1968 Revisited: The Truth about the Gunshot that Changed Germany

By SPIEGEL Staff

Part 3: 'The Protesters Are a Sausage'

Nevertheless, the police launched a large-scale attack, without having instructed the demonstrators to clear the area first as was required. As journalist Sebastian Haffner wrote, the police "boxed in the demonstrators, crowded them together and then, with uninhibited brutality, used their nightsticks and boots on the defenseless demonstrators as they stumbled and tripped over each other."

The next day, Police President Erich Duensing used these words to explain the strategy: "Let us assume that the protesters are a sausage, you see. All we have to do is squeeze it in the middle, causing it to burst apart at both ends."

When the protesters who had managed to escape from this sausage-like enclosure attempted to run away, the police opened fire with a water cannon. Special undercover units, employing a strategy they called "hunting foxes," tried to catch the presumed ringleaders. The demonstrators, followed by the police, ran toward a parking lot underneath a building on a nearby street.

A young couple, Benno and Christa Ohnesorg, was standing at the next intersection. They had been married only six weeks and were expecting a child. They were shocked by the police violence. Benno Ohnesorg, a 26-year-old student of German and Romance Studies, wanted to find out what was happening in the parking lot. His wife, who felt the situation was too dangerous, said goodbye and went home.

Kurras was part of one of the attack units. He was wearing a grayish-blue uniform and carrying a 7.65- millimeter Walther PKK pistol. He too was headed for the parking lot, which had become a scene of chaos, with people screaming and running back and forth between parked cars. Three police officers kicked and clubbed a student lying on the ground. Ohnesorg was also beaten. Then Kurras fired his pistol, hitting Ohnesorg in the back of the head.

Later a judge, in explaining his decision to acquit Kurras, cited the strong suspicion "that Benno Ohnesorg was still being beaten as he was lying on the ground, mortally wounded." Eyewitnesses overhead a fellow policeman shouting at Kurras: "Are you crazy, shooting here?" Kurras replied: "My gun just went off." His commanding officer shouted: "Kurras, get to the back! Now! Get out of here!" At that point, at the very least, Kurras proved to be a professional. He managed to lose the magazine for his pistol and took his suit to the cleaners the next morning.

While the seriously wounded Ohnesorg lay on the ground, police officers prevented a Norwegian doctor from administering first aid. Medics did not take away Ohnesorg until 15 minutes after the gunshot to his head, and it took another 45 minutes before he arrived at a hospital. The fact that doctors there removed the piece of bone containing the gunshot wound from the top of his skull and then discarded it could not be seen as anything but an attempt to cover up the killing.

That night Heinrich Albertz, the city's mayor and a Social Democrat, announced: "The city has run out of patience." The newspapers, owned by the Axel Springer publishing house, used the same tone to drum up the public mood. "Those who produce terror," wrote the tabloid B.Z. in a grotesque inversion of events, "must expect harsh treatment." Bild accused the students of having used "SA methods" (a reference to Hitler's paramilitary storm troopers, the SA). Ohnesorg, the tabloid claimed, was "not the martyr of the Maoist student movement, but its victim."

The West Berlin city government imposed a general ban on protests throughout the "free section" of the city, and police laid siege to the campus of the Free University. In parting, the Shah gave Mayor Albertz a piece of friendly advice: "You have to shoot a lot more. Then things will return to normal here."

In addition to losing their faith in the police on June 2, 1967, most of the protesting students soon lost all confidence in the judicial system. Fritz Teufel of Kommune 1, who had been beaten by policemen in front of the Deutsche Oper, was accused of a serious breach of the peace. Only after two months and a solidarity hunger strike staged by students was he temporarily released from custody.

The deadly marksman Kurras, on the other hand, never spent a single day behind bars. The police union gave him 60,000 German marks so that he could hire a top attorney to defend him against charges of "negligent homicide."

In his testimony before a Berlin district court, Kurras said that he had been "knocked down and brutally beaten by 10 or 11 people." He claimed that two young men had threatened him with knives and that he had then fired a warning shot. In the ensuing melee, he said, he must have fired the fatal shot by accident. None of the eyewitnesses was able to corroborate even a portion of his version of the incident.

A psychologist who examined Kurras concluded that he was somewhat unstable but not excessively aggressive. For lack of evidence, the Berlin court acquitted the shooter. The verdict was upheld on appeal, and four years after the shooting he was allowed to rejoin the police force. Christian Ströbele, a Green Party member of the German parliament today, was one of the Ohnesorg family's joint plaintiffs at the time. "To this day," says Ströbele, an attorney, "I do not understand why Kurras was so consistently protected." Ströbele wants to see the case investigated to determine whether East German officials intervened on Kurras's behalf in West Berlin. He believes that if Kurras had been convicted, Germany would not have seen "such rapid radicalization among students."

Kurras inadvertently ensured that June 2, 1967 became the initial trigger of the student movement and the extra-parliamentary opposition. Within a few weeks, the Socialist German Student Union in West Berlin managed to increase its membership five times over, to about 1,000.

In the photo that became a contemporary historical icon of June 2, 1967, fellow student Friederike Dollinger kneels beside the mortally wounded Ohnesorg. "I thought I was staring into the face of fascism," she said later when reflecting on the experience. A fatal spiral of violence had begun.

In the late evening hours of June 2, 1967, angry demonstrators met at the SDS headquarters on the city's famous Kurfürstendamm boulevard to discuss the dramatic events of the evening. An agitated young woman called out: "This is the Auschwitz generation. It's impossible to talk to them." Some of the more levelheaded activists in the crowd rejected her suggestion to storm a police barracks and obtain weapons.

The young woman was Gudrun Ensslin, the daughter of a pastor. Hardly more than three years later, Ensslin, her friend Andreas Baader and Horst Mahler, an attorney who had represented the Ohnesorg family, were among the founders of the Red Army Faction (RAF). The terrorist group's ensuing crusade against the West German republic culminated in the 1977 series of events known as the German Autumn, and cost the lives of more than 50 people.

The second West German terrorist organization that emerged from the student movement called itself the Second of June Movement. The group kidnapped Peter Lorenz, a Berlin politician with the conservative Christian Democrats, in 1975.

When asked about the revelations concerning Kurras, former Second of June Movement member Till Meyer says that the history of June 2 should not be "rewritten by even the slightest amount. A West Berlin police officer who lost his cool fired the first shot at us." According to Meyer, it was something that neither the police leadership nor the Stasi would have wanted to happen.

Meyer's former comrade-in-arms Michael "Bommi" Baumann writes off Stasi agent Kurras as nothing but an embarrassing and grotesque relic of the Cold War for all parties involved. "An SED communist opens fire and kills a peaceful liberal, and the West Berlin police protect a Stasi man."

Is this true? Would nothing have changed if the students had known about Kurras's background?

The situation in West Germany in the late 1960s was such that many were simply waiting for an incident like Ohnesorg's death. Many university and high-school students perceived their country as something of a Wilhelmian authoritarian state, one in which the lowly citizen was already considered in violation of the law if he expressed public outrage over a police officer who had acted illegally. For them, it was a country where playing a guitar at an outdoor fountain was enough to trigger the deployment of police units.

In the early 1960s, students already raised suspicions by reading Marx, something a normal student assumed was banned. Two-thirds of all students described themselves as apolitical. Professors, in their academic gowns, ruled over their departments like feudal princes, and when students so much as complained, a professor could easily be overheard saying: "All of you belong in a concentration camp."

Political activity at universities was uncommon, except to commemorate the East German rebellion on June 17, 1953. Discussion panels critical of the US's Southeast Asia policies were banned, and Willy Brandt warned students who planned to demonstrate against the Vietnam war "that we Germans tend to play up our role as teachers in world politics." For the tabloid press, demonstrators were nothing but "rowdies" and "rabble-rousers," while the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper described the street protests of like-minded people as "the stupidest and most useless means of political involvement."

To distance themselves from a society that had more in common with their parents' lives than theirs, more and more West Germans moved into large abandoned apartments in West Berlin in the 1960s, and began to experiment with new ways of living together. They sat around in clubs, read Sartre and Camus, consumed Marcuse, Marx and Freud, listened to Bob Dylan and the Doors, drank red wine and rum-and-coke, swallowed drugs like the stimulant fenethylline and sleeping pills. They complained about the bad food in student cafeterias and the bombing of Hanoi. They brought down Eberhard Diepgen, the chairman of the Asta student association who had proposed organizing students into a "voluntary police reserve unit for times of crisis," they interrupted lectures dressed in police uniforms and they went to jail for their actions. They had their fun and they unnerved the powers that be.

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