1968 Revisited: The Truth about the Gunshot that Changed Germany
Part 2: An Agent with Great Potential
From the beginning, the Stasi saw the young policeman as an agent with great potential. The Stasi officers promised to help him in his training and career in the West. Neither sides' hopes were dashed. In early 1965, Kurras was accepted into the West Berlin police force's Department I, a dream job for any East German agent, because the designation "One" stood for espionage, defectors and the detection of Soviet bloc agents. The department also worked hand-in-hand with the domestic intelligence agency for the city-state of Berlin and the secret agents of the American, British and French commanders of Berlin's western sectors.
Ironically, Stasi agent Kurras soon became part of a special investigation group within "One," which the city government of Berlin had charged with searching for double agents among the ranks of the police. In a twist worthy of the plot for a spy novel -- and reflective of reality in 1960s West Berlin -- Kurras was put in the position of searching for his fellow East German agents.
The members of "One" traded nicknames, calling each other names like "Bully," "Outlaw Star," "Pussy" and "Banana." Kurras's nickname was "Gendarme," and the department head's secretary was known simply as "Püppi."
One of Kurras's Stasi assignments was to come on to "Püppi" -- a job known as a Romeo assignment. After a few timid attempts, he reported that although he was not entirely averse to romancing "Püppi," he preferred not to be given such assignments unless "absolutely necessary." By way of explanation for his reticence, Kurras wrote that there hadn't been any real chemistry between him and "Püppi."
Kurras's strong points were his reliable reports, his attention to detail and his complete devotion to secret service. Beginning in 1955, and for the next 12 years, he supplied the Stasi with stellar espionage reports from West Berlin, all under the cover name "Otto Bohl." Thanks to Kurras, the Stasi knew practically everything that the police and state security agent in West Berlin were planning against the East Germans.
As an agent, Kurras provided detailed internal information about employees, personnel changes and the ways in which various agencies operated. He reported on birthday parties and discussions within a group of Social Democratic police officers, and he drew sketches of train stations and offices. Again and again, he provided his patrons in the East with top-secret information, such as data on East German defectors or tip-offs on planned searches of people suspected of espionage.
Kurras was paid for his services, earning a total of about 20,000 West German marks -- no small sum at the time. He learned the "Helin" secret code and, later, another code known as "Achim." He was given a radio and even wiretapping equipment to eavesdrop on his superiors. One set of microphones was intended for installation in the office of the head of the Tiergarten district criminal inspection division. Kurras set up a receiving station in his apartment. He used a Minox miniature camera, which he kept hidden behind a ledge in the hallway, to photograph official documents at night. He had made such a good impression as a zealous and industrious police officer that he was even permitted to take official documents home.
Kurras's superiors in the West also thought the world of him. During a personnel interview in 1964, he said that he was very interested in being "someplace where I can protect the government even more effectively." He asked for "even more important tasks, which will give me greater satisfaction, because I wish to show my strengths to my government even more." Beginning in 1965, Kurras was put in charge of intercepting Stasi radio communications.
Because having the perfect cover is part of an agent's life, Kurras, on the advice of the Stasi, joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD). At roughly the same time, on Jan. 16, 1964, he was accepted into the SED in East Berlin, after having been a candidate for membership for a long time. In his application for membership, Kurras had written that he wanted to devote his "full efforts to the party." His sponsor was a woman nicknamed "Lotti," his Stasi agent supervisor and an old communist born in 1901, who had worked for the secret intelligence service of the German Communist Party in Berlin in the 1930s. A resolute Stalinist, "Lotti," or Charlotte Müller, was a bit pudgy, earning her the nickname "Dumpling." She used visits to her sister Käthe in West Berlin's Spandau district as a subterfuge to meet with Kurras. The two would meet in an ordinary café they called "Trude," near a canal lock in the Tiergarten park. During these meetings, "Lotti" would also instruct Kurras on correct class consciousness, especially during his occasional lapses of enthusiasm, and, of course, would make sure that he was imbued with the necessary anti-fascist beliefs. She had been interned in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Even when Kurras went to Austria on vacation, he would make the occasional side trip to Czechoslovakia to meet with Stasi employees. While in Naples, he reported "fleet concentrations in the harbor" to his East Berlin contacts.
Kurras sometimes had trouble coping with his double role, especially when, in his West Berlin police uniform, he was called upon to treat his fellow East German agents harshly. As a valued member of "One," he was often brought in to interrogate captured East German agents. "Lotti" would often have to boost his spirits after these interrogations.
On Jan. 26, 1965, she wrote, in a report about a conversation she had had with Kurras: "He expressed certain doubts about having to help arrest people who are working for the German Democratic Republic. I replied that he should do his work properly, even when arrests are necessary, and I reminded him of Dr. Sorge, who also had to perform tasks that went against his convictions, in order to obtain important information." Her pep talk was apparently successful. A short time later, the agent supervisor wrote, clearly pleased with herself: "Bohl no longer has any reservations about being assigned to cases that involve suspects who work for the Ministry for State Security." By 1967, Agent Bohl had apparently lost his inhibitions to such a degree that he took part in a mission to search for Stasi "sleepers" in the West's police structures.
Kurras was literally inundated with work. The Stasi was constantly asking him for data on individuals and vehicles, and Erich Mielke, the head of the Stasi, used his zealous agent to gain access to practically all West Berlin police files, including wanted lists. In addition, Kurras, during short meetings in public restrooms, turned over Minox film or keys he had copied for safes and the doors of police offices. Of course, the Stasi was also extremely interested in information about individuals helping East Germans escape, possible escape tunnels or the Allies' underground shooting ranges.
Kurras worked off his stress by drinking and going to the shooting range. Within Stasi circles, Kurras was considered "an overachiever, but with a tendency to consume alcohol excessively." He was also "extremely enamored of weapons" and had "an excessive fondness for wearing uniforms and serving on the police force. During the course of our cooperation, he has made no secret of the fact that he is a fanatical devotee of marksmanship. He has also asked to obtain, from the Ministry for State Security, certain weapons that are very difficult to buy in the West. For example, he asked for a P 38."
Kurras was obsessed with weapons. He owned a large gun collection, and his performance at the shooting range was outstanding. He won several Berlin police force marksmanship competitions, and he spent "most of his free time at the shooting range," as one of his commanding officers in the East noted. His second job with the Stasi also helped pay for his hobby. He would spend up to 400 marks a month on ammunition alone. Even the password an unknown Stasi employee would use to contact him in West Berlin was significant: "Hello, Mr. Kurras, I am here to see you because of the shooting department."
After the Ohnesorg shooting, Stasi officials admitted in a June 8, 1967 internal memo that they had known about this "character weakness," but had underestimated it.
The shot that this member of the political police force fired at student demonstrator Benno Ohnesorg from his service pistol was to become a shot fired at many heads -- and the starting shot of Germany's student movement.
Until then, the Socialist German Student Union (SDS), with only about 200 members in Berlin, had campaigned for democratization at the so-called Ordinarienuniversität (a university controlled by tenured faculty) and had organized protests against the American war in Vietnam. The SDS was essentially a collection of well-behaved middle class offspring trying their hand at democracy.
When the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was expected for a state visit, the SDS activists in Berlin were initially unsure of whether to demonstrate against his regime's torture practices. An Iranian exile, journalist Ulrike Meinhof and Kommune 1, a politically motivated commune in Berlin, called for protests. The German Interior Ministry in Bonn, then the capital of West Germany, classified the Iranian dictator's visit as a Security Level I event.
On the morning of June 2, 1967, Persian secret agents and Shah supporters, soon to be referred to as "claqueurs," were assaulting demonstrators and bystanders in front of the Schöneberg Town Hall in West Berlin. The dictator and his wife, Farah Diba, were scheduled to attend a performance of Mozart's "Magic Flute" that evening. The commander of the security police, Hans-Ulrich Werner, was in charge of planning the police operation at the Deutsche Oper opera house. Werner had made his contribution to the Holocaust in World War II by "fighting partisans" in Ukraine. He had police barricades installed on the sidewalk across the street from the Opera, thereby creating a narrow path that was blocked off to the rear by a construction fence. By early evening, demonstrators and bystanders had crowded into this narrow gauntlet, which was only a few meters wide.
Shortly before 8 p.m., when the Mercedes 600 carrying the Shah and his wife pulled up to the Opera, the crowd's chants of "murderer, murderer!" grew louder, and tomatoes and a few colored eggs began flying through the air. The police grabbed Rainer Langhans, a member of Kommune 1 who had thrown the colored eggs, threw him into a police van and beat him up. The state guest disappeared into the Opera, and calm returned to the street.
- Part 1: The Truth about the Gunshot that Changed Germany
- Part 2: An Agent with Great Potential
- Part 3: 'The Protesters Are a Sausage'
- Part 4: 'No Regrets'
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