Ulrike Meinhof: Die Biographie
Ulrike Marie Meinhof, who would have turned 75 today, was West Germany’s public enemy No. 1 from a fateful day in May 1970 through to her death in a purpose-built high-security prison six years later, and indeed well beyond the grave. Together with Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, she was seen as the co-founder of the organisation that was to develop into the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF), built on the mistaken belief that it could trigger a revolution by starting urban guerrilla warfare against a state they saw as increasingly oppressive. The group killed a total of 34 people, and its own casualties, combined with the random ones killed by police forces going over the top, were on a similar scale. What it eventually achieved was exactly the opposite of what it set out to do – it made the state more oppressive. Many democratic rights and civil liberties were cut and undermined by the social democrat / liberal democrat governments of the 70s striving to be seen as tough in their fight against terrorism.
With all the panic and witch-hunting that marked these “years of terror”, few people realised that the biographies of the failed revolutionaries were completely at odds with the public image spread by government and media. The RAF was probably the only political organisation of its time that was dominated and led by women. Among the male recruits, there were adventurers who got a kick out of the idea of playing war with real guns (the name Andreas Baader springs to mind). Most of the members, however, and the women especially, came to the movement from social engagements, either working with marginal groups of society, or, in the later stages, motivated by the ill treatment of the first generation of RAF prisoners.
Ulrike Meinhof also had a track record of helping the weakest and most marginalised groups of society (e.g. teenagers in care homes), but beyond that she also was one of the country’s most talented political journalists. As a columnist for left-wing magazine Konkret, she was the most eloquent critic of German politics in the 1960s, from the remilitarisation through to the “Notstandsgesetze”.
How somebody of that intellectual standing, who commands a significant audience, can turn their back on society and take up arms in a struggle that was doomed from the start is a very important question that justifies a major biography. While there have been shorter volumes on Meinhof (e.g. by Peter Brückner, Mario Krebs), Jutta Ditfurth’s magnum opus is much more ambitious in scope.
Herself a lifelong dissident, the daughter of science writer Hoimar von Ditfurth dropped the aristocratic “von” from her name and became a founding member of Germany’s Green Party, which she left after a few years as it drifted away from the radical idealism of its founders. With hindsight, it makes perfect sense that Ditfurth should have been drawn to this subject.
And what a success she made of it. It shows on every page that, while she doesn’t agree with the violent path that Meinhof took, Ditfurth does understand perfectly well what made her tick, and how she felt that society had taken a wrong turn. She uses the pivotal liberation of Andreas Baader in 1970, after which Meinhof had to live undercover, as an opening scene, she tells the life essentially in chronological order, from the background of her parents, who both died young and left Ulrike in the care of her mother’s friend, the academic Renate Riemeck, through to the prison years and the controversial death, which the authorities hastily labelled a suicide. Conspiracy theories implying that she was murdered in her cell at Stuttgart-Stammheim have never quite been quelled, and Ditfurth returns an open verdict on this prickly question.
The family and political networks that shaped her life before 1970 come alive on these pages and make make the ensuing tragedy all the more dramatic. There are gaps in the post-1970 knowledge, which is inevitable because of the clandestine nature of the RAF operations, which have never been unravelled in court. (Typically, all members caught were convicted on the basis of being members of a terrorist organisation by the very same judges that had previously rejected any guilt to be associated with membership of Nazi organisations, one of the many bitter ironies in this story.)
Jutta Ditfurth has delivered the definitive account of the life of somebody who could have been one of post-war Germany’s most admired intellectuals and instead turned into its most-hated (which, of course, requires a great deal of courage from the author, as some of that residual hatred will surely be reflected in her direction). The poet Erich Fried called Meinhof the most important German woman since Rosa Luxemburg. The way both women perished should concern us all.