Protest is when I say this does not please me, resistance is when I ensure what does not please me occurs no more.” – Ulrike Meinhof

It is difficult for me not to have both some admiration as well as sympathy for Ulrike Meinhof, especially after seeing the portrayal of her by the very excellent (and lovely!) Martina Gedeck in the recent German film The Baader-Meinhof Complex.  Gedeck herself explains that she found it intriguing to play her and to try to understand her but that it was in many respects a dream job for an actress.  Ulrike Meinhof can be characterised by her passion, her determination, and her clear belief that the end justified the means no matter what those means were.  I cannot help but admire her, I admire her ability to put literally everything on the line because the cause she stood for was sufficiently important in her mind.  I even admire her choice to choose her own fate, although I think more than a little responsibility has to be taken by the West German government for driving her mad by the conditions in which she was held that led directly or indirectly to her decision.  I would, I think, stop short of asserting that she was murdered within the prison rather than having committed suicide only because I don’t currently quite see how the deaths all fit together if planned by the government.

There is usually a clear polarisation of opinions towards Ulrike Meinhof, anyone to the right of a socialist is likely to brush off any of her actions as mere terrorism with no redeeming factors whilst anyone to the left is likely to have considerably more sympathy for her than that, whether or not they agree with the actions themselves.  Indeed when compared with Andreas Baader, a more abrasive figure, who may only have come round to the political side of things later on, Meinhof comes across as more thoughtful and ideologically committed someone who has made a conscious choice to follow her beliefs.  What is without question is that she inspired two generations of radical students to participate in a direct action that had not been seen in West Germany before or since.

As I approach the age that Ulrike Meinhof died so it makes me think on the contrasts between my own life and that of such a figure.  The difference between Meinhof and myself is a combination of opportunity, of bravery and single-minded political belief, (some might say dogmatism).  It just so happens that our politics are not that dissimilar which got me to thinking how her path ended so differently to the way I suspect mine will.  Meinhof has the classic bourgeois academic background of activism, getting involved in left-wing causes at university that then led to writing for one of the radical papers Konkret through which she met both her husband and Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin.  The beginnings of her more active engagement came in Berlin in 1968 at the time of the protests against the visit of the Shah of Iran to Berlin where fights broke out between demonstrators against the visit and the pro-Shah group sent to drown them out.  It culminated in one of the student protestors being shot and shortly after activist Rudi Dutschke narrowly survived an assassination attempt leaving him severely brain damaged.

I can’t claim quite the level of outward turbulence for my continued path to more engagement but having gone through political activities at university including writing for the college paper it was another Stop the War campaign the one leading up to the demonstration on the 15th of February 2003 (which was and remains the largest political demonstration in UK history) that cemented it.  My background is hardly that dissimilar from Meinhof’s other than the fact that due to certain external factors I did not follow the journalism path but ended up in a low level form in the sort of job and environment that pays barely lip service to the politics of my youth and thus sits uneasily at the arrival of each paycheque.  It is not tainted money, nor is there a great deal of it but it is precisely the sort of mundane middle-class existence against which I ranted and raged as a teenager, including a fight that resulted in my not seeing my father for some years.  I did not become a senior figure in any organisation nor joined any group that were especially militant, certainly not openly and deliberately violent.

Whilst was Meinhof who first used the name Rote Armee Fraktion and designed the now famous (at least across Germany) RAF logo:

     she played an active part in the activities of the RAF but her level of influence is seen to not have been such to justify the characterisation of the RAF as the Baader-Meinhof group.  Gudrun Ensslin who had left her husband and young son for Baader is most commonly considered to have been the lead of the RAF along with Baader but perhaps did not have the same profile or shock value to the public as the media exploited with Meinhof.  What such actions in the open might have had behind closed doors to the relationship between Ensslin and Meinhof can only be speculated on since those who might have been able to shed light on it are dead.

I found it particularly interestedly that in The Baader-Meinhof Complex it is shown that there is a clear moment of choice where, having helped organise the violent freeing of Andreas Baader from the research institute, Ulrike Meinhof has the option of staying behind and effectively claiming not to have been involved or to jump out of the window with the fugitives and become one of them.  There is a tangible pause in the film for dramatic effect as if witnessing each synapse in Meinhof’s brain working out the combinations for the decision she is about to make.  It is effectively the pivotal moment that which precipitates everything that is to happen next and could be regarded as the one that defined much of West German history for the next fifteen years.  I don’t know whether this is in fact how it happened but there must have been a time when the road forked and she had the option of continuing along the one she was on or taking the road less travelled, it is that one she chose and it did indeed make all the difference.  The consequences of  Meinhof’s decision on Meinhof herself were cataclysmic, but perhaps not as much as for those around her, since they led to at the very least a complicity in the deaths and the injuries of many but also the breakup of her marriage and the loss of her children who were removed by their father to prevent them being sent to a Palestinian orphanage.

Some might say that to define the difference between me and Meinhof is to ask the question of whether I in all conscience as a father could and would do the same as leave my children as she did for her beliefs?  This is a difficult question to answer in a specific binary one way or another.  What I can say is that I love my children and that I would miss them heart-wrenchingly were I not to be able to see them.  That much I can state unequivocally without any fear of internal contradiction within me.  What I cannot answer is given that love for them were I to think that the sacrifice that I would have to make for them by my absence were to create a better life for not only them but other children here and potentially across the country, continent or world would it not be an irresponsible act if I did not choose that course of action?  Naturally faced with such a situation you would have to be careful not to seek factors to justify a decision you might have already made in your own mind for which you need assuaging tenets to ease your conscience.  This is true of both sides of the argument and the question once confronted cannot be rescinded, were I to go I would have to have convinced myself that this would in the end lead to my children having a better future, were I to stay I would have to believe that in doing so it would be the right thing for them, and by extension therefore me, to reject that path.

It is the sort of situation that I have not had to face and therefore wrestled with only in the hypothetical what if’s that we consider at times as we get older and the mental and physical strains of this begin to show us things we have probably left behind.  Most people accept this and move on with their lives, I cannot  state though that I do not see my life as having less meaning for having not spent more of it in direct activism rather than the indolence of premature middle-age.  Since as a parent failure goes with the territory such thoughts will always come to light at such times when I cannot see myself as making or having made a tangible difference to solve dilemmas even in the daily tedium.  Perhaps crucially unlike Ulrike Meinhof if I have been faced with the two paths in the road I had not the awareness to see it, there was no jump out of the window moment.  I have therefore continued upon this path well-trodden that of at times ever more defeated personal development caught up with fatigue and frustration at the world around me, wondering often wondering whether there had been a path further back that I missed, one which might, had I taken it, have made all the difference.

Song Of The Day ~ Ride – Leave Them All Behind