'Pudding bomber' whose clowning turned violent
Fritz Teufel:CLOWNS AROUSE strong feelings, delighting some and enraging others. And so it was with Fritz Teufel, the self-proclaimed political clown of Germany’s student revolution who has died aged 67.
It was 1967 and students had abandoned their lecture halls to join the international protest against the Vietnam war but soon found another, more personal, battlefield: confronting their parents with their Nazi past and demanding answers on their role as individuals in the dictatorship.
Demonstrations were commonplace – against capitalism, imperialism, militarism and the rehabilitation of Nazis in public office – and usually ended in running battles with police.
Heavy-handed police tactics, and tough sentences handed down to protesters, were seen by students as worrying proof that Germany was on a slippery slope to a new Nazi era.
Trying to inject some levity into this societal upheaval was Teufel, the youngest of six children from Ludwigsburg who had come to Berlin in 1963 to study German literature.
Sporting John Lennon-style long hair and steel-rimmed glasses, Teufel tried to use humour to open a valve and ease the political pressure cooker that was west Berlin. In the end he failed and was himself sucked into the post-1968 violent underground.
Teufel first rose to national prominence in 1967 for his planned ambush on the visiting US vice-president Hubert H Humphrey.
When it emerged that his weapons of choice were cake mixture and flour bombs, Teufel achieved instant tabloid notoriety as the “pudding bomber”.
By this stage Teufel was living in west Berlin’s notorious Kommune 1, an experiment in free living characterised by an obsessively long list of taboos – including private property and toilet doors.
As a founding member, Teufel embraced the commune as a radical attempt to break hierarchical traditional family structures, which communards dubbed “the cells of fascism”.
The commune on Stuttgarter Platz was just one building block of the 1968 student revolution in Germany, headed by the Socialist German Student Federation (SDS) and its leader Rudi Dutschke.
“We really felt obliged to correct the historical, political development of a Nazi-tainted federal republic,” said Teufel later. “Of course most people didn’t understand Rudi’s SDS babble, but it wasn’t about content but his charisma.”
Teufel cultivated his public profile as a middle-class bogey man, but his regular run-ins with the law eventually came at a personal cost. In 1967 he was spent six months in custody, accused of throwing stones during a riot sparked by the west Berlin visit of the Shah of Iran.
Later freed without charge, he drifted into the circle of the Red Army Faction, a radicalised offshoot of 1968 whose tactics involved violent action.
In 1975, when arrested for alleged involvement in a political kidnapping, police found Teufel carrying a pistol and a sawn-off shotgun.
When he came to trial, after five years on remand, he presented a water-tight alibi: at the time of the hostage-taking, he was working under a false name in a West German toilet seat factory. Teufel said he had kept his silence to expose the arbitrariness of West Germany’s justice system.
After the RAF ringleaders were found dead in their prison cells in 1977, Teufel broke with the radicalised left-wing scene and moved to London where he worked in a co-operative bakery.
He later returned to Berlin, and journalists who found their way to his door were granted interviews in exchange for an hour of table tennis.
Curiously, little has survived of his political clownery and fondly remembered humour. Far from a confident comedian, YouTube clips of his television appearances – including spraying a government minister with invisible ink – show a shy man with a nervous, high-pitched giggle.
Dozens of obituaries praising his sharp wit lacked notable examples. Almost all recycled the same bon mot: during one of his many court appearances, Teufel agreed to stand when the judge entered the court “if it serves the ascertainment of truth”.
In his final years, Teufel took a sober view of the student revolution, accepting its limitations but denying it was a generational war. “We weren’t warriors,” he said in his last interview. “We were more Blues Brothers or urban Indians, just before their confinement to a reservation.”
Fritz Teufel: born June 17th, 1943; died July 6th, 2010