1934-1950s: Family Background and Early Years:
Meinhof was born in 1934 in Oldenberg, a norther German town. Her father, Werner Meinhof, was an art historian and a professor who died early in Ulrike's life. Ulrike's mother raised Ulrike and her sister, Wienke, while also working toward a doctorate in philology. She too died early, leaving Ulrike an orphan when she was 14 years old.
The remainder of her childhood was spent in the care of a family friend, Renate Riemeck. Riemeck's own strong leftist politics and personal example as a woman affected Meinhof deeply (she wore pants at a time when women rarely did, and lived openly with a female partner).
The most powerful event of Meinhof's formative years was World War II. The remainder of her life and career were shaped by her effort to wrestle with the legacy of national socialism (Nazism) and with the post-war division of Germany into a Western democratic state and an Eastern Soviet bloc state.
Early 1960s-Work and Motherhood:
Following her university studies, Meinhof met the editor of a leftist magazine, konkret, Rainer Rohl. She began to write for the magazine and she and Rohl became romantic partners for the next decade. She gave birth to twin daughters in 1962.
Under Rohl and Meinhof's direction, konkret became a high profile magazine. Meinhof grew famous. She was known for being passionately engaged with her topics, which included nuclear armament, Germany's Nazi legacy and Stalinism.
Meinhof's fame rose with the growth of the 1960s counterculture. In time, she became a famous intellectual, appearing on radio and television regularly. And she and Rainer were in high demand as a chic, intellectual couple.
As in other parts of the world, student and leftist activists were increasingly radicalized in the late 1960s. In Germany, there was general disenchantment with capitalism, with the American war in Vietnam and with the German commitment to democracy. Feelings came to a head in 1967 when the police shot of a student demonstrating against the visit of the shah of Iran (which was, at that time, a repressive state closely allied with the United States). Protests and further police measures prompted a number of groups to consider becoming more militant.
Meinhof, too, began to change. She and her husband split up, and she grew increasingly radical while continuing to write. She met Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader, who would later form the RAF with her, while reporting on their trial following their bombing of a department store. In 1969, she quit konkret and began making plans for "armed struggle."
1970s-Red Army Faction:
The Red Army Faction got its start in 1970 when a plan to help Baader escape from prison (this time, for driving without a valid license) went off course. An innocent bystander was shot; in response, Ulrike went underground although she had not planned to. In the summer of 1970, she and the other founding members of the group went to Jordan and Lebanon for military training with Palestinian guerrilla groups. On their return to Germany, they began their actions with a series of bank robberies, killing a number of police in the process.
Meinhof's role in the RAF was logistical. She was to arrange the documents for false identities, and the like. According to Karen Bauer in her essay, "In Search of Ulrike Meinhof," "Apparently Meinhof had no particular talent for criminal actions, and she was often criticized by the group for her clumsiness and her oversights." However, she was an extremely important member of the group, as served as its intellectual and moral fulcrum.
Meinhof retained a certain celebrity status in the media as the government and police set out a large scale hunt among Germany's leftists for members of the group.
Prison and Suicide:
Following a coordinated bombing of five sites in 1972, Meinhof and the other members of the group were arrested. Meinhof was held for eight months in an isolation cell. Although she was visited once by her children, she ultimately cut off ties with her family. Over the next several years, Meinhof continued to write and communicate with other RAF members in prison, through a variety of coded systems.
On May 9, 1976, Meinhof was found after having hung herself in her cell. She was buried in Berlin, but without her brain, which was removed by scientists seeking to understand whether a "terrorist brain" differed from the brains of others. The activities of the RAF continued following Meinhof's death.