen her in three years. They were allowed to visit once a month for two hours. In December 1973, Ulrike Meinhof suddenly broke off the contact with her children without any explanation. She refused to answer their letters and returned their presents.

Ulrike Meinhof participated in all four hunger strikes that were fought to improve the conditions of imprisonment for the RAF members. But Meinhof, as well as Ensslin and Baader, ate secretly in hierarchical order whereas other RAF members died of hunger.

In February 1974, she received company for a certain number of hours a day because Gudrun Ensslin was transferred into the cell next to Ulrike Meinhof. In April, both women were moved to Stuttgart-Stammheim where they were to reside in the high security wing.
Their rooms were to be double locked at all times, they were allowed to wear their own clothes, to exercise together in the yard for one and a half hours daily, and could be locked up together for a maximum of four hours a day. Baths were granted twice a week and they were barred from all community activities including church service.

On August 27th 1974, Ulrike Meinhof was transferred to Berlin due to her involvement in the liberation of Baader in 1970. Ulrike Meinhof appeared sick and barely perceived the presence of Mahler. She explained the struggle she fought with RAF at her trial as follows: “The anti-imperialistic struggle, if it is to be more than mere chatter, means annihilation, destruction, the shattering of the imperialist power system – political, economic and military” (Aust 1985, 1998). The reaction evoked by Meinhof among the people present at the trial is a feeling of pity more than anything else. Ulrike Meinhof is compared to Joan of Arc, a self-made martyr whose followers merely existed in her head. Meinhof is sentenced to eight years of imprisonment on November 29th 1974.

Back in Stammheim, she was due to begin her work on an essay about the history of the RAF, the preliminary title was to be “On the Anti-Imperialist Struggle.” Her notes show that she put the RAF into the time frame of ‘68 and portrayed the RAF as the rescuer of these ideals, ensuring the continuation of the struggle. Although Gudrun Ensslin reassured Ulrike Meinhof that she was the voice of the RAF, Meinhof was plagued by severe self-doubt that impeded her creativity. She accused herself of not having completely dissolved all bonds to her past in the establishment, of lacking revolutionary power, and of accepting the game of domination and submission, of fear and clinging to the rules.

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The Stammheim trial

On October 2nd 1974, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Ulrike Meinhof, Hoger Meins and Jan-Carl Raspe were officially identified as the five most important members of the RAF and accused of five murders. During the Stammheim trial, 1,000 witnesses and 70 experts would be heard and the files on case ran to 170 amounting to nearly 100,000 pages. The files were internally named “Baader – Meinhof – Complex.”

In November 1974, Günter von Drenkmann, a judge who is not affiliated with the trial is killed by the 2. June Movement.

Whereas the first generation RAF was imprisoned, the second generation tried to liberate them. They stormed the German embassy in Stockholm killing several people. Several RAF groups existed that were ignorant of each other’s existence.

On May 21st 1975, the trial commenced in a building, which had been built next to the Stammheim prison on purpose.

The trial was nerve-racking and protracted over two years. The defendants had to be thrown out of the courtroom many times and some attorneys were expelled. It took weeks until the conditions were such that the personalities could be checked. The Bundestag had revised the Code of Criminal Procedure prior to this trial.

Several recurring themes of the trial included the question of the defending lawyers, the bugging of the Stammheim prison cells, the length of the hearing per day, and the issue of fitness of the defendants to stand trial.

During day 23 of the trial, on August 5th, Ulrike Meinhof commented on terrorism: “Terrorism is the destruction of utilities such as dykes, waterworks, hospitals, power stations. All the targets at which the American bomb attacks in the North Vietnam were systematically aimed from 1965 onwards. The city guerilla movement, on the other hand, carries fear into the machinery of the state…The actions of urban guerillas are never never directed against people. They are always directed against the imperialist machine. The urban guerilla fight the terrorism of the state” (Aust 1985, 1998). This statement expresses the feelings of the first RAF generation only.

On the 39th day of the trial, September 23rd 1975, the findings of three medical experts unanimously reported that the defendants were suffering from weakness, disorders of speech and vision, being underweight, and were able to concentrate only poorly. Ulrike Meinhof was unable to concentrate at all.

Ulrike Meinhof talked about the impossibility of defection in the 41st day of the trial, October 28th 1975. She asked the judge: “How can a prisoner kept in isolation show the authorities…that his conduct has changed?...The prisoner has only one possible way of showing that his conduct has changed and that is betrayal….That means that in a situation when you’re in isolation there are just two alternatives: either...you silence a prisoner…by which I mean he dies, or you get him to talk. And that means confession and betrayal. That is torture, that’s nothing less than torture by isolation, defined by the need to extort confessions, to intimidate the prisoner so as to penalize and confuse him” (Aust 1985, 1998). These remarks express an emotional distance to the group and most likely reflect her own thoughts of her situation. Doubt for the RAF was equal to betrayal.

On January 13th, the defendants claimed ‘political responsibility’ for the bomb attacks, but did not comment on the criminal aspect. To them the motivations for their actions were purely political and thus, they executed political acts.

After four years of imprisonment, the conflicts within the group intensified. The relationships particularly between Ensslin and Meinhof were at their lowest in the spring of 1976. They were brutal, cruel, underhand, and played tricks at each other. Ulrike Meinhof wrote that she could not stand that situation any longer.

Ulrike Meinhof had been officially excluded from the trial for a month from March 19th to April 10th and voluntarily stayed away from then onwards.

Four days after Gudrun Ensslin disassociated herself from the attack on the Axel Springer publishing house, which was a public notice that the solidarity between the group had come to an end, Ulrike Meinhof was found dead in her cell.

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