Lawyer Otto Schily on Ohnesorg Revelations: 'You Can't See it as an Isolated Event'

German lawyer and politician Otto Schily represented the family of slain student Benno Ohnesorg at the trial of Karl-Heinz Karras. As the truth about Ohnesorg's 1967 death emerges, Schily reflects on whether knowing about Karras' Stasi connection at the time might have changed history.

SPIEGEL: You represented the Ohnesorg family against Karl-Heinz Kurras. To what degree did the discovery of Kurras' Stasi files suprise you?

Schily: I never could have imagined this. It was beyond my wildest dreams. The question is what the Stasi wanted with Kurras. Did they just want information about the inner workings of the police force? Or was Kurras recruited as an agent provocateur? We can only speculate today.

SPIEGEL: June 2, 1967 was a defining moment for the left. Do important parts of West Germany's postwar history now have to be rewritten?

Schily: Ohnesorg's death was a turning point, a death that was the culmination of a brutal police attack that shocked a lot of people like myself. But you can't see it as an isolated event. The night before, there was a huge rally at the Free University in Berlin where the torture practices of the Iranian Shah's regime were reported -- and then the Shah came to Berlin the next day. After Ohnesorg's death, evidence went missing -- the magazine from Kurras' pistol was gone, and TV images were suddenly unavailable. Kurras is a very important figure for this time period, but one shouldn't lose sight of the bigger picture Anyone who says we need to rewrite the whole history of the '68 movement over again is wrong.

SPIEGEL: What would have happened if Kurras' links to the Stasi were revealed back then?

Schily: If (the mass-circulation newspaper) Bild had run a headline back then saying, "Stasi Spy Shot Benno Ohnesorg" it would certainly have caused a ruckus. There would certainly have been a lot of conspiracy theories. But the deciding question for me is whether the police authorities would have treated Kurras during this crisis situation any differently if they had know about his Stasi connections at the time.

SPIEGEL: No one has found any clues of that in the files so far.

Schily: Naturally the Stasi kept trying to influence the student movement. On the other hand, the '68ers were fairly critical of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). I took part in a demonstration in front of the Czech military mission in Berlin to protest the Warsaw Pact's invasion of Prague (in 1968). That was one point when the '68ers massively opposed the GDR. In that sense, a headline like that wouldn't necessarily have fostered a sense of disillusionment. The GDR didn't have some sort of heroic status.

SPIEGEL: Ohnesorg's death marked the birth of a German urban guerrilla movement. One of those groups, the June Two Movement, even named itself after the event. Would they have called themselves that if they had known the shooter was a Stasi informant?

Schily: That is difficult to say. But I don't think it would have changed anything decisive. You can't pin it on any one thing.

SPIEGEL: Do you think it is an irony of history that someone like Till Meyer, part of the Second of June Movement and later an informant for the Stasi, ended up working for the same organization as Kurras, the man who fired the deadly shot?

Schily: On the one side the guerrilla, on the other side the policeman who set this all in motion -- it's truly a macabre situation. That shouldn't draw us to the conclusion that the Stasi was steering this part of history. The Stasi wasn't that influential, despite its aspirations.

SPIEGEL: You failed in court back then, and Kurras wasn't convicted. Would the trial have gone differently with the knowledge we have today?

Schily: I'm sure of it. You have to ask yourself: Would the evidence tampering and odd testimony of the police witnesses have happened? If the police had known what they had on their hands with this guy, the incident would have been handled very differently. Then we would have been able to get to the bottom of Ohnesorg's death. That's why the information would have been decisive then.

SPIEGEL: Kurras was known as a gun nut who said in 2007 that he should have shot Ohnesorg "not just once, but until the sparks flew." What kind of person did you find him to be?

Schily: I found him to be an impenetrable defendant -- you couldn't pry anything out of him. But these statements from Kurras would actually be a good reason to re-open the case again. Up until now, the courts were always dealing with manslaughter in the case. But with statements like that, one has to assume that what he did was intentional and that claims he made a mistake and was acting in self-defense are not true.

SPIEGEL: Are you hoping for a retrial to achieve belated justice?

Schily: I don't believe in that. There would have to be something in the files that clearly showed the Stasi ordered him to shoot a student. I'm afraid 42 years after the tragic death, this case has been surpassed by history.

Interview conducted by Holger Stark.

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