Meinhof, Ulrike (1934–1972)

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Meinhof, Ulrike (1934–1972)

German journalist and activist who wrote on social issues but who is mainly remembered as a leader of Germany's notorious Red Army Faction (RAF) or Baader-Meinhof Gang . Name variations: Ulrike Röhl, Rohl, or Roehl. Pronunciation: OOL-re-ka MINE-hawf. Born Ulrike Marie Meinhof on October 7, 1934, in Oldenburg, Germany; died on May 8 or 9, 1976, while imprisoned in Stammheim, Stuttgart, the official cause of death given as suicide; daughter of Walter Meinhof (an art historian) and Ingeborg Meinhof (a teacher); university studies in educational science, psychology and sociology (MA); married Klaus Rainer Röhl, in 1961; children: (twin daughters) Bettina and Regine Röhl (b. 1963).


student stipend from the Study Foundation of the German People.

Engaged in the anti-bomb movement (1958–59); became journalist for leftist weekly magazine, konkret (1959); was chief editor of konkret (1960–64); published other articles in various media branches focusing on topics concerning fringe groups (to 1969); lectured at the Free University of Berlin (1970); participated in the liberation of Andreas Baader (May 1970); was a fugitive and leader of the Red Army Fraction (RAF) until arrest (1972); was imprisoned and tried for aiding Baader's escape, found guilty, and sentenced to eight years in prison; transferred to Stammheim prison to await the "Baader-Meinhof-Prozesse" (1975); died, allegedly by suicide (May 1976).

Selected publications:

Bambule—Fürsorge für wen? (Bambule—Welfare For Whom?, Berlin, Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, 1971); Dokumente einer Rebellion (Hamburg, 1972); Die Würde des Menschen ist antastbar (The Dignity of Man is Infrangible, Berlin, Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, 1980); assorted newspaper and magazine contributions, mainly in konkret.

On June 15, 1972, German police, following evidence found on a recently arrested suspect, tracked down a hideout of reputed terrorists in Hanover, where one woman they arrested, weighing only 90 pounds, was not immediately recognized. X-rays had to be made of her skull and compared with old medical records before the police could confirm that they had captured Germany's most wanted female terrorist, Ulrike Meinhof, even though black-and-white photographs of Meinhof from an earlier time stared out from wanted posters throughout the country. The difference between her appearance when caught and the wanted posters suggested how far she had come in her separation from the ordinary community of German citizens.

Born on October 7, 1934, Ulrike was the younger of two sisters, and the daughter of Walter Meinhof, an art historian, and Ingeborg Meinhof . When Ulrike was six and her sister was ten, their father died, leaving their mother with no pension and two children to raise. Ingeborg Meinhof was given a small stipend to acquire training as a teacher, and to ease their desperate economic situation the family took in a lodger, Renate Reimeck , who became a friend of the children at first sight, and one of the most important persons in Ulrike's life. In 1949, the year Ingeborg Meinhof died, Reimeck took over the care of the girls.

During Ulrike's early school years, teachers and other adults viewed her as an intelligent and generous-hearted child. According to friends, her high-principled views unconsciously imitated those of Reimeck, who was a professor of educational science in Brunswick and actively engaged in protests against the rearmament of Germany. Ulrike became editor of her school magazine and was a leader among her female classmates, with whom she discussed Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, and the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin late into the night.

In 1955, Meinhof started studies in educational science and psychology in the old university town of Marburg. She was awarded a church scholarship and a stipend from the Study Foundation of the German People, the most generous, and one of the most prestigious, scholarships available. Her political interests were considered to have been little more than a general acceptance of leftist views and opposition to "the bomb." More interested in religion, she had joined the Berneuchener Kreis, a Christian brotherhood that revived the liturgy of Luther and practiced spiritual exercises.

In 1956, Meinhof was 22 when she went to work for konkret, then a radical leftist political magazine partly funded by the East German Communist Party. Persons working for konkret were not allowed to be members of the Social Democrat Party (SPD) or the Socialist German Student's Alliance (SDS). At this point Meinhof's involvement in politics changed, to the degree that one friend has said, "Ulrike forgot herself in politics. There was no distance between herself and politics."

At the end of 1957, Meinhof moved to Münster, where she was the editor of a students' magazine, Das Argument (The Argument), and engaged in various campaigns concerning German rearmament, the bomb, and world peace. During one of these events, she became involved in her first authenticated love affair, with Klaus Rainer Röhl, the man she would later marry. In his biographical novel about their relationship, Die Genossin (The Female Comrade), Röhl would later describe their initial meeting as "dislike at first sight." Editor at the time of konkret, with a reputation as "the Communist womanizer," Röhl, with Meinhof, arranged the first meeting between East German Communists and West German Communists (then forbidden as a party), in East Berlin. He later called this first phase of their affiliation "Ulrike's love-affair with Communism," although in a 1958 article Meinhof wrote about the East German Communist Party as "the freedom-robbing Communists."

In 1960, Meinhof became chief editor of konkret. Two articles defending the Berlin Wall led to a burning of copies of the magazine on the campus of the Free University of Berlin and the withdrawal of permission to sell it on campus. In 1961, Meinhof married Röhl, and for a while led a pleasant social and professional life. A lead article she had written, "Hitler in You," a tirade against then minister of defense Franz Josef Strauss, grabbed the attention of the German government. When Strauss sued, Meinhof and konkret were represented by Gustav Heinemann, later the attorney general and then president of West Germany, and the magazine and its editor prevailed.

Early in 1963, after Meinhof became pregnant, she retreated from journalism. By the summer, she was suffering from severe headaches and had trouble with her vision before a series of painful examinations forced her to choose between necessary brain surgery and having her baby. Meinhof decided to save the child, and lived with worsening symptoms until she was 71/2 months' pregnant, when her twin girls could be delivered by caesarean section. Regine and Bettina were placed in the care of Renate while Meinhof underwent the brain operation.

[Women] were enfranchised when it was too late to change society with the ballot.

—Ulrike Meinhof

Back at work at konkret before the end of 1963, Meinhof found things changed. Following a period of serious economic hazards, Röhl had brought the magazine firmly under his control, by establishing a regular readership as Germany's first "porn with politics" publication. Meinhof resigned her job as chief editor but remained a columnist, and the year ahead proved to be a flourishing period, in which she started to do broadcasting work. She led off with a piece on the trial of a Nazi mass murderer, Karl Wolff, which gained considerable attention, and then a new attack on Franz Josef Strauss in her column for konkret led to a second lawsuit. This time Strauss was awarded 600 deutschmarks in damages, but the incident inspired the leading German news magazine, Der Spiegel, to refer to Meinhof as "the courageous columnist of konkret " and publish a picture that made her face known to the public for the first time. As konkret grew into more and more of a commercial enterprise, Meinhof expanded her writing for other papers and radio programs, addressing the problems of foreign workers in Germany and the inequality of women in the job market. The family Röhl became widely known publicly as representatives of leftist chic. Meinhof, political polemicist and champion of the social underdog, was frequently invited to be on television as the token woman on panels covering social problems. Belittling herself as das Revolutionskasperle (little revolutionary "punchikin" from Punch and Judy), she wrote in her diary, "life drags on." In 1967, the family moved into a big house in Blankenese, the elegant suburb of Hamburg. Meinhof was alternately shopping for antique furniture and participating in demonstrations against the visit to Germany by the shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi; in an "Open letter to Farah Diba [Farah Pahlavi ]," Meinhof addressed the shah's wife, calling attention to the social problems, poverty, and torture then rife under his rule.

After a housewarming party in December 1967, Röhl walked out with another woman, the last in a succession of infidelities during his marriage to Meinhof. The next morning, Meinhof moved to Berlin with her daughters, and the divorce is said to have been "very civilized." Berlin, meanwhile, was the center of the German students' revolution then under way: after the Socialists had formed a fusion government with the Christian Democrats, an alliance called the Extra Parliament Opposition (APO) had been formed, uniting all groups to the left of the SPD, and it was responsible for huge German demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. Police force and brutality previously unknown to the young democracy, as well as public hostility towards the demonstrators (reinforced in particular by the tabloid paper Bild), were growing. Meinhof supported the actions of the APO, which were sometimes illegal, but was not personally involved in the "street fights." She was prospering financially, and still did work for konkret, but she told friends that she did not feel well.

In 1969, an open dispute over undemocratic patterns in the management of konkret led to tumultuous infighting between Röhl and the staff. Meinhof stopped contributing to the magazine, and her apartment in Berlin became the meeting place for supporters of APO, SDS members, communards and young women from a nearby welfare home—an environment providing her with close camaraderie. As Gudrun Ensslin , Andreas Baader and others formed her new family, a long-time project, a script titled "Bambule" for a teleplay about welfare institutions was finished and filmed. The story describes a welfare home for youths, where the girls are sick of the meaningless labor and lessons, and one girl leads a destructive riot, a "bambule." "Violence produces counterviolence," write Meinhof, "pressure counterpressure. The types of resistance, which evolve in asylums, develop spontaneous and haphazard, unorganized as riots, rebels, hot things, as 'Bambule.' Irene's story is a children's story, a hoax. It ends with police force and the clink." A few weeks after Meinhof was appointed a part-time lecturer at the Free University in Berlin, the airing of "Bambule" would be dropped because of Meinhof's criminal activity.

In April 1968, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin had been part of a group that set two stores on fire to protest the consumption practices of Western societies while Vietnam was immersed in war. The group had been arrested and tried, but after a year in prison they were out on parole and working in a low-income area on a project for neglected children, where they, and Meinhof, had previously worked. After their appeal was declined, Ensslin and Baader went underground, and, in April 1970, Andreas was arrested again. He was granted a working appointment to read documents with Meinhof in an institute outside prison on May 14, 1970. At the time of the meeting, several persons, including Meinhof, entered the building and led Andreas out through a window. An institute employee was shot but survived, and for Meinhof the escape was to be a leap into life underground. German authorities took out warrants, and photographs of Meinhof now identified her as a leader of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. In June, she, Baader, Ensslin and others left East Berlin on forged passports, with the help of Palestinians, to visit Syria and Jordan, where they joined colleagues in a training camp for Palestinian liberation. In August 1970, Meinhof returned to Germany. With the help of friends who provided cars, apartments, and money acquired through several bank robberies, she and her companions could stay underground. At this time, the group still lacked a theoretical concept and was called the "Baader-Meinhof Group" or "Baader-Meinhof Gang," depending on the speaker's point of view. It was Ulrike who came up with the name "Red Army Faction" (RAF), when she formed the notion of urban guerrillas, who set out to "free" the people, whether they asked for it or not. During this time, Röhl was awarded custody of their daughters, who were in hiding under the care of friends of Meinhof. When he located them, they were tanned and happy, living in Tuscany, Italy.

The hunt for the outlaws intensified after a policeman was killed by the Red Army Faction during a bank robbery, and a U.S. soldier died in a bomb attack on a U.S. base. The public grew increasingly disturbed after another bomb attack, aimed at the judge who had signed most of the search warrants issued against members of the RAF, struck the judge's wife instead, and a bomb planted in the Springer-Verlag building, connected to the newspaper Bild, injured the paper's employees. Everyone in Germany was alert to potential terrorists, and the police moved closer. On June 6, 1972, Baader was arrested. When a new RAF pamphlet entitled "To Serve the People" appeared in the streets, its opening line seemed prophetic: "The struggle has just begun." Officials identified the author as Meinhof.

On June 7, 1972, a saleswoman in a boutique spotted firearms in the jacket of a female customer. After informing the police, she hindered the shopper's departure, and the woman taken into custody proved to be Gudrun Ensslin. With evidence found on her, the police traced their way to the apartment of Ulrike Meinhof.

Brought to a prison in Cologne, Meinhof was kept in isolation to prevent any contact with colleagues or possible sympathizers. The cell was totally silent, and visits were restricted to her lawyers; later, she was allowed to correspond with her daughters and wrote, trying to soothe them: "It is very difficult and it is very easy…. Don't think that you have to be sad to have a mom in prison. Anyway—it is better to become angry than to become sad."

Meinhof's lawyers fought in vain against her treatment in the penitentiary, while the isolation of the urban guerrilla became a cause célèbre across Europe. A French newspaper carried an open letter of protest signed by Simone de Beauvoir , Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, and others. Meanwhile, other RAF comrades went on several hunger strikes against their prison conditions, which were eventually eased.

In 1975, after Meinhof was found guilty of taking part in Baader's liberation, she was moved to a prison in Stuttgart-Stammheim to await trial for other crimes. The proceedings that followed there—known as Stammheimer Prozess—evoked the most severe repressions in criminal procedure carried out under Germany's democracy. Meanwhile, deep conflicts had evolved among members of the group held in detention, and only Gudrun Ensslin claimed responsibility for three of the lethal bombings. The others dissociated themselves.

On May 8, 1976, guards have asserted that they heard typing in the cell of Ulrike Meinhof until late in the night. The following morning, she was found dead, hanged by strips of her towel.


Aust, Stefan. Der Baader-Meinhof-Komplex. Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe Verlag, 1985.

Bakker-Schut, Pieter H. Stammheim: Der Prozess gegen die Rote Armee Fraktion (Stammheim: The Red Army Faction on Trial). Kiel: Neuer Malik Verlag, 1986.

Röhl, Klaus Rainer. Die Genossin (The Female Comrade). Wien a.o.: Molden, 1975.

Rühmkorf, Peter. Die Jahre, die Ihr kennt (The Years You Know). Reinbek b. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1972.

suggested reading:

Baader-Meinhof-Gruppe. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1973.

Brückner, Peter. Ulrike Meinhof und die deutschen Verhältnisse (Ulrike Meinhof and German Circumstances). Berlin: Wagenbach, 1977.

Sabine Gless , Strafrechtliches Institut der Universität, Bonn, Germany

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Meinhof, Ulrike (1934–1972)

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