McGill prof publishes anthology of terrorist-to-be's writings - and
German authorities aren't very happy about it
JEFF HEINRICH, The Gazette
Published: Wednesday, November 26
Before she became Germany's most infamous terrorist in the early
1970s, Ulrike Meinhof was a radical chic journalist whose gadfly
attacks on the bourgeoisie in magazine columns and on radio and TV
made her a household name of the left.
Now, much to the consternation of German authorities, a Montreal
scholar has published Meinhof's radical writings for a wider audience
- for the first time, in English.
Provocatively titled Everybody Talks About the Weather ... We Don't -
a line from Meinhof herself - the anthology by McGill University
German Studies chair and associate professor Karin Bauer adds to
renewed and rising interest in the iconic firebrand.
The Baader-Meinhof Complex, a feature film based on Meinhof's life,
is Germany's official entry for the best-foreign-film Oscar in
February. Now in theatres in Germany, the film's screenplay is by
Bernd Eichinger, who wrote the Oscar-nominated Downfall, a 2004
feature film about Hitler's final days.
Buzz about the new movie has its producers drumming up advance
publicity for a North American release in the new year. They've
contacted Bauer - a German-born academic who moved to the United
States in 1979 and to Montreal in 1994 - to write an expert's report
and help give the project some academic oomph.
But the German government is not enthused. When the book was launched
in New York City in May, the Goethe Institute there - a kind of
cultural embassy that's mostly funded by the German Foreign Office -
refused to be associated with it. The problem? Meinhof herself.
"Their reaction was, 'She's a murderer - why would we have anything
to do with her?' " Bauer, 50, said in an interview at her McGill office.
"My reply was that she wasn't a murderer at the time she wrote her columns."
In Montreal, the Goethe Institute was more accommodating. One week
ago, despite concerns from the German consulate here, it hosted a
reading of the material by Bauer and her University of Ottawa
colleague Luise von Flotow, who translated the columns into English.
Mechtild Manus, the institute's director, recalled the fervent
atmosphere of the Meinhof era. Back then, Vietnam War protesters
chanted "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh," rebellious students at Manus's
Catholic school "renamed" the institution the Lenin School of
Socialists, and "posters in the train station of our village promised
a reward for tips leading to the arrest of several terrorists, among
them Ulrike Meinhof," she said.
To chronicle the era both in Germany and other countries, the Goethe
Institute has a special website - goethe.de/1968 - that traces the
history and motivation of the counterculture. Tonight at 6:30 p.m.,
the Sherbrooke St. E. organization will host a panel discussion about
the era's environmental movement and its legacy.
But it's the Meinhof anthology that's proven the most provocative. To
compile it, Bauer selected 24 columns Meinhof wrote for konkret, the
popular left-wing German magazine she helped edit. Published between
1960 and 1968, the columns range from commentaries on the Kennedy
assassination and Vietnam to discussions of student activism.
She even had a column on columnists themselves, who she estimates act
as society's "pressure relief valve."
The pithy essays give a fascinating glimpse into a mind that grew to
detest the strict conservativism of postwar Germany, which she saw as
a embracing a kind of neo-fascism backed by the state and the tabloid media.
Meinhof summed up her frustration in one of her final columns in
1968, before going underground. "Protest," she famously wrote, "is
when I say I don't like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what
I don't like."
After forming the Red Army Faction in 1970 with a group of
like-minded militants, for the next two years Meinhof turned to bank
robberies, shootings and bombings to advance her revolutionary cause.
In the end, she was caught, tried for attempted murder and other
violence-related charges and sentenced to life in prison. In 1976,
she was found hanged in her cell. She was 41 years old.
The 268-page illustrated anthology includes a scathing afterword by
Bettina Röhl, one of Meinhof's twin daughters, who considers her late
mother a pawn of the former East German Communists.
"She made her name as a terrorist," Röhl reminds those who would be
sympathetic to her mother, adding that, in her view, "she is morally
overestimated as an icon of the 1968 movement."
Bauer sees her subject differently. Attractive, young, smartly
dressed and a member of the upper middle-class establishment until
her break from it, Meinhof was "a towering figure of postwar German
culture, someone who wound up going in a different direction," Bauer said.
"You go to Germany and ask anybody of that generation what they think
of Ulrike Meinhof, they'll have a story and an opinion about her -
love or hate.
"Even if they don't agree with the methods she used, for many she was
a martyr to the cause, even if it was a lost cause. She went all the
way, she gave up her own life to it.
"To me, her columns are a testimony to her struggle, the struggle to
be heard. Publishing them again now isn't about glorifying a
terrorist - it's about asking questions."
Everybody Talks About the Weather ... We Don't: The Writings of
Ulrike Meinhof, edited by Karin Bauer with translations by Luise von
Flotow, is published by Seven Stories Press. It's available from
online retailers and in select bookstores for $18.50.