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Berlin policeman whose bullet led to 1968 student unrest was Stasi spy

The revelation about the policeman who killed Benno Ohnesorg during a demonstration has hit Germany like a bombshell.

Student Benno Ohnesorg is carried away just after he was killed during a demonstration against the visit of the shah of Iran in Berlin in 1967.
Student Benno Ohnesorg is carried away just after he was killed during a demonstration against the visit of the shah of Iran in Berlin in 1967.

BERLIN // The killing of Benno Ohnesorg, a Berlin student, by a policeman in 1967 helped shape modern Germany by triggering the 1968 protests and the left-wing Baader-Meinhof gang's terrorist campaign that dogged the country for much of the following decade. So the revelation last week that the policeman who fired the fatal shot into the back of Ohnesorg's head during a demonstration was a spy for the Stasi, East Germany's intelligence service, has hit Germany like a bombshell.

Historians, media commentators and former left-wing activists are now embroiled in an anguished debate about the origins of the 1968 movement and whether this key chapter in post-war German history will have to be rewritten. Researchers sifting through the 112km of files in the Stasi archives discovered by chance that Karl-Heinz Kurras, the West Berlin police officer who shot Ohnesorg, had been secretly passing information to the Stasi between 1955 and 1967 and had been a member of the East German Communist Party.

There is no information to suggest the Stasi instructed Mr Kurras to shoot Mr Ohnesorg and the organisation severed ties with him after the shooting. But the news that the policeman who came to symbolise what many students saw as a reactionary, trigger-happy and even fascist state was a devoted communist has cast doubt on the justification of the student protest movement. It has also shown once again how extensively the Stasi managed to infiltrate West Germany's state organs during the Cold War and has led to concern that scores of other unwelcome surprises may lie still hidden in the archives.

"The death of Benno Ohnesorg had a huge radicalising effect," said Götz Aly, a left-wing historian. A Berlin policeman killing an innocent demonstrator at a rally against a visit by the deeply controversial shah of Iran - it all added up to perfect justification for fighting the state, the argument went. "If it had been clear that the policeman was a misguided person who lived a strange double existence and who didn't just obey his police superiors but quite different powers as well, all this wouldn't have fit together," Mr Aly said.

Hours after Ohnesorg's death on June 2, the Socialist Federation of German Students met to discuss how to respond. One young woman said: "That's the generation of Auschwitz. You can't negotiate with them." Her proposal to storm a Berlin police station and seize weapons was rejected. That woman was Gudrun Ensslin, a pastor's daughter who went on to found the Baader-Meinhof gang of urban guerrillas with her partner, Andreas Baader, three years later. About 50 people died in the assassinations, kidnappings and bomb attacks their group orchestrated.

Such left-wingers as Joschka Fischer, the former foreign minister who was a stone-throwing street activist at the time, say their protests turned an authoritarian, misogynist, barely democratic society run by former Nazis into the liberal, emancipated, egalitarian country it is today. But Die Welt, a conservative daily newspaper, wrote: "The old 68ers are likely to be more modest in future in praising their fight, and if they're not, their reminiscences are likely to be sneered at like old soldiers' tales."

Der Spiegel, a liberal news magazine, wrote: "It's certain that things are going to get harder for the supporters of a 'good' 1968. The revelation about Kurras has deprived them of an important element of their reason for the rebellion. He wasn't the man he should have been." Mr Kurras, now 81, lives in a small flat in the Spandau district of West Berlin. Confronted by reporters, he declined to comment on his activities as a Stasi spy. Asked about speculation that his police pension may be cut and that he might face legal action, he said: "The police can't do anything against me and neither can the state prosecutor. This is all statute-barred now."

After the shooting in 1962, Mr Kurras was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter in a trial that was widely regarded as a cover-up by the West German establishment and further inflamed left-wing anger. Important witnesses were not allowed to testify, doctors discarded the piece of skull where Mr Kurras's bullet had struck and the magazine of Mr Kurras's gun disappeared without a trace. None of the witnesses could corroborate his claim that he was attacked by 10 or 11 people and threatened with knives and that his gun discharged accidentally.

He remained in the West Berlin police but was removed from the force's elite counter-intelligence unit from where he had been able to provide the Stasi with highly sensitive information on operations not only by the Berlin police, but by US, British and French intelligence agents as well. The Stasi paid him a total of 20,000 German marks, about ?10,000 (Dh51,000), for his services, a large sum at the time. Mr Kurras retired from the Berlin police in 1987. The weapons enthusiast, who frequently won police shooting competitions, has never expressed public remorse for the killing.

The news of Mr Kurras's Stasi involvement has sparked an intense "what if" debate, with many arguing that right-left tensions would not have escalated as fiercely as they did if his background had been known. Mr Kurras's colleagues would not have covered for him at his trial, the tabloid press could not have run such incendiary headlines against the supposedly communist protesters and many students may not have become as radical as they did.

But some left-wingers argue that even if Ohnesorg had not been shot dead, the protests were bound to escalate given the growing hostility between the students and the establishment at the time. They say Mr Kurras's Communist membership and work for the Stasi does not change anything unless it emerges that he was ordered to stoke unrest in West Germany by shooting a student. The chance discovery of Mr Kurras's hidden role has led to criticism of Marianne Birthler, the federal commissioner in charge of managing the Stasi archive, with historians accusing her of not researching the files systematically enough to uncover the full extent of East German espionage in West Germany.

"The concern I and other researchers have is that many other such files are lying in a sea of files without anyone knowing about them and that it requires a coincidental discovery to find them. That's worrying," said Hubertus Knabe, the director of Berlin's Hohenschönhausen prison memorial to Stasi victims. dcrossland@thenational.ae