Suicide = Murder = Suicide

  • Leith Passmore
Chapter

Abstract

Despite being heard tapping away on her typewriter until late into the night she died, Meinhof did not leave a suicide note. The absence of such a note, and with it a ready-made and definitive interpretation, has given rise to endless speculation about the circumstances of her death. The resulting theories surrounding her demise are perhaps the most enduring of the RAF legacies. At the same time, however, it is impossible to discuss her death without also addressing the deaths of Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe a little over a year later, because the reception of the events have tended toward a popular, vague conflation: the “Stammheim myth.” 2 This bundle of theories merges a number of interpretative threads, such as suicide as a desperate act, suicide as a defiant or even saintly rebellion, suicide as murder staged as suicide, suicide as suicide staged as murder, and simply suicide as murder.3 This pattern of interpretation was activated when Meinhof was found dead, and reactivated with the deaths of the remaining members of the RAF core. It also underpins much of the sustained interest in the group as well as the martyrdom of the key RAF figures that motivated sympathizers and members into the 1990s. Putting the events of May 9, 1976, and October 18, 1977, in their historical contexts makes clear the manner in which the reaction to them evolved. It also reveals the role Meinhof played in shaping the reception of her own demise.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    “Das Fehlen des Abschiedsbriefes ist ein entscheidender Faktor. Dieser spricht m.E. entschieden gegen Selbstmord und steht auch im Gegensatz zu allem, was wir sonst über sie wissen … Es ist ausgeschlossen, daß Ulrike Meinhof einen Selbstmord begangen hätte, ohne einen Abschiedsbrief zu hinterlassen,” see Internationale Untersuchungskommission, ed., Der Tod Ulrike Meinhoff. Bericht der Internationalen Untersuchungskommission (Münster: Unrast Verlag, 2007), 34–35.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For more on the “Stammheim myth” and its role in sustaining the RAF, see Andreas Elter, Propaganda der Tat. Die RAF und die Medien (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2008), 181–95.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The pattern of interpretation of the RAF prison deaths taps into ideas on suicide with long traditions: from the noble self-killing of the ancients to the modern idea of illness. Classical Greek suicide was emptied of primitive horror and developed as a rational, “noble” option when external societal circumstances became intolerable. Heroic sacrifice, political protest, and dignity in death are themes that have resonated throughout antiquity and the centuries following. Roman culture adopted the classical lack of fear or revulsion toward suicide, and among the elites of Rome, the way one died became an important validation of the way one lived. This inherited tolerance of suicide was also reflected in Roman law, under which suicide was not punishable as a crime except under certain (mainly economic) conditions. The Christian conception of suicide as a crime evolved relatively late, in part because early Christians adopted the contemporaneous Roman attitude toward suicide. Jesus’s self-sacrifice and an initially ambiguous Christian stance on self-murder meant early generations of Christians embraced the martyrdom of self-destruction. Consequently the suicide rate was high among this group until the fourth century, when self-murderers were denied Christian burials. Saint Augustine formally prohibited the act a century later in his City of God because it violated the sixth commandment “thou shalt not kill,” was an affront to God’s dominion, and therefore was the work of the devil. Suicide as a consciously subversive act reemerged in the late eighteenth century as romantic and philosophical suicide. With his The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe rode the wave of the existing fashion of self-murder and went on to inspire copycat suicides among disaffected young lovers throughout Europe. An older Goethe offered Europe Faust, which turned on another eighteenth-century trend: philosophical suicide. More than a mere rejection of society, suicide on philosophical grounds was a highly refined expression of dissatisfaction with life itself. Suicide was not significantly recast into its modern understanding until the late seventeenth century, when Europe began an intense and lasting preoccupation with the conflict between individual freedom and individual responsibility. Whereas the main concern had previously been questions of (primarily religious) morality, the Enlightenment and the aftermath of the French Revolution saw the slow emergence of empiricist and medical approaches: the gradual “secularization” of suicide. Throughout the nineteenth century the disciplines of psychiatry and sociology, in particular, cultivated the idea that “self-murderers” were either sick or victims of social dysfunction. Accordingly, legal prohibitions against suicide in Europe were softened or removed altogether. For more on the cultural history of suicide, see A. Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (London: Penguin Books, 1971);Google Scholar
  4. Norman L. Farberow, “Cultural History of Suicide,” in Suicide in Different Cultures, ed. Norman L. Farberow (London: University Park Press, 1975);Google Scholar
  5. Georges Minois, History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (London: John Hopkins University Press, 1995); Émile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, trans. John A. Spaulding and George Simpson (London: Routledge, 2002);Google Scholar
  6. Lisa Lieberman, Leaving You: The Cultural Meaning of Suicide (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003); andGoogle Scholar
  7. Susan K. Morrissey, Suicide and the Body Politic in Imperial Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    Felix Kaul as cited in Jutta Ditfurth, Ulrike Meinhof. Die Biographie (Berlin: Ullstein, 2007), 435. The official reporting of Meinhof’s death was recognized by the remaining RAF prisoners as a deliberate construction of a suicide motive, see “die linie hat ow am telefon bekommen” in Hamburg Institute for Social Research (HIS), File (F) Me,U/015,006.Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    Ben Lewis, dir., Baader-Meinhof In Love with Terror (BBC4, 2002).Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    “das Beste, was sie mit ihrem verkorksten Leben noch machen könnte,” as cited in Stefan Aust, Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (Munich: Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, 1998), 390.Google Scholar
  11. 20.
    “Sollte es jemals heißen, ich hätte Selbstmord gemacht, so war es Mord-äußere Gewalteinwirkung-oder totaler Widerstand,” as cited in Helmut Brunn and Thomas Kirn, Rechtsanwälte, Linksanwälte (Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn, 2004), 329.Google Scholar
  12. 21.
    This description appeared as a handwritten note in the margins of an info entry, see Stefan Aust and Helmar Büchel, “Der letzte Akt der Rebellion,” Der Spiegel 37 (2007): 53.Google Scholar
  13. 22.
    Wolfgang Kraushaar, “Mythos RAF. Im Spannungsfeld von terroristischer Herausforderung und populistischer Bedrohungsphantasie,” in Die RAF und der linke Terrorismus, ed. Wolfgang Kraushaar (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2006), 1191.Google Scholar
  14. 23.
    Ortrud Gutjahr, “Königinnenstreit. Eine Annäherung an Elfriede Jelineks Ulrike Maria Stuart und ein Blick auf Friedrich Schillers Maria Stuart,” in Ulrike Maria Stuart, ed. Ortrud Gutjahr (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 2007), 29. The idea that Meinhof prepared the ground for the reception of her own death as it is presented in this chapter does not require such a preparation to have been Meinhof’s intent. In fact, she very rarely applied the logic of her social critique to her own experience. Despite delving into the personal histories of her research subjects, Meinhof wrote in a private 1972 letter cited by Bettina Röhl that tracing her situation backward through a biographical context could establish a misleading chain of causation. Also, Röhl noted her mother’s 1961 konkret article “Hitler in you” (Hitler in euch) as an example of this tendency to set herself apart from society and outside the rules she applied to others. In the article Meinhof places herself outside of the generation of Germans she addressed as “you,” despite her background and age demanding, as Röhl argues, the article be entitled “Hitler in us,” seeGoogle Scholar
  15. Bettina Röhl, So macht Kommunismus Spaf Ulrike Meinhof, Klaus Rainer Röhl und die Akte KONKRET (Hamburg: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 2006), 179, 348.Google Scholar
  16. 36.
    Sven Felix Kellerhoff, “Die Mord-Legende von Stammheim,” Die Welt 35 (2007): 20.Google Scholar
  17. 44.
    “die Linke [hat] mit dem angeblichen Mord an den Gefangenen endlich ein Thema in die Hände bekommen, an das sie schon selbst nicht mehr glaubte: der offen faschistisch auftretende Staat,” see Volker Speitel, “‘Wir wollten alles und gleichzeitig nichts’ (II),” Der Spiegel 32 (1980): 38.Google Scholar
  18. 50.
    “20 000 Menschen sterben jedes Jahr—weil die Aktionäre der Automobilindustrie nur für ihre Profite produzieren lassen und dabei keine Rücksicht auf die technische Sicherheit der Autos und den Straßenbau nehmen. / 5 000 Menschen sterben jedes Jahr—am Arbeitsplatz oder auf dem Weg dahin oder auf dem Heimweg, weil es den Produktionsmittelbesitzern nur auf ihre Profite ankommt und nicht auf einen Unfalltoten mehr oder weniger. / 12 000 Menschen begehen jedes Jahr Selbstmord, weil sie nicht im Dienst des Kapitals hinsterben wollen, machen sie lieber selber mit allem Schluß. / 1 000 Kinder werden jedes Jahr ermordet, weil die zu kleinen Wohnungen nur da sind, daß die Haus- und Grundbesitzer eine hohe Rendite einstreichen können. / Den Tod im Dienst der Ausbeuter nennen die Leute einen natürlichen Tod. Die Weigerung, im Dienst der Ausbeuter zu sterben, nennen die Leute einen ‘unnatürlichen Tod,’” see RAF, “Dem Volk dienen. Stadtguerilla und Klassenkampf,” in Rote Armee Fraktion. Texte und Materialien zur Geschichte der RAF, ed. ID-Verlag (Berlin: ID-Verlag, 1997), 112.Google Scholar
  19. 56.
    “Vom Glauben an die Sinnlosigkeit und Unerklärbarkeit Benno Ohnesorgs Tod, vom Glauben an die Unschuld des Systems ist es nur noch ein Schritt zu der Formel, nicht der Mörder, sondern der Ermordete sei schuldig,” see Ulrike Marie Meinhof, “Wasserwerfer—auch gegen Frauen,” konkret 4 (1968): 38.Google Scholar
  20. 58.
    “Heute sind es nicht mehr biologische, sondern gesellschaftliche Schranken, die die Frauen daran hindern, sich ihrer Chance bewusst zu werden, sie zu nutzen … Die Idylle von Heimchen am Herd konnte fast nahtlos in die Idylle von Heimchen am Fließband umgewandelt werden,” see Ulrike Marie Meinhof, Frauen sind billiger: Ein Bericht über Frauenarbeit in der Bundesrepublik (Abendstudio, 1967).Google Scholar
  21. 59.
    Ulrike Marie Meinhof, “Frauenkram,” konkret 7 (1968): 24–27, 52.Google Scholar
  22. 60.
    “Eine sich ihnen gegenüber kriminell verhaltende Umwelt macht sie zu Kriminelle,” see Ulrike Marie Meinhof, “Doof—weil arm. Hilfsschulkinder,” konkret 5 (1969): 41. “Ihre Lernbehinderung ist das Produkt ihrer Armut,” see Ulrike Marie Meinhof, “Doof—weil arm. Hilfsschulkinder, 2. Teil,” konkret 6 (1969): 37.Google Scholar
  23. 61.
    Ulrike Marie Meinhof, Ausgestossen oder aufgehoben: Heimkinder in der Bundesrepublik (Abendstudio, 1965).Google Scholar
  24. 62.
    Ulrike Marie Meinhof, “Flucht aus dem Mädchenheim,” konkret 9 (1966): 18–23.Google Scholar
  25. 64.
    Ulrike Marie Meinhof, Bambule: Fürsorgeerziehung aus der Sicht von drei ehemaligen Berliner Heimmädchen (Abendstudio, 1969); andGoogle Scholar
  26. Ulrike Marie Meinhof, Guxhagen—Mädchen in Fürsorgeerziehung. Ein Heim in Essen (Abendstudio, 1969).Google Scholar
  27. 66.
    Tobias Wunschik, “Aufstieg und Zerfall. Die zweite Generation der RAF,” in Die RAF und der linke Terrorismus, ed. Wolfgang Kraushaar (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2006), 485; andGoogle Scholar
  28. Bernd Weisbrod, “Terrorism as Performance: The Assassinations of Walther Rathenau and Hanns-Martin Schleyer,” in Control of Violence: Historical and International Perspectives on Violence in Modern Societies, ed. Wilhelm Heitmeyer et al. (New York: Springer, 2011), 383.Google Scholar
  29. 67.
    Alexander Straßner, “Die dritte Generation der RAF,” in Die RAF und der linke Terrorismus, ed. Wolfgang Kraushaar (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2006), 500.Google Scholar

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© Leith Passmore 2011

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  • Leith Passmore

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