Uschi: Groupie, addict, and heroine of the left
The return to the limelight of Uschi Obermaier, a name which for many Germans is synonymous with 1960s student rebellion, has opened new debates on how successful the country has been at shrugging off its Nazi past. By Tony Paterson in Berlin
Friday 02 February 2007
She boasts of drug orgies and affairs with Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and a fortnight ago, at the not so tender age of 60, she was photographed naked - but wearing a pirate's hat - for one of Germany's most popular magazines.
Uschi Obermaier was and, many would say, still is the beautiful, albeit surgically improved, face of Germany's chaotic 1960s era of student rebellion. It was a time of free sex and mass protest that gave birth both to the country's celebrated Green movement and its once feared Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorist gang.
This month she has been thrust back into Germany's cultural limelight after an interval of nearly 40 years, with the publication of her memoirs and a new feature film recounting her colourful exploits as an icon of the student left: groupie, street-fighter and reluctant inhabitant of Berlin's legendary free-sex Commune 1. The film and her book, which coincide with plans by Chancellor Angela Merkel's government to free the last remaining members of the former RAF terrorist gang from decades of incarceration, have inevitably sparked a collective look back at Germany's era of youth protest.
The events of 40 years ago have also begun to raise questions about whether the upsurge of popular youth protest against a generation of German parents still heavily implicated in the horrors of the Nazi era succeeded in achieving its aim to fundamentally change post-war society.
Obermaier now lives the life of a virtual recluse. She works as a jewellery designer from her home in Topanga Canyon just north of Los Angeles and rarely receives visitors. She claims that she recently learnt to cook for the first time and has stopped using her fridge merely to store Manolo Blahniks. In the old days, she claims, her breakfast consisted of "apple juice, a line of heroin and a joint". Although she fast became a celebrity in her own right, the beginnings of her story were typical of many of her generation. Born in a dreary working-class suburb of Munich, Obermaier grew bored with the succession of "dead Sundays" she was forced to live through in her early teens while being brought up by her single-parent mother. "I used to wish for a plane crash, just for a bit of action," she recalled in an interview last week, "Where I lived, I felt nothing happens and nothing ever will happen," she added.
Salvation came with the arrival of the "sex 'n' drugs 'n' rock and roll" era. The young Uschi became obsessed with rock music and made frequent pilgrimages to Munich's Big Apple Club where bands such as The Lords, The Rattles and on one evening, Hendrix played. Donning false eyelashes, a micro skirt and swigging back a few Captagon tablets, she spent every available evening at the club dancing the night away. Drug taking soon became routine. Obermaier admits that she became so dependent on Captagon, a form of speed, that she needed the drug to get up in the morning. To calm herself down she smoked joints. Later she added LSD to her intake of hallucinogens until she experienced a trip so bad that it was "a near death event".
Obermaier's outrageous behaviour and stunning looks rapidly helped to find her work as a model when she was not playing the role of the nation's most famous groupie. She still talks tenderly of her brief affair with Hendrix who took her to his room in West Berlin's Kempinksi Hotel after giving a concert in the city. "He was the most beautiful of all my men," she recalled last week. "Making love with Jimi was one of the most profound experiences for me," she added. Her flings with Jagger and Richards followed. She recalls nowadays how at one meeting both Stones vied with each other to get her into bed. Jagger gave in. Obermaier says she is still on good terms with Richards and that the two often speak on the telephone.
But being simply an upmarket groupie was not enough for Uschi Obermaier. By the late Sixties she found herself ensconced in capitalist West Berlin with an impish looking, bespectacled and Struwwelpeter-haired new boyfriend called Rainer Langhans. The two were soon to become the star protagonists in a bizarre political experiment involving group cohabitation that was explicitly designed to shock Germany's corseted conservative establishment to the core.
Commune 1, as it was called, was Germany's answer to San Francisco's Haight Ashbury, but it had a seriously Teutonic streak. The gang of long-haired, dope smoking Maoist students who started the experiment by occupying a spacious turn-of-the-century apartment in central West Berlin, were out to explode and revolutionise the moribund values of post-war German society. A surviving photograph captures what then must have seemed the shockingly provocative nature of Commune 1. It shows seven of its founder members standing naked with their backs to the camera, their hands spread against a wall. A boy on the right of the picture is the only one to face the photographer.
Free sex, agit-prop political stunts, drugs and endless political discussion dominated life in Commune 1, where the inmates slept on mattresses on the floor. To rid the commune of bourgeois tendencies, all available cash was shared, the doors were torn off the lavatories and phone calls were piped through a loud speaker. Even inmates' letters home to their parents were read out in full to the assembled communards.
Uschi Obermaier recalls in her memoirs how the hour-long discussions about the difference between capitalism and communism seemed to her at the time like "pure brainwashing sessions". She added: " Anyone who drank a Coke rated as a counter revolutionary. The fact that I smoked Menthol cigarettes meant that I was playing into the hands of the imperialists." The Commune 1 phenomenon nevertheless succeeded in attracting the attention it so desired. Raunchy photographs of the semi-naked Obermaier and Langhans were splashed across the nation's newspapers and magazines as the two became icons of an era of student upheaval.
A largely hostile conservative press insisted that Commune 1 was little more than an attempt to subvert German youth: "They want to recruit the girls and boys from beat clubs who are potential supporters of their idea and turn them into shoplifters who can steal in stores and supermarkets," is how Stern magazine - the publication which last month pictured her naked in a fanfare of publicity - then described the commune's inhabitants. The political japes of Commune 1 were initially confined to demos at shopping markets, but the growing climate of student rebellion and anti-Vietnam war fervour encouraged its members to plan a cake and jelly baby attack on the US vice president Hubert Humphrey who was scheduled to visit Berlin. Plans for the attack were unearthed by police shortly before the visit and several of the commune's members were briefly jailed.
But what was to happen a few months later brought a swift end to the experimental nature of Commune 1 and the German media's fascination with free sex à la Uschi. The date was 2 June 1967 and a group of revolutionary Berlin students had assembled on the city's streets to protest against a visit by the shah of Persia. German police looked on as the shah's besuited bodyguards waded into the crowd of demonstrators and beat them with sticks. Minutes later a shot rang out. The bullet, fired from a policeman's pistol, shattered the skull of a 26-year-old student named Benno Ohnesorg.
Ohnesorg was killed instantly. Black and white television pictures of the young man lying prostrate and bloody on the street were flashed across Germany, sending the nation's youth into a state of shock. The event not only helped to confirm many of the fears about a "latent fascist state" held by Commune 1 members. Its effect was to enrage and engage large sections of Germany's left-wing student youth.
Joschka Fischer, Germany's recently retired Green foreign minister, who was then a rebel left-wing activist, said of Ohnesorg's death: "I felt nothing but fury: fury that somebody could be shot dead simply for being a student at a demonstration." He added: "Looking back, Ohnesorg's death was a tragedy that more than anything else made me want to get involved in politics. I wanted to make sure that nothing like that could ever happen again in Germany."
Nowadays it is argued that Ohnesorg's death and the subsequent shooting of the German left-wing activist Rudi Dutschke, less than a year later, forced a split in the country's anti-authoritarian protest movement. One half, championed in its initial stages by Dutschke himself, went on to form Germany's groundbreaking, pacifist environmentalist movement, which became the Green Party - the only environmentalist political group to share power in a European government.
However, from the other arm of Germany's radical left movement of the 1960s, sprang the Baader-Meinhof gang, subsequently known as the Red Army Faction. From 1968 until 1991, the terrorist organisation conducted an "anti-imperialist struggle" in which kidnappings, cold-blooded shootings and bomb attacks claimed the lives of 34 victims, many of them figureheads of post-war German society.
It was only a fortnight ago that a court in Stuttgart considered the idea of freeing Brigitte Mohnhaupt, one of the last RAF activists still in jail. Horst Köhler, the German President, is also deciding whether to finally pardon her fellow RAF activist Christian Klar, who has been in prison for 24 years.
Forty years on from the heady days of Uschi Obermaier and Commune 1, Germany is still debating whether the nation's student protest era heralded a dawn of enlightenment or a descent into fanatical terrorism. "Were the communards political artists or terrorists," asks this week's issue of Der Spiegel magazine.
Obermaier left Germany in 1973 with a former Hamburg pimp named Dieter Bockhorn. She travelled with him around Asia and America in a bus and eventually settled in California. Bockhorn died in a motorcycle crash on New Year's Eve 1983.
Many of Commune 1's members now look little different from an average German senior citizen. The lives of some have been wrecked by drugs and periods in and out of jail. OnlyLanghans seems to have held on to the spirit of anti-imperialist protest. Still sporting his shock of shoulder-length touselled hair - now almost white - he espouses Commune 1 values by living in a one-room apartment in Munich and paying court to a "harem" of women.
For Langhans it was all worth it. "We won," he declared in an interview last week. "We accomplished our mission. Society is freer, women are equal and children are allowed to contradict their parents." More than a few of today's Germans would not disagree with his verdict.
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