A terrorist among them
Exchange student in 1959 WHS class turned leftist German terrorist 10 years later
What if I told you that a 1970s leftist German terrorist spent a year in the 1950s in Warren as an exchange student?
I’m not kidding.
This is the story of Gudrun Ensslin.
Mary Lynn Brown Lawerence, a classmate of Ensslin in her year at Warren wrote in a document she provided to the Times Observer that Ensslin was born in 1940 in a small town in the Swabian Mountains and her father – Helmut – was a minister in the Evangelical Church in Germany, founded in 1945 out of the movement that produced theologian and anti-Nazi Dietrich Bonhoffer.
“Gudrun is described as having been a devout, accomplished and obedient child,” Lawerence wrote. “She was the fourth of seven children.”
Ten years after she spent a year in Warren, Ensslin was part of what became known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang and eventually the Red Army Faction.
Starting in 1967, “for the next 10 years, Gudrun Ensslin was a key part of the group’s campaign of kidnappings, bombings and assassinations…. The radical group targeted German politicians and businessman, as well as US military installations in West Germany,” according to a 2005 BBC article.
But in 1958 and 1959 – when Ensslin was a student at Warren High School – there was no way to foresee what the honor student would become.
“Gudrun came to Warren as an International Christian Youth Exchange students for the 1958-1959 school year,” Lawerence wrote. “I now know that she was at the time already 18-years-old, a year older than her classmates. I was 15. I knew her well only because she was placed in the home of one of my classmates.”
Anne Creal said she was best friends with Linda Elliott, whose parents, Nell and Glenn, took in Ensslin for the 1958-1959 school year.
“She came to the states as far as I know through the First United Methodist Church. Her father was a minister in Germany. The methodist church here sponsored her coming here.
“The Elliotts were absolutely wonderful people said,” Creal said, noting that they lived at 805 Pleasant Drive.
“We walked to the school bus every morning (at the Grange Hall) together and in the afternoon,” she said. “My house and Linda’s house were some of the only two there that certainly had children. I spent a lot of time with Gudrun. I hung out there a lot.”
“She was very, very intelligent,” Creal said of Ensslin. “Very, very attractive. Tallish and blond. (She) was very serious though (and) thought that I was sort of a flighty person because she was very, very serious.”
“She had a characteristic way of holding her head, tipped slightly to the life and turned down so that her eyes were not visible unless she deliberately raised them to look at you,” Lawerence said. “When she did raise her eyes, you felt a shock, for her eyes were very play blue, almost colorless…. She must have been aware of the effect her direct look had on others.
“The fashion when these pictures were taken, in 1958, was for the senior picture to give the impression of the student looking off into the future. Gudrun’s picture is significantly different. She is looking down to the side, far down and far to the left.”
But none of that could have predicted what Ensslin would become.
Creal said she was “very musical. I think she played the violin.”
She said Ensslin dated while here (the man she identified as Ensslin’s date told the Times Observer he had no recollection of her).
Lawerence said Ensslin “was a member of Future Teachers of America.”
The 1959 Warren yearbook also indicates that Ensslin was involved in German Club, Student Council, District Orchestra, Latin Club, National Honor Society and was elected orchestra president.
“She was an excellent musician, playing first violin in the school orchestra. She was elected orchestra president within weeks of her arrival,” Lawerence wrote.
In a book on the RAF, Steven Aust wrote that “in her diary, Gudrun criticizes the Americans she met in Pennsylvania for their focus on material things. She says they were materialistic even in church. One thing she enjoyed about her life in Pennsylvania was independence. Writing in her application for a scholarship to the Study Foundation of the German people, she said, ‘personally, I really came alive at school in America, where I could choose my own subjects.'”
After a year in the states, Lawerence noted that Ensslin attended university in Germany and developed relationships and undertook activism that resulted in participation in the German Socialist Student Union.
Lawerence wrote that Ensslin’s activism started with protesting the Vietnam War, “the inequities of institutions and the perceived greed of corporations” and explained that the police killing of a protester protesting the Shah of Iran “in the words of one of our high school classmates who was living in Germany at the time (was) ‘when the trouble began.'”
“After two of its leaders, Andreas Baader and his girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin, set fire to a Frankfurt department store in protest against the Vietnam War, Ms. Ensslin’s parents, a Lutheran minister and his wife, called it an act of “holy self-redemption,” the New York Times reported.
According to the BBC, “the RAF comprised mainly middle-class youngsters who saw themselves as fighting a West German capitalist establishment which they apparently believed was little more than a reincarnation of the Third Reich. At the height of its popularity, around a quarter of young West Germans expressed some sympathy for the group. Many condemned their tactics but understood their disgust with the new order, particularly one where former Nazis enjoyed prominent roles.”
More reporting from the New York Times: The Red Army Faction was the most extreme symptom of the disapproval and even revulsion which young Germans of the postwar generation felt for their country’s system, and which caused an alienation from their parents that remains more profound today than in any other European country. ”Violence is the only way to answer violence,”’ cried Gudrun Ensslin, the Lutheran pastor’s daughter who was the group’s heartless soul. ”This is the Auschwitz generation, and there’s no arguing with them!”
Lawerence wrote that her first major crime occurred on April 2, 1968.
“It was a carefully planned affair,” she wrote. “She and Bader, and two others, supported an unknown cadre of hangers-on who were never apprehended, made what we now have come to call ‘improvised explosive devices’ and planted them in two Munich department stores. The resulting spectacular fires took place at night. They didn’t kill anybody, but they destroyed an impressive amount of property….”
“The action earned the pair a three-year prison sentence. Released on parole, they decided not to complete their sentences – and promptly went on the run,” author Simon Corbin, who write the novel ‘With Love, Gudrun Ensslin’ wrote in a blog post.
After numerous others burglaries and acts of violence, Lawerence wrote that Ensslin was “captured on June 8, (1972) when she walked into a boutique in Hamburg and thoughtlessly left her leather jacket, containing a handgun, on a couch while she tried on some sweaters. A clerk casually lifted the jacket, saw that it contained a gun and called police.”
Her Wikipedia page credits her with five bomb attacks and four deaths.
Lawerence noted that Ensslin was found guilty “of four murders and 34 attempted murders and remanded to life in prison.”
That life would be cut short though as she hung herself in prison in later that year.
Corbin said in a blog post that “The Baader Meinhof Gang was something of a misnomer…. Gudrun Ensslin was the brains, driving force and true energy behind the Red Army Faction….”
But to the people Warren that knew her, the news of her involvement in these terrorist acts and her subsequent death were an absolute shock.
“The Elliots were heartbroken that this had happened, embarrassed and horrified,” Creal said. “I couldn’t believe it…. There weren’t people that violent in that day and age… from Warren, Pennsylvania, (We were) all totally shocked.”
Lawerence said she was traveling to work in Pittsburgh when she heard of Ensslin’s death on the radio.
“My memory flashed back to the way she always rocked slightly forward while playing her violin. I have a photograph of her sitting that way, lost in whatever she was playing…. I still feel chilled when I think that someone I knew, not some abstract young stranger, thought of death as another person would seek romantic love, in order to take the lives of others.”