Baader, Andreas and Ensslin, Gudrun

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Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin

May 6, 1943

Munich, Germany

October 18, 1977

Stuttgart, Germany

August 15, 1940

Bartholomae, Germany

October 18, 1977

Stuttgart, Germany

Leaders of the Red Army Faction, usually called the Baader-Meinhof Gang

"We have found that words are useless without action!"

—Gudrin Ensslin

"The gun livens up things."

—Andreas Baader

L ike the United States and most Western European countries, Germany experienced a wave of terrorism during the 1970s that challenged the political and economic order. Since the end of World War II (1939–45), in which the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union (today, Russia and its neighboring countries) defeated Germany, the country had rebuilt its industries to become an economic powerhouse. But members of the generation born at the end of World War II challenged the German establishment in a movement called the New Left. A small number of these radicals (people who want rapid change in society) turned to terrorism to get their point across.

The best known of these radicals-turned-terrorists were members of a group called the Red Army Faction. In the press, they often were called the Baader-Meinhof Gang. But this name misidentified the leaders of the group, who were Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin. The name Meinhof belonged to another member of the group, Ulrike Meinhof (1934–1976), who was never a leader but was well known for her appearances on German television.

Andreas Baader: Growing up after the war

Baader was born in 1943 in Munich, the main city in southern Germany's traditionally conservative state of Bavaria. His father, Berndt Baader, who was a historian, fought in the German army against Russia. When Baader was not quite two years old, in 1945, his father was taken prisoner. Berndt Baader was never heard from again and was presumed killed. In April 1945 Germany surrendered. After five years of war, the country was in ruins, defeated and occupied by the United States, Great Britain, France, and Russia. Germany's famous industrial economy was shattered. Times were hard; food was sometimes in short supply.

Full of energy and believed to be highly intelligent, Baader grew up the center of attention in a household of women. But in school he failed to get good grades. His teachers said it was because he did not try hard. He had the traits of a spoiled child: talented but lazy and often rebellious. His teachers complained that he misled the other children into bad behavior. But his mother and aunts refused to discipline Baader, their only remaining male relative, and he grew up lacking self-discipline as well.

Words to Know

a person who believes in an economic theory that does not include the concept of private property; instead, a central government owns the goods and means of production.
a person who seeks to maintain traditions, preserve established institutions, and promote a strong, authoritative government.
the adults in charge of government and business.
people associated with radical solutions to social problems, especially in the interest of gaining greater freedoms and equality for average citizens and the poor.
New Left:
a group of radicals demanding swift changes and more government involvement in social issues.
people who want rapid change in society.

As Baader grew older his rebelliousness grew more serious. It started with cars and motorcycles. Baader did not bother getting a driver's license, even though he loved to drive. If he could not afford a fast car, he stole one. He became a familiar figure in court, answering traffic tickets. He was kicked out of high school, which meant he could not attend a university. He enrolled in art school but quit. He tried writing advertisements but left that too.

Berlin in the swinging sixties

When he was twenty Baader moved to West Berlin. In 1963 the city was divided into a western half, ruled by the noncommunist West German government, and an eastern half occupied by Russian forces and ruled by the communist government of East Germany. (Communism is an economic theory that does not include the concept of private property; instead the public—usually represented by the government—owns the goods and the means to produce them in common.) West Berlin was filled with nightclubs and excitement and the anythinggoes culture of the "swinging sixties," the perfect place for a young man like Baader.

Young Germans in the 1960s had much in common with young Americans in that decade. The generation born at the end of World War II wanted more social freedoms. It was the decade of "sex, drugs, and rock and roll." Freer social behavior carried over into politics as well, and young people rebelled against the conservative (traditionalist) government of their parents' generation. Opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War (1955–75) was one thing the young rebels had in common in most Western countries. A general disgust with the "establishment"—the adults in charge of government and business—was another. Street demonstrations often led to battles with the police.

This sense of rebelliousness developed into a political movement called the New Left. It sympathized with communism but disliked the rather dull nature of most communist countries. Young people wanted a new society with greater equality and respect for human rights.

Baader gets political

When Baader arrived in West Berlin, he plunged into the culture of the 1960s. He had many girlfriends and frequently drove too fast in cars that did not belong to him. He met an artist named Ellinor Michel, and the two of them had a daughter in 1965. At the time Michel was married to another man, and for a while Ellinor, Baader, and Ellinor's husband all lived in the same apartment. It was the sort of freewheeling arrangement for which the 1960s became famous. Baader kept several girlfriends and continued to live his life of fast cars and fast driving. But this began to change in 1967, when he met Ensslin. Ensslin was at first just another girlfriend. But she was a very different person from Baader.

Gudrun Ensslin

Ensslin was in some ways an odd match for Baader. The daughter of a clergyman who had strongly opposed Adolf Hitler (the leader of Germany during World War II; 1889–1945) and Hitler's Nazi Party, Ensslin grew up as a serious girl who read the Bible and sang hymns in her father's church, which was part of the Evangelical Church in Germany. The Evangelical Church was founded in 1945 as a counterinfluence to the defeated Nazi Party. The Church, and Ensslin's family, taught her to question the government and to have a strong sense of social justice.

Ensslin was a model child in most respects. She did well in school. She helped around the house. Her family often discussed social injustice, both in Germany and abroad. In high school, she spent a year in the United States as part of an international exchange program. Her experience there was mixed. On the one hand, she found a boyfriend and enjoyed her stay. On the other hand, she objected to what she saw as inequality in American society and the wide gap between rich and poor.

Back in Germany Ensslin studied philosophy at the University of Tübingen, where she met Bernward Vesper. He was involved in a variety of left-wing causes, such as opposing nuclear weapons, and studied the writings of well-known communist thinkers such as Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Chinese leader Mao Zedong (also spelled Tse-tung; 1893–1976). Ensslin became a committed communist. She and Vesper moved to West Berlin, where she attended the Free University, even as she became more deeply involved in left-wing politics. (Leftwing politics place importance on finding the solutions to social problems, especially inequality, and believe in democratic control of the economy as well as the government.)

A short family life

In 1965 Ensslin and Vesper married. They seemed an ideal couple: they had the same values and political outlook. In 1967 Ensslin gave birth to their son, Felix Robert. But at this

point Ensslin was becoming less interested in family life and more committed to radical politics. She soon left her infant son and husband.

It was in the summer of 1967 that Ensslin met Baader at a gathering. The two fell in love immediately. They were a curious, and eventually dangerous, combination. The "good girl" Ensslin, with her increasingly radical political beliefs, was in many respects the opposite of "bad boy" Baader, who had no strong political beliefs. To Ensslin, Baader brought a sense of daring and a willingness to break the law. To Baader, Ensslin brought a commitment to left-wing politics. As a result, Baader directed his behavior toward politics while Ensslin directed her politics toward rebellious behavior.

The introduction of violence

On June 2, 1967, Benno Ohnesorg, age twenty-six, was shot in the back of the head by a policeman during a protest march in West Berlin. Ohnesorg was a college student with a pregnant wife. It was his first political demonstration. His death, and that fact that the policeman who shot him was found not guilty of manslaughter five months later, shocked and enraged young German radicals. According to author Stefan Aust in The Baader-Meinhof Group, at the headquarters of one leading organization of young protesters, a thin young woman arrived after the shooting and screamed, "We must organize resistance. Violence is the only way to answer violence. This is the Auschwitz Generation, and there's no arguing with them!" (Auschwitz was the name of a Nazi death camp where thousands of Jews were murdered during World War II. In this case, the woman was referring to the generation of Germans who were young men during the time the Nazis controlled Germany from 1933 to 1945.) The young woman was Ensslin, and ten months later, she took action.

On the night of April 2, 1968, fires broke out at two department stores in Frankfurt, West Germany. A caller who would not give her name told the German Press Agency: "There are flames in the Schneider and Kaufhof [department stores]. It is a political act of revenge." The arson was the first act of a group that called itself the Red Army Faction but later became known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Just two days after the fires, Baader, Ensslin, and two other radicals, Thorwald Proll and Horst Söhnlein, were arrested and charged with arson. The charge was made more serious because a night watchman was in one store and might have been injured or killed (in fact, he escaped without injury). At their trial the four were found guilty of setting the fires and sentenced to three years in jail. A few months later they were released pending the outcome of their legal appeal.

But the case had attracted attention, and left-wing journalists were sympathetic to the young arsonists. They argued that the fires had hurt no one and had attracted attention to their cause. One journalist who wrote articles supporting them was a woman named Ulrike Meinhof, who was already well known in Germany for her appearances on television talk shows and for articles she had written to protest the killing of Ohnesorg.

The Baader-Meinhof Gang

In November 1969 their appeals of the guilty verdicts in the arson case were rejected, and the four were ordered to report to jail. Instead, Baader and Ensslin left Germany for Italy, passing through France and Switzerland on the way. A few months later, in the early spring of 1970, they returned to Germany and hid out in Meinhof's apartment. In April 1970 Baader was stopped by a traffic policeman who took him to jail, where he was identified and sent to serve his sentence.

The following month Ensslin persuaded Meinhof to help her carry out a dramatic escape for Baader. The plan used her reputation as a writer to convince authorities that she was helping Baader write a book. On May 14, 1970, Baader was allowed to visit a library outside the prison, supposedly to work on the book with Meinhof. Once the two were inside the library, two young women knocked on the door and asked to use the library. They were told to wait in the lobby until Meinhof and Baader were finished. The doorbell rang again, and the two women in the lobby, who were part of the escape plan, let in a masked man carrying a pistol. While the gunman held off Baader's guards, Meinhof and Baader escaped through a window, followed by their helpers. All four got away, but Meinhof was identified as being in on the escape. Although the group had chosen the name the Red Army Faction (which was the name of a radical left-wing Japanese group), the popular press pounced on Meinhof's involvement and dubbed them the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

Baader, Ensslin, and Meinhof, who were all wanted by the police, fled to East Germany, which was sympathetic to their communist leanings. From there the three went to Jordan, where they joined Palestinians who were being trained in terrorist tactics. At the time, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whose main goal was defeating Israel and setting up a Palestinian government in its place, was trying to build alliances with left-wing groups in Europe. (The Jewish state of Israel had been founded in 1948 by the United Nations on Palestinian land.) The Germans thus joined a network of left-wing terrorist groups operating in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The Baader-Meinhof Gang was among the most radical of these groups, and in some ways the most successful. But after a few months, the Palestinians were so offended by the Germans' behavior that they asked the group to leave.

The gang became a magnet for young Germans who wanted to rebel against the conservative West German government. Over the next six years, members of the Red Army Faction carried out many attacks on leading West German politicians and businessmen. Some attacks were aimed at individuals. Others were straightforward economic crimes, such as stealing cars or robbing banks, to get money for living and buying guns. The gang was the focus of a massive police manhunt. Many individual members were identified and arrested over time. Some police arrests resulted in gunfire that killed both policemen and gang members. Among the most dramatic incidents laid at the feet of the Baader-Meinhof Gang were these:

Ulrike Meinhof (1934–1976)

Ulrike Meinhof, whose name became linked with Andreas Baader in the Baader-Meinhof Gang, was never a leader of the gang, nor was she romantically involved with Baader.

Nine years older than Baader, she was a well-known journalist in Berlin when Baader was convicted of arson. Meinhof was sympathetic to him and Gudrun Ensslin and allowed the two to live in her Berlin apartment after they jumped bail. After Baader was identified by police during a traffic stop, Meinhof agreed to help Baader break out of prison, using her reputation as a journalist as a cover.

Meinhof was born in 1934, shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. Her father Werner, an assistant museum director in the town of Jena, Germany, strongly opposed the Nazis, Hitler's political party. Werner died of cancer when Meinhof was five years old. She grew up a lively child, popular with children and adults alike. She was cared for by her mother, Ingeborg, and a boarder in their house, Renate Riemack.

After the war, the town of Jena became part of Russian-occupied East Germany. Meinhof's mother moved in 1946 to noncommunist West Germany, where, three years later, she died of cancer. Meinhof, then fourteen, was raised by Riemack.

Meinhof was a talented writer and was interested in social issues. At the University of Münster, she became interested in campaigns opposing atomic weapons and German rearmament (the movement to build up Germany's military strength again after World War II). She met Klaus Röhl, the editor of a leftist student newspaper, konkret (meaning "concrete" or "real"), and married him in 1961. She became editor in chief of konkret and gained a reputation for writing radical articles. She also became the mother of twins.

Meinhof became well known by appearing on television talk shows. She also moved further to the left, getting to know people like Baader, whom she admired as a man of action. In 1970 she helped plan and execute his jailbreak and plunged into a life of terrorism. The Baader-Meinhof Gang, as it became known, was the center of left-wing terrorism in Germany for the next five years. Despite her early involvement, Meinhof was never a leader of the gang that bore her name. Eventually caught, she was standing trial in 1976 when she committed suicide in jail.

  • May 11, 1972: In Frankfurt, Baader, Ensslin, and two other gang members set off pipe bombs at the headquarters of the U.S. Army, destroying the officers' dining hall and killing one American. When claiming responsibility, the Baader-Meinhof Gang demanded an end to the American's placing land mines in harbors in North Vietnam.
  • May 12, 1972: Bombs planted in the Augsburg, West Germany, police department injured five policemen. Later the same day, a car bomb at a police office in Munich, West Germany, destroyed sixty cars.
  • May 24, 1972: A car bomb left at the headquarters of the U.S. Army Supreme European Command in Heidelberg, West Germany, exploded, killing two Americans. The gang claimed they set off the explosion to protest American bombing in Vietnam.


The bombing in Heidelberg launched an even more intense police manhunt for the leaders of the Red Army Faction. Their efforts soon paid off. Acting on a tip, on June 1, 1972, police in Frankfurt began keeping watch on a garage. Inside police could see a cache (pronounced cash; a collection) of explosives. Just before 6 a.m., a lilac-colored Porsche stopped out-side the garage and three men stepped out. One of them noticed there were dozens of men on nearby roofs and corners, who were obviously police. One man fired a shot before he was tackled and arrested. The other two dashed into the garage. Baader and another gang member, Holger Meins, were cornered.

While a television station filmed the scene, police pumped tear gas into the garage. Three hours later, around 9 a.m., Baader appeared in a doorway, loading a pistol. A police sharpshooter wounded him in the leg. Moments later, Meins surrendered, and police ordered him to strip down to his underwear to make sure he was not carrying a weapon. Soon after Meins surrendered, police stormed the garage and arrested Baader.

One week later, in Hamburg, West Germany, Ensslin stepped into a store to shop for clothes. She put her jacket down to try on a dress, and a sales clerk noticed a bulge in the pocket. It was a pistol. The clerk called the police, who arrested Ensslin without a struggle.

One week after Ensslin's arrest, police received a tip from a woman who had two houseguests: she thought they could be gang members. Police staked out the apartment, and soon one gang member, Gerhard Müller, came out to use a telephone. He was quietly arrested. Eventually he cooperated with authorities and testified against other gang members. With Müller in custody, police knocked on the door of the apartment. Meinhof answered the door and was arrested. She began screaming and fighting, and when her photograph appeared in the newspaper the next day, her face was badly swollen. Police claimed it was because Meinhof had been crying, but many in Germany were sure she had been beaten.

Despite the jailing of the Red Army Faction's main leaders, the gang continued to carry out bombings and robberies. In prison many members of the gang staged hunger strikes. Meins eventually died of starvation, despite being force-fed by prison wardens. His death resulted in widespread protests across Germany; many people believed he had been murdered in jail.

Despite the fact that he was in jail—or perhaps because he was in jail—Baader was able to build sympathy for his cause, and opposition to the government, across Germany. Despite a long string of bombings and kidnappings, Germany's leading terrorist group had won considerable popular support. In 1975 the government passed a special set of laws, called the Baader-Meinhof Laws, that changed Germany's "Basic Law" (its constitution) to limit the rights of accused terrorists like the members of the Red Army Faction.

Deaths of the leaders

The main trial of the captured Baader-Meinhof Gang members began in the spring of 1976, nearly two years after their arrest and after months of pretrial hearings and legal procedures. Meinhof in particular appeared depressed and often decided not to attend the proceedings. On May 9, 1976, her body was found in her cell. Officials said she had hanged herself, but thousands of young Germans staged protests against what they believed to be Meinhof's murder in jail.

Nearly a year after Meinhof's death, on April 28, 1977, Baader, along with Ensslin and another gang member, Jan-Carl Raspe, were convicted of four murders and thirty attempted murders. Each was sentenced to life in prison. Remaining gang members staged several unsuccessful attempts to free the prisoners, such as taking hostages or occupying the West Germany embassy in Sweden, each a dramatic terrorist incident in itself.

On September 5, 1977, gang members in Cologne, West Germany, kidnapped Hanns-Martin Schleyer, one of Germany's leading businessmen. They demanded freedom for Baader, Ensslin, and other imprisoned gang members in exchange for Schleyer's life. The German government began negotiations, asking the imprisoned terrorists where they wanted to fly if they were released and asking foreign governments whether they would accept the released prisoners. Countries listed by the gang members included Vietnam, Algeria, and Libya.

Negotiations dragged on slowly into October. Lawyers for the imprisoned gang members reported they were becoming depressed. To increase pressure on the German government, on October 13, 1977, Palestinian hijackers seized a German plane, forced it to fly to Mogadishu, Somalia, and demanded release of the Baader-Meinhof prisoners in exchange for the plane's ninety-one crew members and passengers. Shortly afterward, a planeload of German army commandos landed in Mogadishu and stormed the plane. In the attack, three of the four hijackers were killed and the fourth was wounded. No hostages were killed and only one, a flight attendant, was hurt.

At the Stammheim Prison, near Stuttgart, West Germany, the Baader-Meinhof Gang members saw the failed hijacking as the loss of their last chance at freedom. Using a secret communications network, they agreed to commit suicide.

According to the official government version of events, on the night of October 17–18, 1977, Baader used a pistol smuggled into his cell by one of his lawyers to shoot himself in the head. Ensslin hanged herself with wire from a speaker. Another Baader-Meinhof prisoner used a smuggled pistol to shoot himself in the head, while a fourth prisoner stabbed herself. (This last prisoner survived the suicide attempt.) This version of events was widely doubted in Germany; many believed the authorities had murdered the prisoners. Soon after the prisoners died, Schleyer's body, shot in the head, was found in France.

However they died, Baader and Ensslin left behind a long string of dead police officers, hostages, and fellow terrorists in a range of kidnappings, bombings, building seizures, and shoot-outs. They also left behind an active terrorist group that continued to carry out attacks for many years after their deaths.

But in the end Baader and Ensslin made little lasting impact on Germany. Their vision of a communist future for West Germany came to an end when the communist government of East Germany collapsed and Germany reunited under a democratic government in 1990. Eight years later the Reuters news agency received an announcement that said the last members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang had decided to disband.

For More Information


Aust, Stefan. The Baader-Meinhof Group: The Inside Story of a Phenomenon. Toronto: Random House of Canada Ltd., 1987.

Becker, Jillian. Hitler's Children: The Story of the Baader-Meinhof Terrorist Gang. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1977.

Proll, Astrid, editor. Baader-Meinhof, Pictures on the Run 67–77. New York: Scalo, 1998.

Web Sites

Huffman, Richard V. "The Gun Speaks." Available at (accessed October 11, 2002).

Noe, Denise. "The Baader Meinhof Gang." Available at (accessed October 11, 2002).