Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Baader Meinhof Gang

Serious Child to Revolutionary

Gudrun Ensslin, 1969
Gudrun Ensslin, 1969

Gudrun Ensslin was born on August 15, 1940 in the small, sleepy German village of Bartolomä. She was the fourth of seven children. Two of her siblings suffered mental handicaps; one had Down Syndrome and the other had schizophrenia. Gudrun's father was Helmut Ensslin, a pastor of the "Evangelical Church in Germany" or EKD.

The EKD came into being in 1945, not coincidentally the year of the end of WWII and the defeat of Nazi Germany. Many of the EKD's beliefs were deliberately counter to the bigotry of the Nazis and the horrors perpetrated by people who claimed they were simply "obeying orders." The EKD advised people to question authority and its members tended to oppose German rearmament.

Much of the intellectual muscle of the EKD was built upon the principles of the "Confessing Church," a church that had formed shortly after Hitler's rise to power and had dared to oppose him and his policies when to do so was dangerous in the extreme.

Gudrun was a blond-haired child with strong features, especially a large, square jaw and a long nose. She suffered a mishap on a toboggan that left an inch-long scar above an eyebrow; she usually covered up the affliction with long, heavy bangs. She was a classically "good girl" who got high grades, enjoyed reading the Bible and singing hymns, and did not even have to be nagged to help her mother with the housework.

Helmut and his wife Ilse Ensslin raised their large family in an atmosphere of frequent family discussions of the great social issues from a liberal perspective. Young Gudrun was sensitized to social injustices both in the West German democracy in which she was coming of age and the world as a whole.

When she was 18 years old, Gudrun got a chance to spend a year abroad in the United States as a participant in a student exchange program. She attended a high school in Pennsylvania and had a brief romance with a local boy. However, she was offended by some of what she saw in America. As Jillian Becker writes in {Hitler's Children}, "She found much fault with America, its social injustice, its material inequality. But she had not arrived innocent of all prejudgment of the country, so this was not a case of any eye-opener or an education in social realities. She found what she looked for, and what was certainly there to find."

After high school, Ensslin went to the University of Tübingen to study philosophy, Anglistics, and Germanistics. She had been there for four semesters when she met, and soon began dating, a young man by the name of Bernward Vesper.

As was true of so many Germans of their generation, Vesper's father, Will, had been cozy with the Nazis, a truth that naturally embarrassed his children. A successful poet, Will Vesper was the author of the following work that celebrated the German invasion of Poland.

August 1939

Your German people know
Führer, you bear your part.
To fight our fateful fight you go,
within your inmost heart.

So feel our hands laid here,
In yours laid still!
And dare what you must dare
To do God's will!

Bernward's politics were quite the opposite of his father's. He was decidedly left wing and involved himself in work against the bomb. He also immersed himself in much of the extreme left-wing writings that were popular among college students of the era, becoming familiar with Marx, Mao, and Herbert Marcuse.

Despite their distaste for capitalism, Ensslin, Vesper, and two other young college students made a stab at going into business. They founded a tiny publishing house they called Studio Neue Literatur.

At the same time that she was trying to be an entrepreneur, Ensslin entered a College of Education. She intended to become a primary school instructor. However, when she took her exams in 1964, her teaching ability was scored only as "Adequate" and that mark appeared to cool her ambitions in that area. She decided to try for a Ph.D.

The year 1964 also saw the publication of an anthology by Studio Neue Literatur. The book was entitled Against Death Voices Against the Atom Bomb and included an essay by the famous and respected author Herman Böll.

The next year Bernward Vesper and Gudrun Ensslin announced their engagement. To all observers, the two appeared a close and compatible couple, similar in values, outlook, and beliefs.

Still just cohabiting, they headed for West Berlin so Gudrun could work on her doctorate at the Free University. In between work and study, both Vesper and Ensslin found time to work for left-wing political candidates and to participate in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. Although West Germany was not a party to that conflict, it had American military bases on its soil and some thought their country sullied by the presence of such bases.

Ensslin gave birth to a son by Vesper, Felix Robert, in May 1967. He had been the result of a planned pregnancy and both his parents were delighted with him. Unfortunately, they were in the process of becoming less delighted with each other. In between changing her baby's diapers, feeding, rocking, and cooing to him, Gudrun "acted" in a cheap porno movie, read more intensively in leftist literature, and participated in various demonstrations. Little Felix Robert was in his baby carriage while Mommy chanted, "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh" along with other protestors.

A demonstration that took place on June 2, 1967 would be pivotal in the life of Ensslin and many other young West Germans.

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