Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Baader Meinhof Gang

Meinhof: Journalist to Terrorist

Ulrike Meinhof was born in 1934, the year after Hitler came to power. She was the second child and second daughter of Werner Meinhof, an assistant to the director of a museum, and his homemaker wife, Ingeborg. During the Nazi period, Werner left the church he had belonged to because it was dominated by Hitlerians and joined the Hessian Dissent denomination because it was firmly anti-racist.

The Meinhof youngsters lived in a comfortable, middle-class environment in the town of Jena. There were many big, sturdy trees in the neighborhood and little Ulrike enjoyed climbing them.

In 1939, just as the Second World War was breaking out, Werner Meinhof became seriously ill of natural causes. The doctors were not certain as to exactly what those causes were and he badly deteriorated while various physicians attempted to treat him. Only after his death in 1940 was his sickness properly diagnosed as cancer of the pancreas.

Five-year-old Ulrike appeared to easily recover from the loss of her father. She was a lively, feisty, brown-eyed child who was well liked by both other children and grown-ups. Her mother, Ingeborg, now had to go to work to support herself, Ulrike, and Ulrike's older sister, Wienke. The widow began studying art history and took in a boarder to make ends meet.

That boarder was 19-year-old Renate Riemeck, a college student with a lively intelligence and, apparently, a strong maternal streak. She was a big hit with the Meinhof kids and soon became a kind of second mother to them. Renate and Ingeborg shared a secret that would bind them together: both opposed Hitler and hoped for the defeat of the Nazi regime. When that occurred, America occupied Jena but the Yalta agreement handed that part of Germany to the Soviet Union in 1945.

Neither Ingeborg nor Renate wanted to exchange the tyranny of National Socialism for that of Marxism so they made plans to move. Together with Ingeborg's growing daughters, they went to Oldenburg in 1946.

In 1948, Ingeborg Meinhof learned that she had cancer. After an operation and a period of seeming remission, Meinhof succumbed to the disease in March 1949. Renate Riemack then raised her friend's children, aided by child support from their maternal grandfather.

The teenaged Ulrike had a talent for writing and a strong interest in social and political issues. She also had a frivolous streak and loved to dance to the rock music that was all the rage among adolescents of the time period. She took little interest in clothing, however, and seemed to deliberately "dress down" to emphasize her concern with more substantial things.

As a university student, Ulrike became active in the anti-atom bomb and anti-German rearmament campaigns. She was selected to represent students from the University of Münster at an anti-bomb meeting in Bonn. There she met Klaus Röhl, editor of the student newspaper konkret.

Ulrike Meinhof, 1962
Ulrike Meinhof, 1962

The two did not like each other when they first met. However, in Röhl's words, they "recognized each other as useful" and were willing to work together for their common political goals. However, at that time, Ulrike was a leftist but not yet a communist. Her interest in Marxism seemed to grow just as her romance with the radical Röhl blossomed.

That romance had many ups and downs, for Klaus liked to play the field and Ulrike was jealous. They fought, split up, and reunited more than once. However, they were legally wed toward the end of 1961.

Soon, Ulrike was made editor-in-chief of konkret and distinguished herself with hotheaded, controversial articles. She wrote an essay called "Hitler in You" that compared then-Minister of Defense Franz Strauss to Hitler because Strauss favored rearmament. Some of her comments are ironic in view of later events. "A revision of anti-Semitism cannot exhaust itself in study trips to Israel," she wrote, "for pro-Semitism is only half an answer, as what is required is the refutation of any kind of political terrorism."

An outraged Strauss sued Meinhof and konkret. He lost in court in 1962.

The married life of Ulrike and Klaus was never good because Klaus remained promiscuous. In 1962, Ulrike found out that she was pregnant. This news was not unwelcome. However, she soon began having trouble with her health including extremely painful headaches and a worsening of her vision.

A lumbar puncture disclosed that she had a brain tumor. The physicians were unable to say if it was benign or cancerous but she was told she must have an abortion in order to undergo an operation to remove the tumor. Despite being told that the pregnancy was a threat to her life, she flatly refused to abort it. She was delivered of twins by caesarian section when she was seven and a half months along.

Their adoptive grandmother, Renate Riemack cared for the babies, while their mother underwent a brain operation. It turned out that Meinhof had no tumor. Rather, there was a blood vessel in her brain that had swollen. The problem was cured but Ulrike was left extremely weakened.

She went back to work at konkret. In 1964, the magazine published another Meinhof article attacking her nemesis Franz Strauss and he sued again. This time he won. However, both konkret and Ulrike got a publicity boost along with the financial loss. Her career was going along well for she wrote for other publications and worked on TV programs. In 1966, when the women's liberation movement was in its infancy, many political programs wanted a woman to leaven up the traditional monotony of male talking heads and Ulrike was frequently the token female. She and Klaus, whatever their private troubles, enjoyed an active social life, making the round of fashionable parties, seeing well-known people and being seen. But she eventually decided she had had enough of her husband and got a divorce.

None of this satisfied Meinhof. As the 1960s drew to a close, she was making the acquaintance of people like Baader, who, to her way of thinking, was making the revolution while she was sitting at a typewriter making symbolic waves. With her 1970 involvement in Andreas Baader's jailbreak, the journalist burned her bridges behind her and became a full-fledged and full-time enemy of the state.

She would never be a leader within the group. Rather, she was often criticized and even bullied by her comrades.

Ulrike Meinhof wanted poster
Ulrike Meinhof wanted poster

After Baader's escape, West German police launched a massive hunt for the group that was now known to consist, in part, of Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin, and lawyer Horst Mahler. Then they reversed the usual flight of the Berlin Wall by slipping across it and into Communist East Germany.

There the fugitives caught a plane to Beirut, Lebanon. They found their way to a refugee camp along the Lebanese-Israeli border where the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) trained its guerrillas. Since 1968, the PFLP had also been training European terrorist groups who sympathized with the Palestinian cause. It hoped to eventually send such guerrillas on pro-Palestinian terrorist missions in Europe.

That West German radicals would adopt the Palestinian cause with such fervor is a point to give one pause. After all, they often assumed a mantle of persecution by proclaiming, "We are today's Jews." Much of the impetus for the founding of the state of Israel occurred because of the sense that Jews needed a refuge so that a horror like the Holocaust could never again befall their people. Perhaps the RAF and similar groups were trying to prove their own psychological distance from the Nazi era, their innocence of its anti-Semitic atrocities, by identifying themselves with those perceived to be victims of Jews.

A member of the 2 June Movement, Ralf Reinders, once planned to bomb the Jewish House in Berlin. The plan never came off but when he was asked about why his group wanted to destroy a symbol of Judaism, he replied, "In order to get rid of this thing about Jews we've all had to have since the Nazi time." Taking the Palestinian side probably had a similar motive of a kind of magical exorcism.

At any rate, the Baader-Meinhof Gang did not get along well with their Palestinian hosts. The PFLP took a dim view of some of the gang's activities and thought they were slackers at the physically demanding training sessions. Andreas Baader excused himself from some of the training on the grounds that it was irrelevant to the situation of an urban guerrilla. They often seemed oblivious to the conservative customs of their Arab hosts. The Germans wanted to have mixed-sex sleeping facilities, something the Palestinians looked upon very negatively although they acceded to the Germans on this request.

It should be noted that the PFLP differed from many Arab groups in that it had long trained women as terrorists and this was one reason the RAF, always about half female, wanted to learn from them. The Arabs were disappointed to find that the presumably "liberated" German females were less ready to endure the grueling physical training than their own, far more sheltered, female volunteers had been. Moreover, the German women would sometimes sunbathe in the nude during their free time. Their Palestinian hosts were outraged and insisted they give up this practice.

In August 1970, the PFLP asked the Germans to not only leave the refugee camp but to depart from Lebanon altogether. The RAF people honored the request and returned to their native West Germany. There they assiduously worked to recruit committed radicals to their cause. About twenty new people joined.

To raise the funds required for underground life, the group engaged in a series of bank robberies. Horst Mahler was arrested on October 8, 1970.

The gang's activities were little impeded, however. They continued to hit banks. They also broke into city offices where they stole blank passports and identification papers that they could use to support aliases.

Despite being kicked out of Lebanon by the PFLP, the two terrorist organizations remained on good enough terms that the Palestinian group was willing to sell a variety of weapons and explosives to the RAF.

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