Child of the Revolution

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

In 1977, when Felix Ensslin celebrated his 10th birthday, he couldn't escape the fact that the media was interested in only one thing: the exploits of the left-wing terrorists led by his mother, Gudrun Ensslin. He knew her only from photographs. She had abandoned him when she went underground and he was raised by foster parents in a village in Germany's Schwabia region. By 1977 she had already spent five years in prison and in April of that year was convicted on several counts of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Ten years earlier, on June 2, 1967, a month after the birth of her son, a policeman shot to death a student who was taking part in a demonstration against an official visit by the Shah of Iran in West Berlin. In the wake of that incident, Gudrun Ensslin, a 27-year-old left-wing student and a single mother with a month-old baby, delivered a speech that signaled a new path.

"This fascist state intends to kill us all," Ensslin asserted, and called on the students to arm themselves and repay violence with violence, because there could be no dialogue with Germans of the "Auschwitz generation." This event marked the birth of the Red Army Faction (RAF), the official name of the notorious organization popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

The year Felix Ensslin turned 10 was a highly eventful one for the boy. He suffered serious burns in an accident in which acid was spilled on him, and his face remained scarred even after lengthy treatments. In October, his mother killed herself in prison. The orphan child remained with his foster parents, Dietrich and Beate Seiler, and their three daughters. Dietrich was a physician and Beate sang in the church choir and had known his mother from childhood.

In that same year, Felix came across a newspaper article about a book by his father, Bernward Vesper, which had recently been published. Entitled "Tripping," it was an autobiographical work by Vesper, who for four years had been Ensslin's partner. She left him shortly after the birth of their son in favor of the communist revolution and a man named Andreas Baader. Vesper committed suicide in 1971, when Felix was four and already living with the Seilers. His foster parents did not tell the boy about the book his biological father had written, but he found it while poking around in the home library. He opened it and read the first line: "There is one reader of this book: Felix."

"Tripping" was one of the most influential books to come out of the generation of the revolution of 1968 in Germany. Vesper wrote about his father, Will, a writer and critic who was an active member of the Nazi Party; about drugs (he was hospitalized and received psychiatric treatment); and about his political involvement.

Thirty years have gone by since Felix found the book. A 41-year-old bachelor living in Berlin, he is already quite a bit older than his parents were when they died. He is a lecturer in philosophy, a theater director, an art curator and the author and editor of several books on philosophy and psychology.

Last month, Ensslin visited Israel for the first time. He was a guest of the Tel Aviv art fair "Fresh Paint" and interviewed curator Dorit Levitte Harten, who is preparing an exhibition of works by the Israeli painter Rafi Lavie for the next Venice Biennale. The interview will appear in the September issue of the art journal Prisma, funded by Mati Broudo, the owner of Rothschild 69, an art space in Tel Aviv now under construction.

Letters from prison The fact that he was in large measure a victim of the political activism of his biological parents, and in particular his mother, did not deter Ensslin from entering political life. Although he is active in a number of spheres - art, philosophy, theater, theoretical research - he notes that "the issues which interest me are all somehow related to politics. I am a political person and it does not matter what I engage in."

Three years ago, he directed the first play written by Friedrich Schiller, "The Robbers" (1781), which in Ensslin's interpretation is about a son who is ostracized from his family and forms what amounts to an ideological group of terrorists.

Ensslin was also active for years in the Green Party in Germany. Beginning in 1996, he was the political adviser of Bundestag member Dr. Antje Vollmer, from the Green Party, and three years later was appointed bureau chief and political adviser to another Bundestag member from the party, Rezzo Schlauch. Ensslin left politics seven years ago in order to develop his other interests more fully.

In 2005, an exhibition connected to his private life was held in Berlin. Ensslin was one of the three curators of the show, "Regarding Terror: The Red Army Faction Exhibition." For the first time, the history of the underground organization and the response its activity had generated in the German media was presented from the viewpoint of three generations of German artists.

It was a controversial event. Relatives of victims of the group campaigned against the exhibition, claiming that it legitimized and aestheticized terrorism. "The art works were based mostly on media sources," Ensslin says. "Gerhard Richter, for example, used original materials from the media, including photographs from Stammheim Prison, where the members of the RAF documented themselves with a small Minox camera which was smuggled in. There were also photographs of Baader's record player, in which he kept his pistol, and there was a photograph of my mother after she hanged herself in her cell."

Did working on the exhibition help you get to know your mother?

"I did not do an exhibition about my family history or about my mother, whom I do not know. The exhibition focused on that period and on the terrorism of the Red Army Faction, as reflected, interpreted, supported or rejected by three generations of German and international artists. It was an art exhibition about the power of media images as reflected and transfigured in art, not an historical one. I conducted research for three years - together with my colleagues - but I have been reading about my parents for my whole life, of course, since I was 10."

This year, he says, he plans to publish a book of the correspondence his parents conducted from 1968 to 1969. "The letters are from the period in which my mother went on her first direct action with Andreas Baader [April 1968], even before the RAF was conceived as an idea. They attempted to set fire to a department store in Frankfurt and were arrested within a few days. My parents were forced to renew their relations because of me: my father looked after me and my mother asked about me from prison and they needed to decide about my future together.

"These are moving documents, in which my father tries to lure her back. We are accustomed to think of it as a tragic story with a foregone conclusion, leading finally to suicide. But my parents' letters show that at the time things were still open. My father wanted her to sign legal papers so he would have custodial rights to me, but she refused and so I was placed with a foster family at her behest."

It was not until years later that Felix heard from friends of Vesper about the last weeks of his father's life. "He had a mental breakdown during an LSD trip, destroyed the home of a friend and was hospitalized. Afterward he was taken to a clinic in Hamburg, where he was treated by a well-known psychiatrist, and his condition improved. He even went back to writing - the texts from those days seem quite mad today. His recovery, according to people who understand these things, actually increased the likelihood of suicide, because one looks at one's ramshackle life and discovers there is no way out. One day he was allowed to leave the hospital and he bought pills and swallowed them and even kept writing to record how his consciousness was fading. He was only 31."

Four suicides Gudrun Ensslin was born in the town of Bartholoma in the southern German state of Baden-Wurttemberg. She was the fourth of seven children of a Lutheran pastor. After high school she studied philosophy and German Studies at the University of Tuebingen, where she met Bernward Vesper. In 1963, the two established a small publishing firm, before moving to Berlin in 1965. Thanks to a scholarship, Ensslin was able to pursue her studies at the Free University. She and Vesper were active in a socialist student organization, demonstrating against nuclear armament and calling for the departure of U.S. forces from Vietnam and for the dismantlement of the U.S. bases in Germany.

Felix Ensslin was born in Berlin in May 1967. He spent only a few months with his mother. At the beginning of 1968, she left him with his father and set out with Baader and two others to torch department stores in Frankfurt, as a protest against the Vietnam war. They were arrested and sentenced to three years in prison. Ulrike Meinhof, a reporter, met them when she covered the trial for a left-wing magazine, and soon after joined the fledgling organization.

The four prisoners were temporarily released in an amnesty, but when the authorities revoked the amnesty, only one of the four returned to complete his sentence. Ensslin and Baader slipped across the border into France and returned to Germany secretly some time later. Baader was captured, but in May 1970 a group of his comrades, including Meinhof, managed to free him from jail. In the wake of the daring operation, the German media dubbed the organization the "Baader-Meinhof Gang."

In 1970, Baader, Meinhof and Ensslin briefly visited Jordan and underwent training in a camp of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Returning to Germany, they launched what they called an "anti-imperialist struggle." This took the form of robbing banks to finance their activity and planting bombs in U.S. military facilities, German police stations and buildings belonging to the media empire of the right-wing mogul Axel Springer.

In 1972, Baader, Ensslin and three other activists were arrested. To protest their prison conditions they held several coordinated hunger strikes. (One of the group starved himself to death.) In 1975, their supporters on the outside perpetrated a series of terrorist attacks with the aim of securing their release. In one notorious act, they seized the German embassy in Stockholm, took hostages and murdered two of them when the German government rejected their demands. The trial of the incarcerated members of the organization began a month later. In May 1976, the body of Ulrike Meinhof was found in her cell, hanged with towels that had been bound together. Many on the left were skeptical of the official account that she had committed suicide.

The struggle to free the other prisoners was stepped up. In April 1977, a federal prosecutor was shot to death together with his chauffeur and his bodyguard. At the end of that month, the three remaining prisoners were found guilty of several murders, attempted murders and of establishing a terrorist organization. They were sentenced to life imprisonment.

In July, members of the group tried to kidnap the president of Dresdner Bank, but something went wrong and they shot him to death. In October, the president of the German Confederation of Employers, Hanns Martin Schleyer, who had a Nazi past, was kidnapped and murdered. In the same month, Palestinians hijacked a Lufthansa plane to Somalia. They demanded the release of the RAF members imprisoned in Germany, but a German commando unit stormed the plane and seized control of it. The next day, October 18, 1977, the bodies of three RAF prisoners were found in their cells. According to the official account, they had committed suicide: Ensslin by hanging and Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe by shooting themselves.

'Family war' Felix Ensslin did not have an easy childhood.

"I was in a family war with my foster parents the whole time," he says. "From age 10-11 I was just angry and I was confused and bewildered. My foster parents did not explain to me what had really happened with my biological parents. The world let me know. The children in the streets, who knew who I was and harassed me, let me know. The newspapers did not find me, but I found them. My parents, the Seilers, have died and I do not want to be too critical. They gave me a home, but they did not have the emotional recources to deal with this unusual situation. So they stayed quiet and claimed afterward that it was for my protection. This of course had to fail: How can you protect a child from news when everyone around is talking only about this and the media focuses only on the organization and on the child's mother? They raised me and stayed with it because for them that was the meaning of Christian ethics.

" When he was seven, Gudrun Ensslin tried, from behind bars, to have him removed from the Seiler family. The attempt failed due to the state agencies' decisions.

"My foster mother, Beate, had always been possessive in her attitude toward me - as toward her own children, in a good way but also in a very bad way." Years later, Felix Ensslin tracked down a document containing the results of psychological testing he underwent at the request of state agencies in the course of the custody battle; his mother had authorized her lawyer, Otto Schily, to deal with the matter.

"The result was that I was basically okay. I was described as intellectually developed and talented. But the report concluded that it was necessary to talk to that child to let him understand what was going on. It said: 'He knows the truth but he does not talk about it to protect his relations with his new family.' When Schily was interior minister, I was working as chief of staff in the Green Party's parliamentary group and I would meet him there. Schily did not like it when I reminded him of the period in which he defended the members of the Red Army Faction."

Even though it had originally been her decision to have Felix sent to them, Gudrun Ensslin began to consider the Seilers fascists, because they were part of what she called the "Auschwitz generation." "My father [Seiler] was in the Hitler Youth and served as a soldier in the Second World War, and he never talked about that," Ensslin says. "I was raised by parents from the generation that my [biological] parents combated: the generation of my grandparents. Sometimes I feel that in my mental and cultural disposition I am closer to the experiences of the generation of my parents, rather than that of the generation of the children of the student movement of '68. This explains why I hesitate to criticize them in more sweeping terms: I have had the experience myself of growing up in a household where nothing was reflected about the Third Reich, the Holocaust, etc."

This is why he finds it ironic to think that he has often been perceived as the "poster boy" of the children of the students of '68. "There were some who saw my father as a writer along the lines of Timothy Leary and my mother as an Angela Davis-type babe," he says. "But in fact I grew up with parents who were in some ways typical of the war generation, the Seilers. But before that, there were also other sides to my experience. Not long ago I received archival material that was filmed with a Super 8 camera in the first communist anti-authoritarian kindergarten in West Berlin, to which my father sent me. A friend, who gave me the film, said that her parents, who worked in the kindergarten, thought I was so cute that they decided to have a child of their own, and so she was born."

Why didn't Gudrun's parents step in to raise you? Your story recalls the story of the children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, whose grandmother was happy to be rid of them.

"You can imagine what Gudrun's family went through when she was in prison and afterward when she escaped, and then all the terrorist acts that followed. The police looked everywhere. My maternal grandparents had a daughter whose husband left her. She had psychological problems, and they raised her daughter, so they were already looking after one grandchild."

His aunt, Christiane Ensslin - his mother's sister - co-wrote, with the director Margarethe von Trotta, the screenplay for the award-winning 1981 film "Marianne and Juliane," which is about the relationship between two sisters. Juliane, a radical feminist and editor of a women's magazine, decides not to have children and acts on the fringes of the law; her sister, Marianne, who has a child, is a revolutionary who is sent to prison and coerces her sister to raise the boy.

Felix Ensslin was already familiar with many of the elements of the plot first-hand. "I was 14 when the film was released, and you can imagine how happy it made me," he says with irony. "There is a scene in the film in which it is reported that Marianne committed suicide in prison, but Juliane is certain she was murdered. The boy in the film, who is supposed to be me, is almost murdered when he is attacked and gasoline is used to set fire to the place where he is staying in a forest."

One of the many myths spawned by the life of Gudrun Ensslin and her terrorist comrades is that attempts were made to get at her by harming 10-year-old Felix. He insists that what happened was an accident. His mother is also said to have taken part in a pornographic film. A few years ago he received a copy of the film, which turned out to be an experimental work about a couple who sit naked in their apartment and never go out, while newspapers and bottles of milk pile up outside the door.

His difficult childhood left its marks. At the age of 13 he started to drink. At 15 he had an older girlfriend and was already deep into drugs. One evening he overdosed on LSD, collapsed and was hospitalized. He had trouble in school, particularly with the sciences, but wrote well. At 16 he went to the United States on a student exchange program. Upon his return, he decided not to go back to the Seiler family and instead joined his sister (the Seilers' daughter) in Wiesbaden, where he completed high school. He then spent 10 years in New York, working and studying theater and philosophy for an undergraduate degree and an M.A.

"New York was meaningful in my life," he says. "At first it was insane. I was a village lad who arrived in the big city and thought he could be whatever he wanted. The best thing was that it was far from the media, my family and especially from my mother, Beate."

At the age of 31 - the age at which his father had committed suicide - he engaged in some serious soul-searching.

"I said to myself: either you will spend the rest of your life being the smartest guy in some bar, or not. I understood that the hardcore way of life had already been occupied by my parents. I cannot compete with Bernward or Gudrun on the level of self-destruction. At most, it would be a pathetic copy of their logic of 'live hard, die young, leave a pretty corpse.' Sometimes I would get pissed off with them: after all, one is supposed to be more radical than one's parents, but that route was blocked for me. And then my father, Seiler, died of an illness and some time later I checked myself into a rehab clinic for a few weeks and got clean."

Myth and reality In 1994, Felix Ensslin appeared in a documentary film, "Out of the Blue: Between a Rock and a Hard Place," directed by Victoria Mapplebeck. She showed him an abundance of visual and written material about the RAF and tried her best to get him to reveal his state of mind for the camera. Ensslin, who admits today that he was never without a bottle at the time, resisted and did not provide any sensational material. In the end, he says, Mapplebeck understood that he was not the character who had aroused so many expectations.

"Many of the films that have been made about the Red Army Faction or about my father's writing, including the one by von Trotta, end with a scene in which the figure that is supposed to be me is sent on some kind of mission. In 'Marianne and Juliane,' this boy takes his mother's photograph, tears it up and throws it into the newspaper basket. He turns around to his aunt and says, 'I want to know everything.' It is a good example of a fantasy of the generation of my parents: sending their children on a mission, telling them what is expected of them. There is also my father's book, whose title is best translated as 'Tripping.' It was a best-seller and its first sentence reads: 'There is one reader of this book: Felix.' There was also a feature film in 1986, based on this book, which ends with a scene in which a five-year-old boy, supposed to be me representing the next generation, is taken by special forces of the police, and in slow motion we see how the brave boy bites the policeman's hand. It's the age-old question of a generation trying to pass on tasks - and their sins - to their children."

I have counted more than 10 cinematic accounts - feature films and documentaries - of the RAF. The latest one, 'The Baader Meinhof Complex,' recently played in Israel and was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign-language film. Have you seen it?

"Films like that are precisely why I am going to publish my parents' correspondence. It is an action film, thus it is one-dimensional. There is a scene there in which Gudrun gives the baby carelessly to someone else. Of course, it is what happened. But in this way she is shown as monstrous, a terrible mother. The letters show a much more involved, deliberating, emotional development. Well, they wanted the Oscar and tried to make an American-style action movie. There will be more films like that. Many people have made money from the Red Army Faction, and this will undoubtedly not be the last attempt."

The film even ignores the widespread claim that your mother and the others were murdered in prison.

"You are a bit behind the curve with this discussion. There are very few people left who make that claim, no matter what their politics. It is another of the myths. In the 1980s that was still different. Then I got into bitter arguments with my friends from the left, because at the time, it was still terribly hip to think of the RAF in the fashion of a radical socialist salon. I met hundreds of men and women at the time who told me they had been one step away from joining the organization. I am no more authorized than anyone else, but on the basis of my understanding of the psychological logic of the organization's members, I was then and am now convinced that they committed suicide, and I never doubted it."

Ensslin maintains that the prison authorities knew about the prisoners' intention to kill themselves and did not intervene to stop them. "This is what I think really happened. After all, they were monitored by cameras and they were listened to in prison all the time. They could have stopped it, but didn't."

He is convinced that the decision to commit suicide was theirs and that it was a logical step. "They were kept in a maximum-security prison and all the attempts to free them failed. After a series of attacks, they had no chance of going free, and on the other hand there was no possibility to continue the struggle and influence the social-political agenda in Germany. The vision they harbored had faded, and the new members who joined, the 'second generation' of the organization, focused on attempts to spring them. The actions of the RAF had become simply self-referential. They became more brutal, hijacked planes and blew up embassies - everything lurched out of control. The only thing that was left to them was to create a mythology, and that is why they killed themselves. On the one hand a radical freedom, on the other a last instrumentalization of their own bodies and lives."

It has been rumored that their brains were preserved for research purposes.

"That is true, and I wrote a satirical article about it, thanking German science and offering my own brains and those of my families and those of the then interior minister Otto Schily and Chancellor Schroeder for future research. The daughter of Ulrike Meinhof requested and received her mother's brain, if I recall correctly. The brains of the three others, including my mother's, were lost in a laboratory in the university in Tuebingen.

"More substantively, research like that is a cynical function, because if you say that it all had a biochemical cause, that means it had no connection to reality and to politics. That is interesting, because when you think about it like that, there is no longer a conception of guilt or responsibility or of politics in society. It is the hegemonic world view today: everything is biochemistry. To seek the secret of their actions in the matter of their brains was to mute the story and place it in a separate department having no connection to history."

What do you think of them?

"I am ultimately critical of them. I think that the idea of going to Paris, having a cup of coffee and returning with four people and starting an armed revolution in Germany was a kind of madness, a kind of acting-out. Of course there was suppression and acts of violence from the side of the state. But that is not sufficient. I also know that terrorism springs from frustration over being unable to change things in reality: if collective enterprise fails, there is going to be a form of acting-out. I understand that there was an element of a situation that failed with 1968. The RAF was also part of an international phenomenon - in Italy, France, Japan and the United States - an acting-out after a political failure."

What is the present perception of the RAF in Germany?

"One of the titles we considered for the exhibition was 'The Myth of the RAF.' Their suicide reinforced this mythology, as did their politics of images. The organization forged images on such a scale that one can say that in a certain sense it had an artistic situationist strategy. Afterward, the organization became a functional symbol: Everything that was not the Red Army Faction, no matter how radical it had been in the student revolt, could integrate into the society and into the parliamentary system - we are good because we are not the RAF. The Green Party was one carrier for that movement back to society."

Would you say that you have become somewhat addicted to research on the organization and on your biological parents?

"In psychoanalysis there is a concept known as 'family romance,' and there is a sharp point of the Oedipal conflict. When you are four, you fantasize that your real parents have been exchanged and are princes or rock stars. It's a defense against realizing that your parents are not the idealized people of your infancy. I grew up in a foster family, and my family romance came, in a way, true: I had different 'famous' or 'infamous' parents, and even though the official discourse is that my mother was identified as a monstrous terrorist, as I grew up in the late '70s and the beginning of the 1980s, a kind of glamour had already attached to her figure.

"Have I become addicted? Well: It is you who is asking me about them, no? I can say that at a certain stage a 'family romance' that becomes true can become a narcissistic trap, because I was there in that small village, lost, with a foster family that could barely cope with the situation, and there was also the accident in which my face was burned, six months after my mother committed suicide. On a fundamental level, this confusion and the many fantasies, feelings of idealization, shame, anger, etc. that other people or myself were having in relation to my biological parents were a difficult terrain to maneuver."

What kind of relationship did you develop with your mother over the years?

"No relationship in the real sense, since she left me when I was an infant of less than a year. In May I will turn 42. A long time was needed to cross all the layers of the identities, the rejection, the myths, the images, and the fantasies that other people connect with them to reach the point where I am today. The exhibition was part of that process. My parents' letters play an important role now, because they deal with the private side of life as a young couple with a child and with problems in the relations between them, and they argue about custody of the child. In a way, a very normal story. It reaches a point where it is sad and filled with grief and mourning. I am still ambivalent, because the fact that my mother abandoned me and my father committed suicide when I was very young has a certain effect on my life and on my emotional history. That is sometimes sad, but a fact."

Are you capable of appreciating her as a liberated woman, as a leader and as a person who chose a radical political struggle without any compromises?

"Well, it is a difficult spot to pay the price for somebody else's liberation - a topic that probably resonates in Israel - but yes, in the historical context I can see that. One of the formulas that members of my mother's family - her sister Christiane and others - used to declaim to me was that Gudrun, with her noble soul, made a rare gesture in her desire to exert influence and to create a better world not only for one child but for all children. I can understand the implications of that text in terms of its radicalism and even at its psychological-philosophical level. I can also understand that radicalism is possible only if you destroy your previous identity symbols in order to create a new world, and you do this by reducing yourself to something that is different and other. I can even understand how for you, for example, asking me this question, that seems to be a tale of an uplifting nature. But it is a difficult spot, because to accept it means implicitly to say yes to the hurt it brought to me.

"There is no simple solution, no possibility of a simple identification with my parents. It would be false on my part to say that I simply support the sublime goal my mother envisioned and how great her heroic gesture was as a soldier of the revolution. But I also don't have to simply reject her story. I am resigned today to the fact that the suffering, the deprivation and the abandonment that her path meant for me, is simply part of my life story. So it would be no less false if I were to say that she was a terrible monster who abandoned her newborn child. That is simplistic. Today I must accept this as something that was maybe not inevitable, but simply happened. But from my position, there remains an ambivalence."

What about children of your own?

"I always say that I want children, but when the possibility becomes concrete I draw back, so far."