Ulrike Meinhof sat at the foot of the bed in her West Berlin apartment, thumbing matches and cigarettes between her fingers. She rarely looked up, shooting stolid, vacant glances while speaking to a journalist from German broadcaster N3 about the difficulties facing political women in modern Germany. “It’s much easier if you are a man, and have a wife who raises the children,” she said.

“The main problem for women is the gap between acting in a political role, and on the other hand, dealing with daily problems,” she added. “Sometimes you feel helpless as a woman in this situation. This is the main problem for women. Their private life in accordance with their political life. This is the oppression of women.”

It was 1969: Just months later Meinhof would leave her two daughters to found the Red Army Faction, a hard-left political gang soon known as the Baader-Meinhof Group. By 1976 she would lay dead on a prison block floor having become the world’s most famous terrorist.

The group would continue until 1998, by then responsible for 34 deaths and dozens of violent attacks. Planes were hijacked, embassies held under siege and offices blown up. But 40 years after her death, Meinhof’s legacy remains one of postwar Germany’s greatest enigmas. Hero, murderer, fascist, communist, egalitarian, anti-Semite, feminist or misogynist. Whatever the truth behind her violent life, the way Meinhof was portrayed reveals attitudes toward political women, then and now.

It was late evening on Saturday, May 8, 1976 — Mother’s Day — when Meinhof bound together bits of blue-and-white towel, fixed it to the window grating in her cell at Stammheim Prison, outside Stuttgart, wrapped it round her neck, climbed on a stool and jumped to her death. It had been almost four years since she, alongside Red Army Faction co-founders Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin and fellow member Jan-Carl Raspe, were arrested for their part in four murders, 54 attempted murders and one charge of forming a criminal association.

Germany had mostly turned against them by then, their brutal actions having spilled too much blood even for hard-left supporters to stomach.

Meinhof’s co-defendants had turned against her, too. For years the group had belittled and shamed her for perceived incompetencies. A month before her death, Meinhof stopped turning up for trial.

That she was able to hang herself in Cell 719 shocked and embarrassed German authorities. That she wanted to surprised no-one.

Of the hundreds of photos officers took that next morning, one stands out: Meinhof is laid on her back, eyes closed, mouth agape. The noose has cut her throat. The black of her open neck and thick, matted hair contrast against dead, cornsilk skin. It is, perhaps, a postmortem render of the Manichean worldview that Meinhof had killed for in life. Her true identity, however, is not so black and white.

Meinhof was born in 1934, the second daughter of middle-class Protestant parents in Oldenburg, in northwest Germany. Her family moved to Jena, where in 1940 her father, Werner Meinhof, died. In 1946 the family fled back to Oldenburg, Jena having been ceded to the new East German state after the Second World War.

By then the young boarder Meinhof’s mother had taken in upon her father’s death, Renate Riemeck, was beginning to have a profound effect on her. Riemeck, a prominent historian and peace activist, took over Meinhof’s upbringing altogether in 1949 when her mother, Ingeborg, succumbed to cancer. Meinhof studied in Münster, where she became deeply involved in West Germany’s banned Communist Party (KPD). She also began working at konkret, a student magazine edited by Klaus Rainer Röhl, who would become her husband and father of her twin daughters, Bettina and Anja, born in 1962 (konkret, it would later be discovered, was controlled and financed by an East Berlin wing of the KPD.)

During her time at konkret Meinhof accumulated journalistic success: Her columns, increasingly radical in their political tone, became famed around Germany. When she and Röhl split in 1968, her view of female oppression was stark. “The demand for equal rights no longer puts into question the social conditions of inequality that exist between people,” went an essay entitled “False Consciousness.” “On the contrary, it merely wants inequality to be applied systematically.

“It demands equality within inequality: equality of the female worker with the male worker, of the female clerk with the male clerk, of the female civil servant with the male civil servant…” she added. “Such demands for equal rights are the focus of every women’s union congress and every conference of businesswomen because so far equal rights only exist in law, not in practice. It seems that an unjust world is still having problems justly distributing its injustices.”

Meinhof’s work continued to follow a harder bent, trashing the war in Vietnam and praising four far-left radicals, including Baader and Ensslin, who had recently become Germany’s most wanted. The group had set fire to two Frankfurt department stores in 1968, in response to the police killing of a young student, Benno Ohnesorg, at a state visit of the Shah of Iran. In 1970 she helped break Baader out of prison, committing herself to a life on the run.

The difficulties in casting Meinhof as a feminist icon lay partly in her own views. On one hand, she devoted large swathes of her pre-Red Army Faction career to women’s causes, not least her work on the 1970 movie Bambule (a term meaning a kind of nonviolent protest), her last major work before founding the group, that polemicized the role children’s homes in West Berlin had on the vulnerable young people they held. During the film, Meinhof interviewed many girls who had been sexually abused, embroiled in drugs or prostitution or simply neglected.

In 1968 the feminist movement was roaring ahead in Western nations worldwide. Women in America were protesting beauty pageants, burning bras and marching for equality. Feminism wasn’t as strong in the Red Army Faction. “None of us came from the feminist movement,” former member Inge Viett, active while Meinhof was in Stammheim, once told a biographer. “We simply took the decision (to join), and then we fought and did all the same things as the men.”

Most, if not all, of Meinhof’s proto-feminist assertions were set firmly in the context of armed struggle. Dozens of books have examined the despotic way that Baader ruled over his female “comrades.” He enjoyed referring to them as Votzen (“cunts”). I am “not RAF…but cunt,” Meinhof herself said.

Neither does Meinhof’s worldview fit neatly with the modern paragon of a liberal freedom fighter. Her role in history has been muddied by the anti-Semitism she, and the group, espoused. When asked at the trial of another former member, Horst Mahler, what she thought of the 1972 Munich massacre, in which 11 Israeli athletes and a West German police officer were killed by the Palestinian group Black October, she replied: “How was Auschwitz [then a metonym for the Holocaust] possible? What was anti-Semitism? It used the hatred of the people of their dependence on money as a medium of exchange, their longing for communism. Auschwitz means that six million Jews were murdered and carted on to the rubbish dumps of Europe for being that which was maintained of them: Money-Jews.”

The RAF and other hard-left groups formed largely because of a disillusionment with the process of “Denazification” in German society. Many who had been involved in Hitler’s Third Reich held onto powerful positions after the Second World War. “You would think they were really pro-Jewish, but a lot of the groups became fantastically anti-Israel and pro-Palestine,” Richard Huffman, a longtime historian of the group, told me. “They would parse it as anti-Zionism, but most people didn’t buy it, including me. The effects of it to an outside observer would be much the same.”

Six days after Meinhof’s death, her brain was removed. Jürgen Peiffer, a pathologist from Tübingen, just an hour’s drive from the scene of Meinhof’s suicide, was first given the brain for study, until 1997 — when it was handed over to psychiatrist Bernhard Bogerts in Magdeburg to be examined further. It wasn’t returned until 2002, when one of Meinhof’s daughters, Bettina Röhl, filed a lawsuit on charges of “disturbing the peace of the dead.” Even a dead terrorist, she argued, deserved a decent burial.

That year Bogerts claimed Meinhof’s brain showed “pathological modifications,” suggesting that an operation she underwent when pregnant, at 26, to remove a tumor, could have precipitated her slide into radicalism. In his biography, Meinhof’s former husband, Röhl, said she became cooler, distanced and less sexually interested after the operation.

Andreas Baader

Years later, when Meinhof and Röhl had split and the former’s life as a left-wing paramilitary was blossoming, she attempted to dump her daughters at a Palestinian orphanage. The plan was scuttled only when Stefan Aust, a former konkret colleague who would later pen Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex, the book which would become a hit 2008 movie, kidnapped the girls while en route in Sicily and returned them to their father. Both have since grown up to be writers and vocal opponents of their mother’s politics.

Could Meinhof’s actions have been pathological? Or, as many have suggested, was she drawn to violence as much out of sexual desire for Andreas Baader as any political belief? “I think there’s a very common narrative about women being motivated by sexual or emotional dependence on men,” Katharina Karcher, a research associate at the University of Cambridge, told me. She was “shocked” at similarities between media coverage of Meinhof and Beate Zschäpe, a member of the far-right National Socialist Underground that committed a series of murders of immigrants between 2000 and 2007.

Media outlets often focused not on Zschäpe’s participation in the crimes, nor her defense, but instead “her hair and eyes,” said Karcher. “That compares especially to Gudrun Ensslin but also Meinhof.”

Neither is it something that has changed. Last year Hayat Boumeddiene, a 27-year-old woman from the Parisian suburb of Villiers-sur-Marne who, alongside her husband Ahmed Coulibaly, held hostages at a kosher supermarket, resulting in four civilian deaths. Boumeddiene remains on the run, presumed to be somewhere in Islamic State-controlled Syria. Yet French officials have told journalists they intend to ask her, “if she did this under influence, if she did it by ideology, if she did it to aid and abet.”

“The story is both an old and a new one,” wrote The New York Times’ Jayne Huckerby. “Women have long been involved in terror of all stripes, from female neo-Nazis in Europe to Chechen ‘black widow’ suicide bombers.

“Indeed, despite stereotypes about their domesticity and passivity — the idea that they must always be under men’s influence or tricked into joining — women are drawn to groups like the Islamic State by many of the same forces as men: adventure, inequality, alienation and the pull of the cause.”

The same could be said of Meinhof, Zschäpe or women of any cause, in any corner of the world. But it is often lost in a desperation to sexualize, pathologize or patronize. And, alarmingly, it may actually cloud movements that are overtly feminist in their goals. “I think in many ways it has got worse, because men are pored over for their looks,” said Karcher. “If anything we have become more pornographic.”

Meinhof’s grave

Last year was the 70th anniversary of Germany’s defeat in the Second World War. A year before, countries across Europe commemorated 100 years since the beginning of the First World War — another awful conflict that resulted in Teutonic loss, bloodshed and shame. I have lived in Berlin since November 2013 and was, initially, struck by the ostensible soul-searching, subdued nature of both dates’ passing.

German Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“coping with the past”) has been well-documented. It is a uniquely German expression that reflects the country’s attitudes, following its 20th century calamities, toward facing difficult truths about German society and effects on the world.

Germans in public life “insisted that facing unpleasant truths about their country’s history was both a moral and political necessity,” wrote The New Republic’s Jeremy Herf, in a 2008 review of Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex. The bloodshed, patriarchy and anti-Semitism of the Red Army Faction should be just as much a part of this as the horrors of the Nazi period that preceded it.

Meinhof is no less a participant in those crimes. But she has become “a sort of empty vessel,” says Huffman, “where people of all ideologies foist their thinking about her, whether it’s true or not.”

Perhaps, then, the greatest legacy Meinhof can offer isn’t that which emerged from her violent, armed struggle against imperialism and inequality. Meinhof’s crusade was crude and credulous. But an understanding of the woman past that — of her attitudes toward feminism, patriarchy and the politics of a volatile period in German history — can offer far more insight into society, Teutonic and beyond. Just like most men or women caught up in such violence, she sought a cause that came as much from confusion as conviction.

Perhaps it is best underlined in that interview, from 1969. As her children played in the background Meinhof held a lit match in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It’s “tough,” she said, for driven women in the modern world. She searched for more to say, waiting to light the cigarette. “Really tough. Really, really tough. Tough.”

Sean Williams is a Berlin-based writer and journalist. His work has appeared at, The Guardian, Esquire and many others.

Edited by Ben Wolford.

Sean Williams
Sean Williams is a Berlin-based freelance writer and journalist. His work has appeared at, The New Republic, The Economist, Esquire and many others.