Ulrike Marie Meinhof was born Oct. 7, 1934. She studied philosophy, sociology and German literature, engaged herself politically on the left in the anti-nuclear-movement in the late 50’s. From 1959 to 1969 she was a columnist for the magazine konkret, one of the most important publications of the far left in Germany then and now. Married to Klaus-Rainer Röhl who published konkret until 1973, two kids. Move to Berlin in 1968.
May 14, 1970 she helped liberate Andreas Baader, a militant who was in jail for setting fire to a department store in protest against the Vietnam war, and went underground. They founded the armed group Red Army Faction with the intention of opening an armed front in the capitalist heartland guided by a sometimes vague Maoist ideology. Meinhof was the member with the biggest public profile as she was widely known from her journalist work; the other publicly known co-founder was the lawyer Horst Mahler.
June 15, 1972 she was arrested.
She remained in jail where she was exposed to social isolation and sensory deprivation over long periods until the start of her trial (May 21, 1975) and ultimately until her death May 8, 1976.
The official version of her death was suicide by hanging, a version that was not believed by many on the far left who – the confrontation had reached fierce proportions – automatically assumed that the state had her executed.
In fact there were many reasons to doubt the official version, social, medical and forensic ones. Both Meinhofs lawyers and her sister hadn’t seen any indication that she was possibly planning to kill herself, and the results of the two autopsies and the forensic investigation was flawed and contradictory, and failed to prove that it was a suicide.
On the contrary the only version of events without inexplicable contradictions appeared to be that Meinhof was strangled and died from a heart attack caused by the pressure on the artery. According to this scenario she was hung after she was already dead. This would explain why she had neither a broken neck, nor the normal signs of asphixiation by hanging that occur if the neck is not broken.
The next question of course would be: who would have murdered her and how would they have been able to access the cell? Astonishingly there was a second way of accessing the cell that could have allowed people (Of the secret service? Of the army? – according to another prisoner a helicopter landed on the prison grounds that night) to get past the normal wardens without them noticing.
The remaining leaders of the RAF, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe died in oct 1977 under equally suspicious circumstances in the same high-security prison. For example Baader was found shot dead from a 30cm distance in the back of the head with a pistol. Nevertheless this was officially declared a suicide once again.(1)
By this time the RAF had been de facto defeated. Increasingly their actions had as their sole goal to liberate the prisoners, became more and more spectacular assassinations and kidnappings, and they increasingly failed to bring their point across to a population that was far from supportive.
To trace the history of the armed struggle in Germany is not the aim of this article, but to point out how undead this history remains.
In fact, ever since these (and other related) events there has been an ongoing battle over the memory, over historification.
One reason may be that some people who were closely associated with the events are still in the public eye – more than that: in government. Otto Schily, minister of the interior in the Schröder government until end of last year (the ‚red sheriff’ as some of the press likes to call him), was Gudrun Ensslins lawyer. Josef Fischer, minister of the exterior in the same cabinet, was a member of the group Revolutionärer Kampf (Revolutionary Struggle), and one of the organisers of the violent demonstration on May 10, 1976 in Frankfurt that took place after Ulrike Meinhof’s death. Horst Mahler has reappeared in the public spotlight as an ideologist, speaker and lawyer for the neo-nazi National-democratic Party (NPD) and other openly neo-Nazi groups. Another one who moved to the far right is Klaus Rainer Röhl, Meinhof’s husband from 1961-1968, now a contributor to the far right weekly Junge Freiheit.
These names are only the tip of the iceberg, because despite the fact that a large part of the left had tried desperately to dissassociate themselves from the RAF, this organisation and their mixed-up theory and botched praxis, their uncompromising radicalism and their failure to communicate any of this to the masses, shines the most spectacular spotlight on the failure of the far left in the 70’s in Germany.
Nevertheless it also tells the story that armed resistance was possible, and that the post-fascist state reacted in the way the guerrilla had predicted: With what they perceived as ‘fascistic’ measures – surveillance, militarisation, torture, murder – showing that the lease on liberalism in Germany could be cut short. More than anything the deaths of the prisoners, if they were indeed murder, would prove this, and would in turn prove the RAF ‚right’.
One publication that has probably printed millions of words about the phenomenon of the RAF is the news magazine Der Spiegel (weekly with a print run of ca. 1m). Current editor is Stefan Aust, a former contributor to konkret, friend of Ulrike Meinhof and author of ‚Der Baader-Meinhof-Komplex’!
It’s perhaps not suprising that under his editorship one of the pet-themes of the magazine has gone more and more downhill, and has reached new lows with a series of articles about the ‚German Autumn 1977’ in 2002 and the article ‚The Brain of Terror’ (Spiegel Online Nov.8, 2002).
This article reveals that Ulrike Meinhhof’s brain had been kept in various places since the autopsy in 1976. It ended up in the Psychiatric University Clinic of Magdeburg in the cupboard of a neuropathologist who has made himself a name in the research on biological schizophrenia, one Dr.Bernhard Bogerts. Illegally. Nevertheless he proceeded to pick up on a pet-project of Prof. Dr. J. Pfeiffer, the man who had had the brain since the autopsy: The proof that brain surgery Meinhof had in 1962 had led to brain damage which in turn led to a „pathological degree of aggressivity“.
This is nothing new. It had been part of the psychological warfare to use this surgery against Meinhof, the weekly magazine Stern had run a story with pictures as early as 1972, before her arrest, just as the daily Bild had had run a front page story about her death in the same period.
In 1973 there was a move by the prosecution to have Meinhofs brain examined, if necessary against her will. The public protest of 70 doctors helped prevent this then.
Meinhof was held for hundreds of days in total isolation and sensory deprivation in a „dead tract“ of the prison where she was cut off from the outside to the extent that she couldn’t hear anything. This practise was condemned as torture by the European human rights court in an earlier case against Great Britain for using this technique against IRA prisoners. The aim was clearly to drive her crazy.
Even now, 30 years after her death, many people – representatives of the state of two different generations – have an interest to declare any militant resistance as pathological.
Mr. Bogerts generously declares that left-extremist thoughts are not per se product of a malignant development of the brain, and then compares the case of Meinhof with the one of one Ernst August Wagner who had brain damage and in 1913 killed over a dozen people. That Wagner’s damage was in a competely different part of the brain and that he’d had it since birth seems to play a minor role if the aim is to criminalise and pathologise the political opponent.
The case of Wagner had been the object of research by the psychiatrist Robert Gaupp, an early proponent of biological psychiatry who lauded the suggestions for the „extermination of unworthy life“ as early as 1920 and was allowed to radicalise his ‚research’ under the Nazi regime.
His teacher was the notorious Ernst Kraepelin, one of the early authorities on ‚schizophrenia’ and also someone who spoke out against the „unpleasant internationalism of the Jewish people“.
Mr. Bogerts, to get back to the present, received the 1998 Kraepelin Award for his research of the neurobiological sources of schizophrenia.
He won’t receive an award for his work on Meinhof’s brain as her daughter Bettina Röhl has taken him to court and successfully demanded the return of the brain – by now in slices.
It was cremated and buried Dec. 19, 2002.
But Aust, Schily and the rest of the former radicals now turned pillars of the new Germany will still be satisfied to see their former comrade be declared crazy and their own treason presented as the only reasonable thing.
(1) These days the suicide thesis has become the official version. This is partly based on the testimony former members of the group, however these members have done deals to receive lesser punishments and it may well have been part of the deal to back up the theory of a suicide pact.
A lot of what has been claimed remains in the realm of ‘opinion’; neither version is fully provable. This may be possible once certain classified documents are released. This hasn’t happened and that it has become public that the execution of the prisoners was indeed discussed in the cabinet, but supposedly the idea was rejected.
Jürgen Dahlkamp: Das Gehirn des Terrors. Spiegel Online Nov.8, 2002
Oliver Tolmein: Hirngespinste. Konkret 12/2002
Bettina Röhl: Die Würde der toten Ulrike Meinhof. http://bettinaroehl.de
Der Tod Ulrike Meinhofs. Bericht der Internationalen Untersuchungskommission. Iva 1979
Die alte Strassenverkehrsordnung. Dokumente der RAF. Critica Diabolis 12, Edition Tiamat 1987
Kursbuch 32. Folter in der BRD. 1973
And other sources