Academic journal article About Performance

Theatricalising Terrorism: Johann Kresnik's Ulrike Meinhof and the Red Army Faction

Academic journal article About Performance

Theatricalising Terrorism: Johann Kresnik's Ulrike Meinhof and the Red Army Faction

Article excerpt


The first acts of political violence in post-war West Germany, carried out in the 1970s, blurred the demarcation line between the latest and fiercest student protests and the appearance of the Red Army Faction (RAF), a far left-wing terrorist organisation. As the RAF intensified its violence, it spread anxiety if not outright terror among the wider German community, and was consequently demonised by the right-wing press and elicited a rigid response from the state. The threat it posed was fuelled by the fear that, despite the low-key size of the organisation and its lack of support in the wider German society, it could blight the young democracy. The shadow of the 1933 demise of the short-lived Weimar Republic and its fatal consequences for Germany still hovered worryingly over people's heads as a historical precedent.

The first generation of the RAF, centring on Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader, operated from the late 1960s until their imprisonment in 1972; however, this was followed by a second and a third generation before the organisation disbanded in 1998. The leading members of the RAF predominantly professed a Marxist ideology. They levelled sharp criticism at the ineffective denazification in post-war Germany, the war in Vietnam and the Federal Republic's alignment with US politics, cultural indoctrination, state and police brutality, as well as existing political structures such as the West German parliamentary democracy. Adopting urban guerrilla tactics, the RAF was responsible for a series of killings in hit-and-run actions; kidnappings of leading figures from the realms of banking, police, military, politics and business; and bank raids and robberies. One of their later victims was the head of Treuhand,1 Karsten Rohwedder, who lived in a villa in Düsseldorf on the banks of the Rhine (in the vicinity of my own family home) and was shot in 1991 through his windows from the allotments below. Then a high school student, I distinctly remember the police and ambulance sirens wailing eerily through the night.

The RAF is deeply entrenched in Germany^ cultural memory. Their operations yielded a vast number of journalistic treatments and considerable (mostly negative) publicity, and have subsequently been treated widely in academic writings.2 In spite of this, almost two decades passed before the phenomenon reached the theatrical stage. Johann Kresnik's choreographic theatre production Ulrike Meinhof (1990) and Elfriede Jelinek's Wolken.Heim (1988) started a trend leading to a veritable RAF craze since the 1990s, as numerous playwrights have put pen to paper on the subject.

This paper will analyse the tertium comparationis between terrorism and the performative act, using the campaign of the RAF and associated groups (characterised in Germany as the 'New Left') as a historical paradigm. I shall investigate whether the oft-cited analogy between terrorism and theatre, whereby terrorism is seen as somehow appropriating theatrical means, is at least partly justified. The paper then shifts to analyse Ulrike Meinhof 'by the Austrian choreographer Johann Kresnik, offering an investigation into the choreographic process of depicting West Germany's political violence during the 1970s, and addressing the question of how theatre might in turn exploit the subject of terrorism. I will lastly consider the generational configurations and shifts in audience perception from the original 1990s production of this piece to its 2006 restaging.

II. Theatrical terror

So what is terrorism? Defining the term has proven extraordinarily difficult, to the extent that, whilst there exist numerous piecemeal definitions, there is no commonly agreed one. This is partly because it is difficult to ascertain whether and when the use of (terrorist) violence might be legitimate, i.e. morally justifiable - in the well-known epithet, one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter.3 Etymologically, the word terrorism stems from the Latin word terrere, to frighten. …

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