1968 Revisited The Truth about the Gunshot that Changed Germany

It was the shot that changed the course of German history. On June 2, 1967, a West Berlin police officer shot and killed leftist demonstrator Benno Ohnesorg. The event triggered a whole generation of leftist activism. Would history have turned out differently if people knew then the killer was a member of East Germany's secret police?


The man who became a decisive figure in the shaping of modern-day Germany spends many an hour of his life in a basement. According to a neighbor, he sits in a room behind a steel door, listens to the radio and drinks himself into a stupor. His wife, says the neighbor, prefers not to have him in the apartment when he drinks.

On June 2, 1967, Karl-Heinz Kurras shot Benno Ohnesorg, a student at the time, to death. The killing marked the beginning of a protest movement that would come to be known simply as "'68." Kurras, 81, has lived in Berlin's Spandau district for more than 20 years.

He lives in a beige, five-story building with red balconies. He is sometimes spotted outside using a portable walker. He curses often and vocally, mainly against foreigners, says the neighbor. Until recently, two men in a gray Mercedes, former colleagues, picked him up every Sunday to take him on a drive.

What kinds of colleagues were they? Former members of the West Berlin police force, for which Kurras worked for many years? Or of the East German secret police and intelligence agency, the Stasi, also one of Kurras's long-term employers?

The news struck Germany's collective store of memories like a missile. Karl-Heinz Kurras, who, for members of the 1968 protest movement, embodied what they saw as West German fascism -- was also a member of the East German Communist Party, the SED, and an agent for the Stasi. The man who, presumably without provocation, shot and killed a harmless demonstrator, was in fact inspired by socialist ideas.

Suddenly countless Germans are asking themselves whether the way they lived their lives was based on false premises. Would they have taken the same actions if they had known that Kurras was in fact motivated by socialist rather than fascist dreams?

An important date for the Federal Republic of Germany is at issue. In addition to marking the beginning of the '68 movement, June 2, 1967 was also the day that leftist terrorists would later reference in their attacks across Germany. As Michael "Bommi" Baumann, one of the founders of the militant organization Second of June Movement and a former terrorist, would later say, "the bullet from the gun of police officer Kurras, which killed Benno Ohnesorg, was what truly changed everything."

But June 2 is also the date that is widely associated with a shift in West German society in the direction of more democracy, more rights for women and more liberties for citizens. Now, though, the same date is also associated with an ugly word: Stasi.

Once again, it is archivists whose work has torn Germany away from its comforting certainties. Archivists at the Birthler Agency, the government office where the secret files from East Germany's Stasi intelligence service are stored and researched -- happened upon Kurras's records.

When the spectacular find was announced last Thursday by German public broadcaster ZDF and, later, on the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper's Web site, a rewriting of German postwar history began. The revelations point to a potentially menacing scenario, fueling speculation that the Stasi might have encouraged Kurras to commit murder in order to destabilize West Germany.

Kurras has denied everything. His commanding officer died years ago, in 1989. And the Berlin office of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, cannot confirm whether it was ever aware of Kurras's work for the Stasi. The files have disappeared, complicating the task for the Berlin Public Prosecutor's Office, which, after filing a complaint against Kurras, must examine whether a new investigation is warranted.

Gerd Koenen, a former Maoist 1968 activist and a moderate author today, says he cannot imagine that Kurras received a direct order to commit murder, but says: "The East German government organizations clearly wanted to trigger unrest. In this respect, an agent planted within the ranks of the West German police had to play the role of the agitator and tough cop, if only for reasons of self-preservation."

So far the files have not yielded any evidence of an order to commit murder. Nevertheless, they do point out once again how incomplete, preliminary and relative a so-called historical account can be.

Even if Kurras had no orders to commit murder, the revelations will prompt Germany to contemplate its recent history once again. Until now, no one had called into question the notion that Kurras was a "potentially fascist individual" with what German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno called an "authoritarian character." He remains Ohnesorg's killer, but he can no longer be characterized as a puppet of a potentially fascist state. In fact, he was the puppet of a socialist state imbued with an equally authoritarian character, a realization that highlights yet again the similarities between the two ideologies. All of this raises an intriguing question: What would have happened if the members of the student protest movement had soon discovered that Kurras was a member of the SED and worked for the Stasi? Would an important part of German history have fallen by the wayside? Would there have been no '68 movement, no student rebellion and no terrorist activities committed by the Second of June Movement and the Red Army Faction (RAF)?

There are now two versions of a what-would-have-happened-if Germany. Liberals are convinced that without the 1968 movement, the country would still be fossilized, rigid, only mildly democratic, misogynistic and sexually repressed. Conservatives, for their part, believe that without '68 modern Germany would have more children, better schools and better behavior.

But history is never rewound. All that changes is the way we view it -- and the present. The 1968 movement is still part of German society today, retaining its grip on the country. The days devoted to commemorating events of the late 1960s are still an occasion for great debate. Most recently in 2007, it was the 30th anniversary of the so-called "German Autumn" that got the debate stewing -- a terror-plagued era that saw the RAF go on a killing spree across the country. The terror culminated with the kidnapping and murder of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, a leading industrialist and head of the German Employers' Association.

Now the next debate is getting underway, and it will clearly be a more difficult one for adherents of the notion of a "good" '68. The revelations about Kurras have deprived them of an important building block in their justification for rebellion.

The Kurras file was discovered by accident. Either shortly after the death of Benno Ohnesorg or just before January 1970, when they turned over their files to the government archives, the Stasi officers destroyed any evidence that could be used to trace the 17 files to their own archives. The name "Kurras" was removed from the F16 card file, which used real names, and probably from the IM-F22 card file (the letters IM were an abbreviation of "inoffizieller Mitarbeiter," or "unofficial employees"), because researchers have been unable to find a card with information leading to Kurras in either file. Thanks to this internal conspiracy, it became impossible, even for most Stasi employees and departments, to identify Ohnesorg's killer.

An archivist who was researching Berlin Wall deaths recently stumbled upon a file signature identified simply as "GH 2/70." The letters GH stand for "Geheime Ablage," or "Secret File." The archivist's interest was piqued, and she submitted a request to search for the file in the shelves where documents relating to the former East German Ministry for State Security (MfS) were kept. To her surprise, she received 17 files relating to an unofficial employee (IM) working in the West. She then showed them to a colleague who dealt with such cases, Helmut Müller-Enbergs, who went public with the case.

The second, secret life of Karl-Heinz Kurras began on Tuesday, April 19, 1955. That's when Kurras, a 27-year-old police officer at the time, went to the offices of the SED Central Committee on Wilhelm-Pieck-Strasse in the eastern part of the city (this was several years before the construction of the Berlin Wall began in August 1961). According to the record of activity for the day, Kurras told the guard at the front door that he wanted to be "placed in touch with a representative of the Ministry for State Security (Stasi)." An officer with the Stasi's Department IV met with the visitor. "Volunteers," the term used at the Stasi for such visitors, were not uncommon at the time.

Kurras said that he was disappointed by political developments in West Berlin and would prefer to work for what he believed was the better Germany. But the Stasi officer quickly realized that Kurras, a police officer in West Berlin's Charlottenburg district, could be put to better use. In a lengthy conversation, he convinced Kurras that he would be of far greater service to East Germany if he remained a member of the West's police force and became a future secret informant for the Stasi. Kurras promised not to tell anyone about the meeting.

According to the files, this was the starting point for Kurras' commitment to the Stasi and the agency's subsequent collaboration with him.

A few days later, on April 26, 1955, Kurras met with the officer a second time in East Berlin. This time Kurras wrote his statement of commitment, in neat handwriting on lined paper. "Even though I am politically untrained, I believe that the path chosen by the East embodies the correct policy," he wrote. "To participate in this development, I am prepared to truthfully report incidents relating to the police to the representative of the Ministry for State Security, with whom I am familiar. I agree to preserve the greatest amount of secrecy possible with regard to my activities. I will sign my reports with the cover name 'Otto Bohl.' Karl-Heinz Kurras."


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