Suicide = Murder = Suicide

  • Leith Passmore


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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  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
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    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
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© Leith Passmore 2011

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  • Leith Passmore

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