We have found that words are useless without action!1

Gudrun Ensslin (1940-1977) was one of the founders of the so-called Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, and its leading woman member. Together with her lover Andreas Baader, and their Red Army Faction, she bombed, robbed and shot her way through Germany in in the late 1960s/early 1970s as they sought to attack what they saw as a corrupt capitalist state.

She was born in Bartholomae in the German state of Baden Württemberg. Ensslin was politically active as a student, studying German, English and teaching in Tübingen. In 1963 she helped found a small publishing house, the "Studio for New Literature" which brought out only one book, and in 1964 she enrolled at the University of Berlin.

In Berlin, she kept up her activism despite the birth of her son Felix in 1967. Ensslin took part in protests including the 2 June 1967 demonstration against the Shah of Iran in Berlin. This demonstration saw the tragic death of a young man, Benno Ohnesburg, who was shot in the head by police, possibly accidentally. The incident contributed to Ensslin's feeling that violence was the only way to fight state oppression. Following the killing, she joined the SDS, the Socialist German Student organisation, and claimed:

They'll kill us all! You know what kind of pigs we are up against. This is the Auschwitz generation. You can't argue with the people who made Auschwitz. They have weapons and we haven't. We must arm ourselves!
Soon after, in the summer of 1967, she met and fell in love with Andreas Baader (1947-1977), who was to be the leader and half-eponym of the Baader-Meinhof gang. Baader, 7 years her junior, already had a long career as a petty criminal, and had just finished a sentence in a youth detention centre for the theft of a motorcycle.


In April 1968, the two of them, along with Horst Söhnlein and Thorwald Proll, were arrested for bomb attacks on two Frankfurt-am-Main department stores. One source2 describes them running up the escalators hand in hand, and rolling on the beds together before planting timed incendiary devices.

On 13 October, they were each sentenced to 3 years in jail. The following June the four were released pending an appeal. Baader and Ensslin began working at a youth home, where Baader taught the kids how to steal motorbikes. Meanwhile they helped in campaigns against the harsh conditions in state children's institutions; this period appears to have been something of a quiet idyll for the couple. In November, Ensslin, Proll and Baader were ordered to return to jail. Instead, they fled to France. Proll stayed in Strasbourg while Ensslin and Baader moved to Italy briefly.

In February 1970, the couple returned to Berlin, making contact with radical journalist Ulrike Meinhof. In Berlin, they met socialist lawyer Horst Mahler and joined his newly-established terrorist group, along with Manfred Grashof, Astrid Proll, Petra Schelm, and Monika Berberich, the last three also women like Ensslin and Meinhof, establishing the equal gender balance for which the group would be known.

Baader was recaptured in April, and Ensslin enlisted the help of her friend Ulrike Meinhof to spring her lover from jail. Meinhof admired Ensslin for her ability to put her revolutionary beliefs into action, and the fact that Ensslin had been prepared to give up her son to her estranged husband Bernward Vesper in order to pursue the struggle against the state. They agreed on a scheme which would involve them pretending to write a book on Baader, allowing them to see him and to take him out of jail.

On 14 May 1970, Ulrike Meinhof was permitted to take Baader to the Dahlem Institute for Social Research to interview him. Ensslin and three accomplices, all armed with handguns, rushed the room and rescued Ensslin's lover. Bullets were fired, wounding an elderly employee of the institute, but the police were reluctant to fire back and everyone escaped. This incident catapulted the gang to fame in the German media, but it was Meinhof's name, not that of the more-involved Ensslin, which became attached to Baader's, and led to the media dubbing them the Baader-Meinhof gang.

That June, they travelled to East Germany, from where they were flown to Jordan and received arms training from Palestinian guerrillas. However, they annoyed their trainers with disrespectful behaviour, including nude sunbathing by the women in the group, and they were returned to Berlin two months later. The following year saw the gang carry out a series of audacious crimes. In September, they robbed three Berlin banks simultaneously, and would have hit a fourth but it was closed for renovations. When Mahler was captured Baader and Ennslin were established as the dominant figures in the gang. (Mahler is now a member of the neo-fascist NDP.)

The following summer they were still at large. In an opinion poll in 1972, one in five Germans expressed sympathy with the Red Army Faction, as Baader and the others had taken to calling themselves (Rote Armee Fraktion in German). The newly formed federal anti-terrorist police force the BKA began to close in on them in an atmosphere of mounting panic. After many close scrapes, the police captured Andreas Baader on 1 August 1972, following a tip-off.

Seven days later, Ensslin was trying on sweaters in a Hamburg clothes store, when a sales clerk noticed a bulge in her jacket pocket, and on closer study realised it was a gun. He called police, and she was arrested. The rest of the gang were taken soon after.


Ensslin was imprisoned in Essen; Baader was in Schwalmstadt. She thought up codenames for the gang from Moby-Dick, calling herself Smutje after the ship's cook (Fleece in English) and Baader, Ahab. In 1974, she was transferred to Stammheim prison in Stuttgart, in the cell next to Meinhof. Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin, Jan-Carl Raspe, and Holger Meins were indicted for the crimes of the Baader-Meinhof gang on 2 October 1974. That autumn they began a hunger strike, and Ensslin was force-fed with a tube down her throat. Holger Meins died.

Pre-trial proceedings began until 21 May 1975 in a specially built courtroom in Stammheim. In August, the four were charged with four murders, 54 attempted murders and a single count of forming a criminal association. The trial began the following January. In jail, Ennslin began to argue with Meinhof, and Meinhof killed herself on 9 May 1976.

The final verdict was given on 28 April 1977, after a trial full of irregularities. The presiding judge was removed for passing information on the case to the appeals judge, and the cells of the accused were bugged. Ensslin and the others were found guilty of 4 counts of murder and over 30 of attempted murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment in the new maximum-security wing of Stammheim. Despite close guard, and a new law prohibiting terrorist prisoners from communicating with each other, the gang members were able to talk via modified radios connected to power wires.

In September terrorists kidnapped the President of the Employers Association and the Federation of German Industry, Hanns-Martin Schleyer, demanding the release of the jailed terrorists to a safe country, and Palestinians hijacked a Lufthansa jet bound for Switzerland, also demanding their release. But this plane was stormed by German commandos in Mogadishu, Somalia on 17 October. Schleyer was later found murdered.

Gudrun Ensslin died on the night of 17-18 October 1977 in Stammheim Prison, along with other Baader-Meinhof members Andreas Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe. Officially she hanged herself, but circumstances surrounding the deaths are suspicious. According to police Baader had received a gun smuggled into the jail, and fired bullets into his wall and pillow before shooting himself in the back of the head, and Raspe shot himself. Other gang member Irmgard Möller stabbed herself but survived. Officially, Ensslin stood on a chair, tied a speaker cable round her neck, tied the other end to the mesh covering the window, and kicked the chair away.


Circumstances surrounding the so-called "Death Night" remain controversial, as to whether it was suicide or murder. Many leftists refused to believe they gave up and took their own lives, thinking the state must have killed them. But suicide had been in their thoughts before: earlier that year, Ensslin had suggested they commit suicide one by one over a period of time. They may have tried to make the suicides look like murder. And their deaths gained them even greater fame as well as sympathy.

Ensslin was buried alongside Baader and Raspe in the Waldfriedhof Cemetery, Stuttgart, despite protests against the three criminals being interred there. The city's mayor Manfred Rommel, son of German WW2 hero Irwin Rommel, commanded that "All enmity should cease after death," and pressed ahead with the burial.

Even before their deaths, the Baader-Meinhof gang had become icons. Since then they have gone on to play a large cultural role, and Ensslin has become a figure on Women's Studies courses alongside Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, and other female radicals. Ensslin features prominently in Gerhard Richter's Baader-Meinhof-themed sequence of paintings, "October 18, 1977", which reproduces photographic images of the main Red Army Faction members, including three portraits of her taken in police custody (probably at Stammheim), and a depiction of her dead body still hanging, barely perceptible in the dark and blurry monochrome oil paint.

She was also the subject of Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (The Little Match Girl) a stage work by composer Helmut Lachenmann, who was a childhood friend of Ensslin. Gudrun's sister Christine Ensslin was the editor of a left-wing feminist journal, a different sort of radical, and the relation between the two was fictionalised in Margarethe von Trotta's 1981 film Die Bleierne Zeit (released in English as The German Sisters and Marianne and Juliane).


1Gudrun Ensslin, in court, 4 October 1968
2 R. Wilson, "ANDREAS BAADER: Let The Gun Speak". http://www.postworldindustries.org/library_text/library_bios/bio_baader.html, visited 1 July 2002.

Main sources

http://www.thirdway.org/files/reviews/redarmy.html
http://www.baader-meinhof.com/timeline/pre1968.html
http://www.lrb.co.uk/v23/n07/woll2307.htm
http://www.guardian.co.uk/friday_review/story/0,3605,720703,00.html
http://www.postworldindustries.org/library_text/library_bios/bio_baader.html

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