It was a standoff that could easily have erupted into World War III. In late October, 1961, American tanks stood face to face with Soviet tanks at Checkpoint Charlie in the heart of Berlin, a single wrong move could have been enough to start yet another eruption of continent-wide violence -- or worse.
Soviet tanks at Checkpoint Charlie on October 28, 1961.Foto: DPA
The Soviets, though, had an advantage. Among the West German police on hand at Friedrichstrasse that day was a man named Karl-Heinz Kurras. But in addition to being a highly respected West Berlin officer, Kurras -- as recent revelations have made clear -- was also a spy for the East German secret police, the Stasi. And he spent the standoff passing valuable information on American positions across the border.
"The headquarters of the Americans is on the first floor of a building on Friedrichstrasse," Kurras reported, according to a story in Thursday's edition of the German tabloid Bild, citing documents from the Stasi archive in Berlin. "A wall of sandbags is in front of the building." He also reported on the US troops manning the tanks and, once the crisis ended, gave information on US tank positions nearby.
The fact that East German spies were operating behind the lines in West Berlin at the height of the Cold War is hardly surprising. But Kurras wasn't just any spy. He is the same West Berlin officer who shot an unarmed student demonstrator named Benno Ohnesorg in a 1967 event that helped trigger the 1968 student protests in West Germany. Ohnesorg's death also became a powerful rallying cry for the militant group Red Army Faction which went on to terrorize West Germany for decades.
Revelations that Ohnesorg's death came at the hands of a committed communist and not, as leftist lore would have it, of an unrepentant Nazi cop, gripped Germany in late May after Kurras' Stasi file was unearthed. Since then, a steady drip of information about Kurras' Cold War activities has filled the back pages of German dailies.
In Kurras' report on the Checkpoint Charlie standoff, he also provided information on American weaponry as well as recent weapons training received by West Berlin police officers.
Kurras managed to keep his spy activities secret. Indeed, until the Ohnesorg shooting, he was a major player in West Berlin's Section 1, the unit responsible for hunting down Stasi agents in West Berlin. In his position, he was able to warn East German spies prior to raids and could also inform his communist employers of double agents working for the CIA.
One of those double agents Kurras helped expose was a man who, like himself, stayed in the West to work for the Stasi. But the spy became a double agent for the CIA -- a fact the East Germans learned about from Kurras. The man ultimately died in mysterious circumstances in a Bulgarian prison in 1987 -- after he started an affair with the wife of a Bulgarian military officer at the behest of the CIA.
His name? Bernd Ohnesorge.