Encyclopedia Womannica

Mavericks & Legends: Ulrike Meinhof

Episode Summary

Ulrike Meinhof (1934-1976) is one of the most infamous female terrorists in history. Though she started her life as a well-known and respected journalist, she eventually left her cushy job and marriage to become a member of the far-left German terrorist group, The Red Army Faction. Perhaps better known as the Baader-Meinhof group, they were responsible for a slew of terrorist attacks in Germany during the early 1970s.

Episode Notes

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Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Before we get started, I want to let you know that today’s episode contains mentions of suicide. 

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s maverick is one of the most infamous female terrorists in history. Though she started her life as a well-known and respected journalist, she eventually- and somewhat inexplicably- left her cushy job and marriage to become a member of the far-left German terrorist group, The Red Army Faction. Perhaps better known as the Baader-Meinhof group, they were responsible for a slew of terrorist attacks in Germany during the early 1970s. Let’s talk about Ulrike Meinhof. 

Ulrike was born on October 7th, 1934 in Oldenburg, Germany to art historian Dr. Werner Meinhof and teacher Dr. Ingeborg Meinhof. When she was two years old, the family relocated to Jena when Ulrike’s father was named director of the city’s art museum.

In 1940, when Ulrike was just six, her father died of cancer. In order to make ends meet, her mother took in a boarder named Renate Riemeck, a German historian and Christian peace activist.

With the end of World War II in 1945, the city of Jena came under the control of the Soviet Union. As a result, Ulrike’s family moved back to Oldenburg, located in the British Zone of Occupation, in 1946.

Just two years later, Ulrike’s mother also died of cancer, leaving Ulrike under the guardianship of their former boarder, Renate Riemeck. Riemeck, a socialist, became a major influence on the young Ulrike, especially with regard to her politics and the gaze with which she viewed the world around her. 

Always a good student, Ulrike began her college career at the University of Marburg where she studied sociology, philosophy and German studies. She also became involved in various reform movements.

In 1957, Ulrike transferred to the University of Munster, where she joined the Socialist German Students Union and became significantly more involved in anti-nuclear, anti-rearmament, and pro-socialist protest movements. This included becoming the spokeswoman for the local chapter of the “Anti Atomic-Death Committee.” 

Ulrike also began writing articles for a number of student newspapers in Munster, and found that she had a real knack for reporting and growing a devoted following. There is also evidence that over the course of her university journalism, Ulrike became increasingly radical. 

In 1959, Ulrike joined the banned Communist Party of Germany (or KPD). In 1962, she was named editor of one of the most influential left wing German magazines of the day, Konkret. That same year, Ulrike met and married the magazine’s publisher, Klaus Rohl. Shortly after, she gave birth to twin daughters. 

That same year, in 1962, Ulrike also underwent surgery to  remove a benign brain tumor. At the time, the surgery appeared to be a complete success.

In the subsequent years, Ulrike and her writing became increasingly radical and militant, moving from calling for protests to calling for violent action. These changes had a dire impact on her marriage, which ended in 1968 after a year of separation.  

In the aftermath of a 1968 assassination attempt on a socialist activist, Ulrike wrote perhaps her most famous lines: “Protest is when I say this does not please me.

Resistance is when I ensure what does not please me occurs no more.” 

In early 1969, Ulrike stopped writing for Konkret because she felt that it had sold out and was no longer devoted to truly radical ideas.  Perhaps it would be fairer to say that Ulrike’s militancy put her increasingly at odds with the mainstream socialist left.

Around that same time, Ulrike struck up a friendship with two young militant activists named Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin. At the time, they were on the run for setting arson attacks in protest of the Vietnam War. 

A year later, in April 1970, Baader was arrested in France after trying to use a fake license during a traffic stop. His girlfriend Ensslin quickly came up with a plan to break him out of prison.

Ulrike, using her credentials as a well known journalist, worked with Baader’s lawyers to fake a book deal that would require an in-person interview with Baader himself, which the authorities agreed to. With nobody apparently the wiser, it was arranged for Ulrike to meet with Baader in the library of a local institute that was outside of the prison walls. 

With Ulrike’s help, three other compatriots were able to enter the institute with pistols and help Baader escape, though not before shooting an elderly librarian in the liver and leaving two others wounded. This event marked the end of Ulrike’s life as a respected journalist, and the start of her life on the run as a full-time terrorist. Posters with her face on them hung across Berlin offering a large reward for her capture. 

In the aftermath of this event, the various people involved became known to the public as the Baader-Meinhof Group, despite the fact that Ulrike wasn’t actually one of their leaders. The group referred to itself as the Red Army Faction or RAF.

From 1970 to 1972, Ulrike took part in a wide variety of terrorist activities with the RAF including bombings, arson, kidnappings, and shootings. This included a failed attempt to kidnap her own children and send them to a training camp for Palestinian orphans. 

Ulrike also continued to write prolifically during this period, trying to convey RAF’s ideology in a compelling manner. Her most famous work from her time on the run is the manifesto, “The concept of the Urban Guerrilla.” Because these tracts were often the most visible component of the RAF, the public assumed that Ulrike held a major role in the group. In reality, her practical importance to the RAF is considered to have been overstated. 

On June 14th, 1972, Ulrike and another RAF member were arrested. Ulrike’s trial was long and complicated. She was eventually sentenced to 8 years in prison while other charges against her continued to be considered by the court. 

During her time behind bars, Ulrike became increasingly isolated from her co-defendants, who saw her as weak and unable to withstand the rigors of prison. On May 9th, 1976, Ulrike was found hanged in her cell. The official verdict was suicide. She was 42 years old. 

In the week following her death, Ulrike’s brain was removed for study and evidence was found of brain damage likely caused during the removal of her brain tumor years earlier. Some doctors and historians have suggested that this damage explains the extreme behavioral changes that may have caused Ulrike to journey from being a prominent left-wing journalist to a revolutionary terrorist on the run. 

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Talk to you on Monday!