It’s easy to guess why a collection of writings by Ulrike Meinhof is just now being published in English: Understanding terrorists is a newly thriving field of scholarship, and the left-wing, European extremists in the Red Army Faction make a nice control group for an all-Islamist-all-the-time sample set. How did Meinhof go from upstanding citizen to anticapitalist bomber, from mother to monster? By 1972, when the fugitive Meinhof was finally captured, the RAF had been linked to dozens of bank robberies and bombings, along with the murders of several policemen, and Meinhof was sent to prison, where she eventually hanged herself.
The twenty-four essays in Everybody Talks About the Weather . . . We Don’t are selected from Meinhof’s column for the Hamburg-based magazine Konkret. For the most part, it’s standard-issue ’60s leftist commentary: antinuclear, pro –women’s rights, pro-protest. Her first column appeared in 1959 (though the earliest in this collection dates from 1960), and her writing became more radical as the 60s progressed. By 1968, Konkret had a circulation of more than two hundred thousand, mainly students eager to read writers like Meinhof. But whereas most of those galvanized by the events of ’68 eventually stepped back from the abyss of armed resistance, Meinhof and a handful of others kept going.
These essays, however, never reveal the decisive moment when Meinhof left behind her good middle-class life, complete with a paying job and two daughters, and became a full-time revolutionary. The latest article in the book comes from 1968, more than two years before the founding of the RAF. (None of her RAF manifestos are reproduced here.) Meinhof’s tone throughout can in fact be downright moderate. She speaks passionately about equal rights for women but never reaches for the polemical tones of, say, Valerie Solanas. After the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, she wrote an article called “Three Friends of Israel” that is almost painfully balanced in considering the “legitimate interests” of both sides. Her media criticism, primarily aimed at the right-wing publisher Axel Springer, hardly seems more shrill than today’s broadsides against the mainstream media.
Conservative politician Franz Josef Strauss comes under special attack. Meinhof signs off one column with the claim that “one day we will be asked about Herr Strauss in the same way we now ask our parents about Hitler.” (Strauss sued Meinhof, unsuccessfully, for libel.) Yet her campaign against Strauss also illustrates the gap between Meinhof the journalist and Meinhof the RAF member. Despite her earnest belief in the danger he posed, she nonetheless concludes that “the comeback of someone like Franz Josef Strauss is not the moment for a political assassination.” The contrast with her statements for the RAF—she would later maintain, “We say the guy in uniform is a pig, not a human being. . . . We don’t talk to him, because it is wrong to talk to these people. And so there may be gunfire”—couldn’t be starker.
Thus we are left with a tantalizing but incomplete picture of the making of a radical. If the columns were presented without Meinhof’s name attached, they would seem no more remarkable than the musings of any other leftist European intellectual. Her life as a terrorist is what makes this writing interesting today. Editor Karin Bauer’s opening essay gives a thorough and welcome biography, but the conclusions she draws sometimes miss the mark: “The real scandal,” she writes, “was thus not militant violence, but the rejection of a traditional female role.”
What, then, are we left to conclude about Meinhof? Is she, as Elfriede Jelinek claims in the preface, merely “a historical riddle”? Is she, as Bauer has it, “a tragic figure who now stands for the thwarted ideals and the frustration of a generation”? Or is she, indeed, a monster whose path was marked by fallen bodies? Reading her columns discourages such grand judgments, and Meinhof instead emerges as a writer who got pulled into the chaos of a frenzied era and never found her way out.