It was one of the most important events leading up to the wave of radical left-wing violence which washed over West Germany in the 1970s. On the evening of June 2, 1967, the literature student Benno Ohnesorg took part in a demonstration at West Berlin's opera house. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, was to attend and the gathered students wanted to call attention to his brutal regime.
The protests, though, got out of hand. Pro-shah demonstrators, some of them flown in from Iran for the occasion, battled with the student protestors. West Berlin police also did their part, brutally beating back the crowd. At 8:30 p.m., a shot was fired, and a short time later the 26-year-old Ohnesorg, having been hit in the back of the head, became the left wing's first martyr.
Now, though, the history of the event may have to be re-written. New documents discovered in the Stasi archive -- the vast collection of files left behind by the East German secret police -- reveal that the policeman who shot Ohnesorg, Karl-Heinz Kurras, could in fact have been a spy for East Germany's communist regime.
In an article that will appear in late May in Deutschlandarchiv, a periodical dedicated to the ongoing project of German reunification, Helmut Müller-Enbergs and Cornelia Jabs reveal that documents they found in the Stasi papers show that Kurras began working together with the Stasi in 1955. He had wanted to move to East Berlin to work for the East German police. Instead, he signed an agreement with the Stasi to remain with the West Berlin police force and spy for the communist state.
As a result of the new information, criminal charges have once again been filed against Kurras, who was acquitted twice, once in 1967 and again in 1970, of negligent homicide charges related to Ohnesorg's death. Kurras told the Berlin paper Tagesspiegel on Friday that he had never worked together with the Stasi.
But in addition to finding the agreement between Kurras and the Stasi, the two researchers also discovered numerous documents indicating that the East Germans were pleased with the information Kurras passed along -- particularly given that he was posted to a division responsible for rooting out moles within the West German police force.
Immediately after Ohnesorg's death, Kurras received a Stasi communication ordering him to destroy his records and to "cease activities for the moment." Kurras responded with his acquiescence and wrote "I need money for an attorney."
The exact circumstances surrounding the death of Ohnesorg have never been completely clarified. Kurras himself, now 81, gave conflicting versions of the story during the investigation but the official version has long been that Kurras fired in self defense. Many others point to witness accounts whereby the police were beating Ohnesorg when the shot was fired.
It is still unclear how the new evidence might play into history's understanding of the tragic event. The day was one full of violence, with demonstrators and police battling each other with pipes, wooden clubs and stones. Police were further incited by rumors that an officer had been stabbed earlier in the evening. Ohnesorg himself, however, was not directly involved in the violence.
West Berlin in the 1960s and 70s became a focal point of German left wing radicalism. The city had long been left-leaning, and the fact that Berliners were exempt from military service meant that it became a magnate for pacifists and anti-state activists.
Ohnesorg's death gave them an immediate rallying cry. As the left-wing movement became more radical, many justified their violent activities by pointing to the police brutality that led to the student's death. A letter written by Ulrike Meinhof announcing the founding of the Red Army Faction, which appeared in SPIEGEL in the fall of 1967, explicitly mentioned the Ohnesorg incident. The RAF went on to terrorize Germany for decades, ultimately killing over 30 people across the country. The radical "June 2 Movement" used the date of the incident in its name.
Kurras, for his part, seems to have been a highly valued Stasi agent. In his files, it is noted that "he is prepared to complete any task assigned to him." It also mentions that he is notable for having the "courage and temerity necessary to accomplish difficult missions."