Terrorism, Trauma, and the Search for Redemption

Silke Maier-Witt, a trauma psychologist in Kosovo, is seeking to heal the wounds that terrorism has inflicted on women from both sides. She’s also seeking redemption for her father’s dark past in Nazi Germany and her own as a revolutionary gang member.

To Silke Maier-Witt, the two words are antithetical: She refuses to equate revolutionary with hero.


For her, there is nothing romantic or idealistic about management books that borrow from the language of revolution. There is nothing edgy, hip, or cool to her about books that offer to teach U.S. managers how to “lead the revolution.” Maier-Witt, 51, is one member of the baby-boom generation with no appetite for phony romantic revolutionary sentiments. Talk of revolution is cheap, and the rhetoric of radical change and organizational chaos is just that — rhetoric. But when you grow up in a family where your father was a member of Adolf Hitler’s elite secret police — a fact that your father hid from you, and which you discover only after his death — and you become a member of Germany’s most wanted gang, a terrorist and an accessory to murder in your own right, then talk of revolution is more than rhetoric. It is reality.

It makes your life a lesson in the pain of killing in the name of lofty ideals and national principles. It pries the romance off of revolution. It makes you fully appreciate the power of listening and of healing — one person at a time. It makes you want to change the way you think about change.

And if you are Silke Maier-Witt, it brings you to Prizren, Kosovo, where you’re trying to help rebuild a nation — not to change it or to revolutionize it, but to heal it. It is work that is your own personal form of repentance for years spent — wasted, really — reacting to and practicing revolutionary politics. Everywhere Maier-Witt goes in Prizren, her reputation precedes her. People know her as the radical, the girl Gandhi, the woman who stood up to the German power structure.


And she hates it. As she maneuvers a white, mud-coated Mitsubishi van between bathtub-sized craters left by the peacekeepers’ heavy tanks, she is fuming over the high cost of lofty ideals. Ideals are bunk, she knows now. She just wishes that she’d learned it sooner. Just thinking about it makes her angry: She has absently lit two cigarettes — one is in her mouth, one is burning on the dashboard. She is as quiet as a live grenade.

Her anger focuses on Milena, an 18-year-old Serbian girl. A year ago, Milena was an office assistant and a university student living in Babin Most. As she was going about her errands one Saturday afternoon, she was grabbed on the street by two men. She knew what they wanted: The Balkans boast a booming business in women kidnapped and forced into prostitution. Milena fought her way free and fled the city the next day.

She took refuge in her Serbian enclave, a 10-cow town where trash piles up in the gutters. The loose red dirt of the town gets into everything: food, clothes, even the concrete, turning the buildings a blood red. Centuries of bloodshed have colored the dust, colored the land, colored the memories which hold even the youngest captive. Gesturing at the gravestones that bear the names of the dead, most of them fighters for the cause of Serbian freedom, Milena had proudly said to Maier-Witt, “Everyone I love is here.” She gives the impression that she wouldn’t mind joining them if the cause demanded it.


You want to weep for Milena just as you admire her courage to go on fighting for her ideals at any cost. Not Maier-Witt. To her, Milena’s suffering is a bum trick. “When Milena talks about all the dead people here,” she says, her rage barely contained, “I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to hear about all of these heroes who died for some cause. What good does it do? The Serbs are so connected to stories from 1389. To them, it’s as if it happened yesterday. That is trauma.”

Maier-Witt is in Kosovo to try to alleviate trauma, to heal. Others come to Kosovo for different reasons. But regardless of why you come, you will leave with only one lesson: Never again will you take the notion of revolution lightly. Revolutionary change is not cool. This place is not a destination in a romantic war novel; it is not a clever word game or an edgy call to arms. Silke Maier-Witt’s world is a stage on which you can see what happens to someone who lives for her ideals only to find that ideals can easily produce the opposite of the glories intended.

[You Say You Want a Revolution]

How does an ordinary, obedient child of the 1950s and a beneficiary of the economic miracle of that era turn into a terrorist, an accessory to murder? How does a girl of postwar Germany recoil in horror at the atrocities committed by her parents’ generation and then go on to participate in the commission of her own generation’s atrocities? “I believe that nothing you do is by chance,” says Maier-Witt. “It wasn’t by chance that I took up family therapy. It wasn’t by chance that I became a revolutionary.”


For Maier-Witt, part of the answer lies in a dusty attic in her father’s house in Hamburg, where she grew up. One day when she was 12 years old, she found a collection of her father’s Nazi war memorabilia in an old box in the attic, evidence of his membership in the SS — the Schutzstaffel, Hitler’s elite bodyguard unit that was headed by Heinrich Himmler. But at the time, she didn’t know what those items meant. A few years later, she asked her father about the 6 million Jews killed in concentration camps. Her father wouldn’t speak about it, so Maier-Witt refused to speak to him for two months. It was only 10 years ago that she realized the significance of what she had found in the attic so long ago. Her father — an engineer, solid citizen, and responsible parent — was party to mass murder.

Another part of the answer lies in the time she spent as a teenager in the United States. At 16, she traveled from West Germany to Michigan as an exchange student, an experience that left her disturbed and disappointed. The middle-class, Mid-western values that she encountered seemed narrow to her. Worse still, her classmates felt sorry for her. Sorry that she was German, sorry that she had grown up in the shadow of Hitler’s war and the crimes of the Nazis. It felt to Maier-Witt as if her concerned hosts were giving voice to her private shame.

Back in West Germany, Maier-Witt entered the University of Hamburg in 1969, studying for a degree in psychology. But her real interest was in social inequality. She tried to organize anti-authoritarian kindergartens and, as a member of the Committee Against Torture, campaigned against the prison conditions endured by members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, a group that was dedicated to the violent overthrow of capitalism in West Germany. Maier-Witt was then living in a collective that drew heavily on recruits for the Red Army Faction (RAF), another name for the gang. Becoming a member, she says, was more a result of drift than of choice.


“Choosing to be part of the RAF was not so much a decision,” she says. “I was already working for the Committee Against Torture. The committee members told me that one of these days, I might face the problem of getting arrested. That was when I decided that I’d put my fortunes with the group.”

In 1977 she picked her first cover name, Sonja. She wasn’t part of the hard-core command forces. Instead, she traveled to Amsterdam, where she trained as a member of the support group. She would rent cars and use them to transport weapons across borders; she would check out locations from which the RAF could conduct business. She learned to draw counterfeit stamps for passports and became a “postman,” disappearing into dangerous places, gathering information, and delivering it.

The job of being a revolutionary, she says, wasn’t exciting. For the most part, it was confusing. “The passion was less in the work,” she says, “than in the general emotions of life.”


It was in 1977 that the RAF planned a series of major actions designed to force the government to release some of the gang’s imprisoned members. Among the missions: the kidnapping of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, president of the German Employers Federation. “It was decided that I should go to Germany to join them,” Maier-Witt says. “I got involved in checking out the route he was using and renting apartments for the group.” The RAF kidnapped and killed Schleyer — one of nearly three- dozen people the gang murdered over two decades. “At the time, I didn’t give myself the chance to think about my feelings,” Maier-Witt says. “I was proud that the others thought I could do the job. I was 27. The group was strong. The RAF consisted of about 20 or 25 members.”

After Schleyer’s murder, opposition to the gang became intense. “I went to the hairdresser,” says Maier-Witt, “and the ‘Wanted’ poster with my face on it was hanging before the mirror: ‘Height, 171 centimeters; blue eyes.’ I thought, Now they have a lot of time to recognize me. But my training taught me that by turning your interest to others, you make yourself invisible. My outward appearance is such that people think I can’t do much harm. They trust me. The true observer disappears. The good listener is unseen.”

By 1979 Maier-Witt’s resolve was cracking. She went to Yemen to train with the Palestinians, and there she finally saw how blind she had been. “All the females of the group fell in love with young Palestinians,” she says. “So did I. I discovered that their engagement for Palestine was far more sincere than ours was for Germany. They were willing to fight for their people. For us, it was more like an intellectual effort. It was sheer group dynamic that kept us going. We were like robots.”


The group planned a bank robbery, but the cause was no longer clear. “One member wanted to leave the group,” Maier-Witt says. “One had tuberculosis; several had been killed. There was no unity. There was a lot of quarreling. Three people were arrested when they tried to get drugs for one of our members who insisted he needed them to ease the pain of his cancer. It turned out he was addicted to drugs. We were lying to each other and to ourselves. We never discussed what we were for, what we were against. There was no way back. If you were arrested, you’d be treated harshly, made an example of, probably get a life sentence. I had to realize that I would be going to jail for nothing, for accomplishing nothing. At the same time, there was no real future to what we were doing.”

In 1980 the RAF, concerned by Maier-Witt’s wavering convictions, slipped her into East Germany under the protective eye of the Stasi, the secret police. She hid there, with the assumed name of Angelika Gerlach and the assumed identity of a nurse. Her job was to perform the lowliest tasks at a drab communist hospital: One of her assignments was to wash the freshly dead bodies, an act in which she found almost spiritual atonement. That lasted until 1985.

“Someone I knew tried to flee from East Germany, but he got caught and was taken to jail,” Maier-Witt says. “When he was questioned by the West Germans, they showed him the ‘Wanted’ poster, and he identified me.” She underwent minor plastic surgery and was refashioned into Sylvia Beyer. “I chose the name myself,” she says. “Sylvia sounded similar to Silke, and Beyer sounded like Maier. That way, when someone used it, I would have the instantaneous response of anyone who hears their own name called. That was one of the worst experiences of my life, when I had to change my identity again, had to give up everything I had tried to build up as Angelika. That’s when I really suffered. If I died, I felt, nobody would care.”


She was ready to call off the charade. “For 10 years I lived under assumed identities,” she says. “It’s a long time. You lose parts of your real self.” You cut off the past in order to be plausible in the present, but you also cut off the present. Maier-Witt’s father died in 1978, and there was no way she could connect with her family. “Because my father died of a heart attack, people assumed that I had killed him,” she says. “So I couldn’t return for the funeral. My stepmother told me years later that she had always been thankful to people who did not mention my name to her.”

When the police came to arrest Maier-Witt, she was almost relieved. All of the others had already been arrested. In 1990 she went before the highest court in Germany, where five judges sentenced her to 10 years in prison on charges of murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, and kidnapping. She served five years before being released for good behavior. In jail, she used her time to study herself.

“If you refuse to have a good look at who you are, you’ll always repeat your actions, over and over; you’ll find yourself in the same position over and over,” she says. “To come to terms with my past, I’ve asked myself why I neglected my own moral standards even as I was envisioning social change. I learned how easy it is to listen to some ideology and to have an idea that gives you an excuse for anything. In trying not to be like my father, I ended up being even more like him. Terrorism is close to Nazism. I used ideology to legitimize myself, the same as he did. Creating change requires courage, which I didn’t have. That’s why I ended up in the RAF.”


[But When You Talk About Destruction]

Now she is in Kosovo as a trauma psychologist, a counterrevolutionary, seeking to mend some of the lives torn apart by the ceaseless violence of two sides locked in a cycle of terrorism. Her new job is to rebuild the people who, in time, will rebuild the society.

It is 8 o’clock in the morning, and Maier-Witt is in the muddy van, on the way to Mitrovica, one of the most inflamed enclaves in Kosovo: Serbs on one side, Albanians on the other, United Nations peacekeepers in the middle. To find her route, Maier-Witt has to navigate using the map of the mines, a poster-sized document that identifies the roads that are known to have been swept of buried land mines. The roads are labeled with the names of animals: Hawk, Hen, Rabbit, Lion. To give directions through this land of death, you have to narrate a children’s story: Follow the Hawk for 10 kilometers, turn left at Lion, go 12 kilometers into the heart of the Hen.

Maier-Witt came to Kosovo in 2000, hired by Germany’s Civil Peace Service, which was looking for psychologists to work with trauma victims. The CPS was worried that a well-known revolutionary might not be the right person to work toward building peace, but like Germany itself, Maier-Witt had had invaluable experience in coming to terms with a hideous past.


This morning she is headed to work with members of the Kosovo Women’s Initiative (KWI), a volunteer organization established in July 1999 to help war-affected, displaced, and traumatized women and their families. The KWI, says Maier-Witt, “is for women of all nationalities.” Now she is pulling into a United Nations compound fenced in by barbed wire. Eight women are waiting for her; she will train them to evaluate business plans for ventures that can rebuild their society. What kind of businesses do they want to start? How can they create the society and the future that they want? And, most important, how can they rise above the day-to-day reality of their lives to give birth to a new vision?

Many of the women waiting for Maier-Witt have spent months locked in their houses while the war in Kosovo raged. One Albanian woman walked the length of Kosovo looking for food for her children after the Serbs dragged her husband from their home and put him into a detention camp. Now Maier-Witt is asking these women to dream. “Vision,” says one woman, trying to understand the concept as it relates to a business. “It’s the same problem with pregnancy: How do you raise the baby once it’s born?”

Maier-Witt introduces the women to drafting business plans, an exercise that calls on them to believe that the future can be different from the present. She distributes a set of mock business plans: a women’s legal service; a hot line that women can call when they’re under threat, domestically or financially; a radio station. They are to review the plans, choose one that they could imagine implementing, and explain their choice.


The women break into two groups to make their evaluations. They already have some experience with startups: One of their ventures, Fantazia, a hairdressing project, opened in November 1999. With a budget of DM 9,500, or about $4,400, Fantazia trained 58 women to get jobs or to work on their own as hairdressers. Other projects funded by the KWI include small entrepreneurial ventures that produce pies, cookies, toys, and toilet paper; there is also a weaving factory, a fitness club, and a restaurant. This group today spends an hour working through the business plans, then critiquing their own analyses. At the end of a few hours of self-direction and self-criticism, they sound like venture capitalists. Here, too, Maier-Witt is careful not to impose her way on these women, but to hone skills they already have. She is intent on leaving few traces of her presence.

Back in the van, Maier-Witt begins the drive to a Serbian village, a town so small and the women so isolated that they can barely feed their families. “The decision to take up this job is in keeping with what I always did, but in a different way,” she says. “When I came to Kosovo, I saw that the Albanians, repressed so long by the Serbs, never really had a chance. They need a chance to develop, even if they did bad things.”

Is she reflecting on her own experience, her own time spent “doing bad things”? “Even a murderer is a human being,” Maier-Witt says. “I learned this in prison. It doesn’t help to be disgusted. A criminal is not different from you. You have the potential to be the same under certain circumstances. The most important thing is to be objective. If the Serbs see me being friendly to the Albanians, or vice versa, then they’ll distrust me. If each side accepts me, then I feel that I can bring them together. Whatever each side appreciates in me means they have a link.”


Sometimes, it turns out, in this war-ravaged land, what the two sides appreciate about Maier-Witt is her own personal history as a revolutionary. What then? What happens when the most attractive part of Maier-Witt’s story is the part she is working the hardest to atone for? “When people relate to my history,” she says thoughtfully, “they sometimes are excited by it. They think I dared to do something they only dream about doing — which isn’t true. My radical days were a weakness. I feel bad about being famous for something that is not bravery, but weakness. But if you are true to yourself and see the weaknesses you have, you are more able to listen to other people’s stories.”

When she gets to the Serbian village, another group of women waits. The rest of Maier-Witt’s day will consist of more counseling, punctuated by glasses of slivovitz to drink and little cakes to eat. The women have knitted three sweater-vests, and Maier-Witt buys one.

The next day, she is wearing it when an observer tells her that the markings on the sweater are Serbian. It would be safer to take it off when she drives through Albanian strongholds. Even a simple sweater-vest can tell a deadly story.

[You Ask Me for a Real Solution]

Here’s a story that everyone around Prizren knows, not because it is a legend, but because some version of its horror has touched almost everyone’s life: When a paramilitary gang entered town, an Albanian mother hid her young son in a secret passageway, thinking that the soldiers wouldn’t harm her or her daughters. She was wrong. The soldiers slit her throat, then raped and killed her daughters. The boy was too frightened to move. When the screaming stopped, he heard his mother call to him for water. Terrified, he left his hiding place, held her in his arms, and put the water to her lips. She died before she could take a sip. After that, the boy could barely eat or drink. His throat had closed up.

Trauma is change sickness — the mind’s way of dealing with change so stark that it simply cannot be absorbed. Maier-Witt’s work in Kosovo uses economics, but it is mostly about trauma psychology. She is trying to help the women in Kosovo and the surrounding villages overcome their past — and, in the process, perhaps, overcome her own. The world around Kosovo has become a matriarchy, one with scars and nightmares. Maier-Witt works with women who have been raped, widowed, made homeless, seen their children killed, or all of the above. One village is home to 185 widows. “Women succeed in chaos, where there is no status quo to limit them,” she says.

She works with women not because the men are all dead or off fighting, but because they are hopelessly damaged and seemingly incapable of constructive action. One man recently settled a dispute with his brother over who would inherit the family store by using dynamite to blow it up.

Maier-Witt explains that according to trauma psychology, people tell three stories to explain their lives and make sense of their experience. There’s the victim story, which is the favorite. People love to see themselves as victims. There is the hero story. But trauma sufferers seldom cast themselves in the role of someone who has triumphed over adversity. And there is the epic, which is the healthiest story.

In an epic tale, life unfolds as an adventure. Every day you make the choice to accept your fate without trying to change everything about it. Your role is not to fight or to fix; it is to see and to experience. The goal is to become more aware and more sensitive. You change things by the example of how you live each day.

“If someone is constantly reliving their loss or their fear or their moment of shame, then you have them tell their story avoiding the emotions, concentrating on the facts and the details,” Maier-Witt says. “Then you bring the emotion in later. If you talk about emotion in a detached way, you can look at yourself having emotions, and then you can find means to overcome it. Some of these people who suffer from trauma don’t have emotions anymore. They can’t feel anything. I’ve visited some women who can’t even cry. You tell them that if they can feel grief, they can still feel happiness. If people can see that crises and losses are the experiences they learn the most from, then they have a better chance of surviving.”

Maier-Witt is tired of unrelenting violence and untimely death. Revolution, the violent overthrow of the past in a frantic search for a better future, is almost always a prescription for failure. Look at all of the revolutions in Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo, and nothing has changed, save for the multiplication of graves. “In a world of so much real suffering, why promote unnecessary suffering?” she asks.

Harriet Rubin ( is a senior writer at Fast Company. Contact Silke Maier-Witt by email (

Sidebar: Ten Rules for Nonrevolutionaries

Silke Maier-Witt’s hard-learned lessons on change:

1. Change is happening now. My challenge is, How open can I be? Can I be open to whatever is happening in the moment, not to some distant ideal of what life should be?

2. Build bridges. I define change as this: I want to bring people together. If the Serbs see me being friendly to the Albanians, or vice versa, they distrust me. If each side accepts me, then I feel I can bring them together. Whatever each side appreciates in me means they have a link with each other.

3. Forget ideals. You always want to live up to something. You do have ideals in your youth. Later you find out that it’s not that easy.

4. Judge not. Do not judge too early, or at all. It is too easy to be on the wrong side. Even a murderer is a human being; I learned this in prison. It does not help to be disgusted by another person.

5. Don’t just go along. Realize that you can say no when it is vital to say no — even to a team or a group that may cut you off. You can find it easy to cut off your morality, in the name of nationalism or even a commitment to business. Better to cut off the group.

6. Check the mirror. The most difficult thing is to be objective and still put your heart into your work. But if you are true to yourself and see the weaknesses that you have, you are more able to listen to other people’s stories with an engaged heart.

7. It’s not about the credit. Don’t expect people to be thankful for whatever you do. They will not be. Your job is to keep giving.

8. Stay curious. When I meet people, I am eager to find out how they are, how they think, and how they come to do things they do.

9. It’s not supposed to be easy. Remember that the hard way is the most interesting. I want my epitaph to say, “She took the hard road.” That’s the only legend that is true to me.

10. Your life is an epic. Some people see themselves as victims, some as heroes. The healthiest outlook is to see your life as an epic journey, where each day is considered a new adventure.