Love, Gudrun Ensslin…explained


Red Army Faction Wanted poster: Gudrun is top row, 3rd from left


I recently said I’d blog to explain how my latest novel (Love, Gudrun Ensslin) came about. Apologies for the delay…but now I’m back! I’ve adapted the following from my Author’s Note at the back of the novel. I hope it both answers your questions and whets your literary appetite! The book will be available online at Amazon, Waterstone’s, (and in stores!) by the end of this month.


Love, Gudrun Ensslin by Simon Corbin


Why did I write the novel LOVE, GUDRUN ENSSLIN?

Following completion of my first novel, RUDE BOY, it occurred to me it was impossible to switch on the television or radio (or log onto a news website) without being confronted by the twin phenomena of celebrity and terrorism – the unfortunate dual motif of our era. Thus, I determined to fuse these two aspects of modern life into a single cohesive narrative and thereby arrive at a definitive zeitgeist ‘novel of our times’.


Official Red Army Faction publication


The decision to utilise the Baader Meinhof Gang and their terrorist reign in West Germany (1968-1972) as a backdrop to the events in the novel seemed to me to be particularly apposite. Not only do the politics motivating the group carry resonance in today’s global capitalist post-Cold War era (where profit and celebrity often appear to be the only things Western society now values) but the Gang represents the first flowering (in Europe at least) of a ruthless militaristic approach to propagating one’s political ideology through small, highly organised terrorist ‘cells’– something of a template for the terrorists of today.


Andreas Baader on the run in Paris


I spent four years researching the Baader Meinhof Gang. Only after completing this essential groundwork did I begin writing the narrative. For a time I had an assortment of left-wing terrorist websites saved onto my work computer! I half expected a knock on the door from MI5! Thankfully, that never came!


Ulrike Meinhof


Baader Meinhof Gang / Red Army Faction – what’s the story?

Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin – the lead figures within the Baader Meinhof Gang – were the world’s first ‘celebrity terrorists’; admired by West Germany’s student youth as much for their ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ media persona as for their radical left-wing politics. In addition to being revolutionary comrades, the charismatic Baader and highly arresting Ensslin were lovers – fuelling a further Romanticism surrounding the group that served only to enhance their appeal among the rebellious ’68 generation.


Stefan Aust read the first draft of my novel


The Baader Meinhof Gang began on a small scale – Ensslin and Baader (along with two comrades) fire-bombing two Frankfurt department stores and (later) hurling Molotov cocktails through the windows of local government administrative offices. Following a period of expansion, recruitment and reorganisation, the Gang (now known to themselves as the Red Army Faction) travelled to Jordan to train with the PLO (during which time their ‘training’ included a practical course in ‘how to rob banks’). On their return to West Germany, the Gang was a very different animal – it now constituted a fully-fledged terror group prepared to wage war on the imperialist/capitalist/fascist State enemy in its own back yard.


Gudrun in court


There followed a succession of bank heists, raids on military weapons stores and a series of shoot-outs with police in which people from both sides were killed. The violence culminated in an orgy of killing and destruction during the month of May 1972. Between 11th-24th May 1972, the Baader Meinhof Gang/Red Army Faction set off no fewer than ten bombs (a further three failing to detonate) at prominent locations throughout West Germany – leaving 17 US military personnel dead, a further five wounded, five West German policemen injured and 17 clerical workers injured. After such an intensive period of mayhem and destruction, the State authorities quickly rounded up Baader Meinhof’s key players (Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof) the following month. Andreas Baader’s arrest – at a protracted early morning siege at a suburban garage in Frankfurt – was screened live on West German television. As Baader emerged from the wrecked building on a stretcher, his ‘shades’ still jauntily in place and his spirit as defiantly nonchalant as ever, the notion of the ‘celebrity terrorist’ was forever entrenched in the media psyche.


Gudrun Ensslin


Gudrun Ensslin – what was her role?

The Baader Meinhof Gang was something of a misnomer. If anything, Ensslin Baader would have been more appropriate. Gudrun Ensslin was the brains, driving force and true energy behind the Red Army Faction. Gudrun was born on 15th August 1940 in the small village of Bartholomä in Baden-Württemburg, Germany. The fourth of seven children, she was a pastor’s daughter. She joined the Protestant Girls’ Club, became its group leader, and hosted Bible study classes. Fiercely intelligent and academically gifted, Gudrun achieved consistently good exam grades and won a scholarship to study at the German National Academic Foundation. She also studied at the University of Tübingen – and, for a year at the age of eighteen, she even attended Warren High School in Pennsylvania, USA (from which she graduated) as part of a school exchange programme. At Tübingen she studied educational theory and German and English Literature – gaining the equivalent of a primary school professional teaching qualification. Gudrun married a fellow Tübingen student, Bernward Vesper. She and Vesper went to West Berlin, enrolled at the Free University and began campaign work for the SDP (German Social Democratic Party). They also had a son, Felix. In 1967 Gudrun met Andreas – and everything changed. Together they became a left-wing revolutionary version of Bonnie & Clyde. Gudrun promptly left both her husband and son and joined Andreas in firebombing department stores in protest against the ‘inherent fascism of the modern consumer society.’ The action earned the pair a three-year prison sentence. Released on parole, they decided not to complete their sentences – and promptly went on the run. When Andreas was recaptured, Gudrun was the mastermind behind the infamous operation to spring him from the Dahlem Institut – the action that compelled Ulrike Meinhof to join the group; Ulrike’s complicity in Baader’s escape forcing her to also opt for a life outside the law. By the time the lead figures in the first generation of Baader Meinhof were arrested – following the May 1972 ‘month of Hell’ of multiple bombings and assassinations – Gudrun, Andreas and the Red Army Faction were (and remain) globally notorious.

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3 Responses to Love, Gudrun Ensslin…explained

  1. Wasn’t one of their victims (first he was kidnapped, then killed) a former SS officer (and department store chain owner)? I know the group was a tad violent for my tastes, but at the same time one can’t help (if one has any sense of justice) to understand their anger and frustration to some degree (at least)! After all, my conservative (but open minded and intelligent) uncles were all WWII veterans and had to fight the Nazis – thus, I don’t think they would have been completely unsympathetic to the Baader Menhof disgust as at a former Nazi rising to such prominence, though I am sure they would have deplored their “means to and end” violence. It is similar (though not the same) to today’s violent terrorist-as-celebrity phenomena, as this author so brilliantly point out. Of course, I must also point out that I feel that all violence only leads to more violence, and thus is self-defeating, but that doesn’t prevent me from sometimes having empathy/sympathy with some of the perpetrators since we all have to put up with so much corruption and evil in this world.

    • Simon says:

      hi lawrence. thank you for your post. it was great to receive such a thoughtful post (esp so soon after receiving an unpleasant, sarcastic one from someone who had clearly not realised my book is a novel and not a factual account of events!). i agree with you completely regarding the negative cycle of violence causing only harm. you have also perfectly captured the conflicting sentiments at the heart of my novel – elements of the times we live in that prompted me to write the book in the first place. regarding the early victim you mention – i will need to check on this. it did not come up in my initial research – and i suspect you may be conflating the kidnap victim, schleyer (who was indeed ex-SS – and was killed by a later generation of BM), with the frankfurt dept store fire-bombing that was one of the very first actions by the first generation of BM. worth a look back in my source material once again though! cheers again for posting. 🙂

      • Hi Simon. Thank you for your effusive praise for my post! 🙂 But I believe you are correct – I think I did confuse the ex-SS kidnap victim with the Frankfurt Department Store fire-bombing. I had seen two docs on the History Channel regarding the Bader-Meinoff group and their various exploits some time ago and apparently their various actions had indeed become intermixed in my mind! Thank you for pointing my probable error! 🙂 and have an excellent day!

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