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The element of madness

The letters between Gudrun Ensslin and the man who lost her to Andreas Baader, offer profound insights into the birth of German terrorism. By Gerd Koenen

Gudrun Ensslin, Bernward Vesper and Andreas Baader were at the heart of post-1968 German terrorism. Gudrun Ensslin left Vesper, the son of a prominent Nazi poet, for Andreas Baader, with whom she formed the Red Army Faction or RAF. In his book "Vesper, Ensslin, Baader", Gerd Koenen charted their unbroken path - from the initial attempt to save the reputation of Vesper's father, on to outright war against German post-war democracy. One of his key sources was the correspondence between Ensslin and Vesper in 1968/69. These letters have now been published by Suhrkamp, with a postscript by Felix Ensslin.

Private was political then. The existential knots that this could result in are well documented by the correspondence between Gudrun Ensslin, who was doing time for setting fire to two Frankfurt department stores in April 1968, and her first live-in lover, the publisher and author Bernward Vesper. While I was researching my book "Vesper, Ensslin, Baader: Primal scenes of German Terrorism" (2003), Vesper's last girlfriend, Elken Lindquist, handed me a black folder, which was left in her possession when he committed suicide in May 1971. It contained all the letters between him and Gudrun Ensslin, which start when Ensslin finally left him in January 1968 for a life with Andreas Baader. The original title that Ensslin gave the correspondence, "Emergency Act" (the controversial Notstandsgesetz passed by the Grand Coalition in 1968 which provoked so many demonstrations) had been changed by Vesper to "Emergency Acts from Your Hand".

This black folder made electrifying reading from the opening lines, and it dramatically changed my view of the protagonists in this exemplary German family drama. It has now been published as an immaculately edited and annotated correspondence in the "Edition Suhrkamp" series and, on second reading, is still as inscrutably gripping as the story which unfolds within it. The editorial work could be off-putting at first, after all these are not the letters between, say, Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. But it is certainly an epistolary novel of sorts with literary merits; and at the same time, it is an introductory and parallel piece to Bernward Vesper's fragment of a novel, "Die Reise" (the journey/trip) that self-autopsy fuelled by sex, drugs and ideological world formulas which, when posthumously published in the "German Autumn" of 1977, was aptly labelled "the intellectual heritage of a generation". In their desperate exaltation and linguistic pretensions, these writings seem as alien and often unreadable as German Expressionist poems and manifestos from the end of the First World War, but they are equally moving and, ultimately, much closer to us.

There are passages in the 1968/69 correspondence between Ensslin and Vesper which transport the reader into the limbo of that semi-psychotic world of the messages smuggled between RAF members in Stammheim prison, a very different, very specific sort of literature. The appendix includes a letter dating August 1968 from Gudrun Ensslin to Andreas Baader, who was also in Stammheim (and with whom she was maintaining a secret, parallel correspondence). Its intimate mixture of unbounded physicality and death-wish violence, seems to hint at the later path towards the "Human Weapon": "We are brutal with ourselves...., and one of the consequences this could have is that we will be equally brutal and cold with everyone else. Perhaps that's exactly what I've been missing.... A stroke of a sword, a well-aimed bullet must be less than what I feel when I think of being near you." And: "Hell YES! Andreas, praxis, you said it!"

However much we try to pretend otherwise, the history of German terrorism, which centres round the first couple Baader and Ensslin, was also the story of an amour fou, a crazed and, if you like, fulfilled love. In one of her letters to the unhappy Vesper, Ensslin was already theorising this, in response to his gentle remonstrance about the obvious pointlessness of burning down the department store: "If we made a mistake, then we made a mistake (I don't see it myself); after all, what's been missing in the European fight for socialism over the last 100 years, is the element of 'madness'." She and Baader were to provide this later, in abundance.

But what the letters in this black folder also show is the story of a forgone, failed love affair, with Bernward Vesper – and a suppressed love for her son Felix, whom Gudrun Ensslin left behind at the end of March 1968, when she set fire to the department store. Unlike Baader, who also left behind an embittered girlfriend and a little daughter, the vicar's daughter exposed herself to the pain of the separation from her child to the last. And it was precisely this which so changed my view of the "primal scenes of German terrorism", when I read these letters for the first time. At the point of writing, Ensslin's horizon of action was not as monomaniacally narrow as it seemed in retrospect. Nothing seems to have been decided at this point. She drew pictures for her little son: "Mummy is SO bad at drawing, help, help!" And she described her recurring nightmares: "F. in wet nappies and other such 'purple' stories." In the diffuse arguments with Vesper over the "declaration of honesty", in other words, custody of the child, there are frequent and tempestuous outbursts, such as: "PLEASE never say again that I wanted to be rid of Felix, I am getting frantic here ... When I get out I 'want' Felix terribly, but I don't want to take him away from you."

The inverted commas around the word 'want' seem (today) like a presentiment. When Gudrun Ensslin "came out" on parole, she did not see her child again – and Bernward was floundering on his own trip, his long "Reise", which would take him back through the hell of his childhood (as the son of Nazi poet Will Vesper) and all the horrors of that time, and onto not the underworld, but psychiatry and finally suicide.

Felix Ensslin, who is older today than either of his parents, whom he never knew, writes in a movingly reflective postscript to the book: "These letters have come to be important to me because they help throw a little sand in the inevitability of the great story-telling machine in which everything is propelled towards death, murder, suicide." He calls them "healing letters" which helped him, after growing up in a foster family, "catch up on the failed, denied, missing parts of the story". But he also says: "I am also overcome by fury and helplessness when I read these letters... What twisted thinking! What helplessness! What desperation and brutality against themselves, against me and others."

Which is why, he says, he always refused "the temptation of overcoming his loss by identifying with the heroic struggle of the revolutionary", his mother who, as he was encouraged to believe during his teenage years, only wanted "all children to inherit a fair world not just me." A path however, "which heads for generalities and neglects particulars" leads only to a perversion of noble goals - not only for an abandoned child.

This is also what lends these letters a more universal meaning, a lesson - almost like Brecht's "Caucasian Chalk Circle", which Vesper and Ensslin, as politicised literati, so often quoted in their tug-of-war over the child. Only that things ended otherwise: while they are were both still swearing to each other that they would never "let HIM go through what we went through", namely the hell of the "extended fascist family" from whose "biological" ties they wanted to emancipate themselves in favour of "proletariat" self-commitment, in the end they both let go of the child.

What the two perform in their letters are tragicomic minuets: like when Bernward repeatedly calls on the imprisoned Gudrun to emancipate herself "not only from me but from Andreas and everyone else", like everybody outside "in the movement" who was trying to cast off their "petit-bourgeois" existences, "to which the two-person relationship is constitutive". And, when it becomes clear that he is unable to win her back, he informs her in snide and injured tones: "Time is standing still for you lot, and the voice I am hearing is a voice from the grave from two or three years ago."

More than in any other country, the German "1968" was propelled by the desire to sever the umbilical cord from the supposedly contaminated body of the parent generation. There is still a long way to go (indeed Andres Veiel of "Blackbox BRD" is currently making a feature film about these three protagonists) before this story has been told in full.


GUDRUN ENSSLIN, BERNWARD VESPER: "Notstandsgesetze von Deiner Hand". Letters 1968/1969. Edited by Caroline Harmsen, Ulrike Seyer and Johannes Ullmaier. Edition Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 2009. 250 p.p. 12 Euro.

The historian Gerd Koenen is the author of "Vesper, Ensslin, Baader. Urszenen des deutschen Terrorismus", Fischer Verlag. Read his feature on another key figure of German 1968, "Thankmar, the young Krahl".

This article was originally published in Süddeutsche Zeitung on 24 November 2009.

Translation: lp

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