Interviews Interview: Meinhof Scholar Karin Bauer

Karin Bauer, professor at Montreal’s McGill University, has published a superb addtion to the tiny canon of English language books about the Baader-Meinhof Era. The wonderfully-named “Everybody Talks about the Weather… We Don’t” features a pentrating essay by Bauer as well as English translations of Meinhof’s most important essays published in konkret magazine throughout the sixties. Baader-Meinhof.com’s Richard Huffman interviewed Bauer via e-mail.

Richard Huffman What fascinates you about Ulrike Meinhof; what led you to want to study her and her work?
Karin Bauer Ulrike Meinhof is one of the most important voices of her generation. I want to draw attention to her writing and against the myriad of voices speaking about Meinhof, I want to let Meinhof for herself. Meinhof’s voice is unique. Her idiosyncratic style is incisive, sharp, and polemical; her rhetorical brilliance is her weapon and has a powerful effect on the reader. This is very difficult to render in English, but the translator with whom I worked, Luise von Flotow, did a marvelous job in getting across the urgency and immediacy of Meinhof’s texts. Luise’s translation allows Meinhof’s voice to speak in another language.
I study the protest culture of the sixties and Meinhof and konkret were at the vanguard of this culture. They were an integral part of the German counter-culture, they had their fingers on its pulse and helped shape it. Meinhof belonged to the generation of Germans born during and immediately after the Second World War. This generation grew up during and/or with the legacy of National Socialism. They grew up with the guilt and shame of belonging to a people that had committed unspeakable crimes against humanity. Meinhof felt that it was her moral duty not only to see to it that this would never happen again, but to go a step further and establish an open and democratic society in Germany—a society where the freedom of those who think differently is respected and where justice and equality for all are the fundamental principles of political action. Her relentless criticism of postwar German politics and society must be seen in the context of the idealism she shared with many others.
I don’t want to see her as a martyr for the cause, however, but take her seriously as a political activist. In the 50s and early 60s, she was a committed protestant pacifist who came of age with her work in the anti-nuclear and Easter March movements. As was a passionate opponent of the Vietnam War and hoped that political reason would overcome cold war tensions. She was a fervent anti-fascist and as a gesture of defiance against the West German government banning its political opposition to the left, Meinhof became a member of the Communist Party. During the 60s she was—along with the protest movement—increasingly radicalized. Her columns deal with the most pressing issues of her days and are testimony to her enthusiasm for the protest movement and her increasing frustration in the face of police brutality against student protesters and the curtailment of civil liberties by the German government.
Meinhof also was an important—and largely ignored—voice speaking out for the rights and dignity of marginal groups in society, such as institutionalized youth and women. Her columns are increasingly concerned with the role of women in society.
In bringing her writings to an English-speaking public and through my introductory essay, I would like to offer a more nuanced image of Meinhof that has been circulated in the media. I want to focus on Meinhof before 1970 when she co-founded the RAF.
On a more personal note, my motivation arises from my own background as somebody active in Germany in the 70s on the leftist fringe. I was close to the events taking place and could have been part of what is called the second generation of the RAF. I sympathized with the causes and sentiments, but objected to violence. I couldn’t see how the exercise of violence or counter-violence could affect the kind of progressive changes toward which many were working. I also despised the anti-intellectualism of the “primacy of praxis” and “the propaganda of deeds” advocated by the RAF. Theory, criticism, philosophy, art, and culture are integral activities of the public sphere and without them we would indeed be doomed to fall into the kind of barbarism we are trying to fight.

Richard Huffman You’re obviously spending a lot of time reading her writings in konkret through the 60s… has there been anything you’ve read that has struck you as either particularly relevant or prescient for modern western society?
Karin Bauer Meinhof’s text are rooted in the concerns of her time: the global march of capitalism, consumerism, the curtailment of civil liberties, the increasing surveillance by the state, the intrusion of the state into the private life of its citizens, the manipulation by the media, the mind numbing stupidity of television and the entertainment industry, the war in Vietnam and the moral responsibility to stop the slaughter of innocent people. All of this strikes me as relevant for today’s society. What also strikes me as a shared concern with Meinhof is thinking about how to effect political change, how to reach a public or how to shape a kind of counter-public to the mainstream that is willing to engage with urgent political questions theoretically and practically. What are the possibilities and methods of intervention? These are strategic and ethic questions faced everyday by anti-war, anti-torture, anti-globalization, human rights, Green Peace, and other activists.

Richard Huffman One could possibly describe Meinhof as the “accidental terrorist” because she most likely did not plan on joining Baader and Ennslin that day in May of 1970—rather she was probably just planning on being their supposedly unknowing accomplice. But viewing her life through the sixties in another way, it almost seems like going underground like she did was the clear trajectory that her life was heading. Have you found any insight into her through her writings that helps you understand her later actions?
Karin Bauer There has been much speculation about Meinhof’s jump out the window during the liberation of Baader. It’s hard to say what went on in her head as the liberation went awry, when one of the liberators shot a building attendant. The jump out of the window was her jump into illegality. It was reckless—the RAF was reckless. Her jump into illegality was not planned, but it was also not entirely unexpected. Although Meinhof’s radicalization is evident in her writings throughout the 60s, I want to caution about telling Meinhof’s story, as is often done, as a straight-forward descent into violence. The columns show a much more nuanced picture of Meinhof’s engagement. Her political and personal development did not lead inevitably into violence and personal disaster—to tell the story this way is to discredits her writing, her activism, and her advocacy of the rights of marginalized groups. Certainly, the increasing frustration with the scant results of the protest movement led many toward contemplating more militant strategies of effecting change. But there are elements of chance, historical accident, personal choice involved in the decision to go underground. Meinhof’s marriage had broken apart and she thought that her writing had no impact. One of her last columns entitled “Columnism” reflects on the limits of writing; it contains a bitter critique of writing as a medium of communication, but also of writing as an industry. Then there is the timing of Meinhof’s meeting with Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader, which happened during a transformative stage of her life.

As far as insights into her psyche are concerned, I would say one central one is her sense of commitment to the cause of fighting for a better society and her unwavering solidarity with the group that no longer showed any solidarity with her. As Elfriede Jelinek points out in the foreword to the book, Germans did not want to hear Meinhof while she still had something important and intelligible to say.
Meinhof could have done great things. Her jump into illegality was a great loss to the German left and to German society on the whole. Meinhof’s death in prison marks the tragic end to a life that could have been a bright light in German postwar democracy. She died as a lonely person. Although she would not admit it in public, she knew she had failed: As a writer by giving up the typewriter and her individual voice in favor of the gun and collective dogmatism; as a mother by giving up her children for a political cause; as an anti-fascist fighting against the violence which she perpetuated. Meinhof killed herself on May 8, 1976, the 31 anniversary of the end of WW II, but perhaps even more significant: It was Mother’s Day.

Richard Huffman Are there any modern Ulrike Meinhofs? Not necessarily someone who’s gone underground; but someone with a powerful voice fighting the perceived injustices of the western world?
Karin Bauer If you mean by that Ulrike Meinhof before 1970 then there are, I am sure, Ulrike Meinhofs everywhere: voices of women and men who speak up against injustice. But it’s difficult to split Meinhof into two, into a pre- and post-1970 person; one Meinhof can not be had without the other.
Thus, we can only hope that the dissenting voices today can make themselves heard and that they will not turn to violence and, instead, find creative methods of effecting change.

Richard Huffman Some would argue Meinhof and others of her era delivered nothing but criticism of the problems of capitalist society, but offered nothing in the way of rational alternatives. What do you think?
Karin Bauer That’s a very interesting question that I would like to answer by referring to some of the leading theoretical voices of dissent. Leading intellectuals in the 60s, such as Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Ernst Bloch, refused to provide a positive utopian design. Their utopia was a negative one: They thought to exercise resistance against the status quo, against the universal context of delusion, against bad reality, but did not construct a positive utopian vision. Rather than wanting to institute some concrete vision of what society should be like, they referred to the absence of oppression out of which the positive would arise. Adorno compared this to the Jewish taboo of the image of the Highest, i.e. the taboo to portray God, the Ideal, the utopian nowhere. Seen in this context, Meinhof negated the status quo and fought for the abolition of what is. There was no room—yet—for indulging in positive utopian visions.

Richard Huffman What are your thoughts on the adoption in recent years of Baader-Meinhof iconography into hipster clothing and other outlets? Specifically I’m thinking of the whole Prada Meinhof line of about 5 years ago that featured shirts, bandanas another other accessories. I even offer reproductions of the two famous wanted posters for sale on my site. Do you think that the people buying this stuff are missing some fundamental points about Meinhof? (Don’t worry, you won’t hurt my feelings if you have any issues with me selling the posters).
Karin Bauer The posters you sell are important historical documents, and I’ve ordered them myself. I take a different view than most on the Prada-Meinhof issue. In contrast to the condemnations of the pop-cultural commodification of the RAF, I think those criticizing the trivialization or depolitization of the RAF are missing the point. I am convinced that behind the attraction of Meinhof and the RAF hides a deeper longing for an ideal. What motivates someone to buy a Meinhof t-shirt? It’s cool. But why is it cool? I think behind the perceived coolness hides the desire—especially by the younger generation—for the trace of something better. Meinhof and the RAF believed in something and they were willing to put their lives on the line. Meinhof and the RAF had ideals and a group identity. And there was the sense that they might just succeed, that things could be changed. Their world view was black and white. It was clear who was good and who was bad. The younger generation looks at this with awe and disbelieve. There is some nostalgia for revolutionary times when people still had ideals and where willing to fight for big causes and big ideas. So behind every poster you sell might lurk a desire for change. How many do you sell? [Richard Huffman: I’ve sold about 400 posters and about 200 stickers… about 30% in the US, 30% in the UK, and 40% mostly to Europe, with a few to Australia as well].

Richard Huffman Why should we care about Ulrike Meinhof in 2008? Why should North Americans care about her?
Karin Bauer We should care about Meinhof for all the reasons I have outlined above. Why, specifically, North Americans should care about her? I’d love to hear from readers how they see Meinhof and how they perceive her relevance for the challenges we face today. I am very much looking forward to discussions with readers in order to get to know their understanding and reactions to Meinhof. My first reading and discussion with readers will be at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park on June 13.