The Magazine

The Shot Heard Round the World

West German 'fascism' was made in East Germany.

Jun 8, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 36 • By MICHAEL C. MOYNIHAN
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On June 2, 1967, the shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, exited a performance of The Magic Flute at the Berlin Opera House to a throng of rock-throwing protesters, already into their second hour of battle with police. As the situation escalated, Karl-Heinz Kurras, a detective sergeant in the West Berlin police force, approached an unarmed student he misidentified as a "ringleader" of the protest. After tussling with the suspect, Kurras unholstered his Walther PPK service pistol and squeezed the trigger. A single bullet smashed into the temple of 26-year-old student Benno Ohnesorg. He died 20 minutes later.

Stefan Aust, former editor of the newsweekly Der Spiegel and author of a popular history of Germany's Baader-Meinhof (RAF) terror group, cites the Ohnesorg killing as "a turning point in the thinking and feeling of many" in Germany; a martyrdom that would function as a foundation myth for the country's radical left movement, many of whom would later transform themselves into university-educated "urban guerrillas." A simple narrative soon emerged on campuses across Germany: Ohnesorg, a pacifist active in Protestant student groups, had been brutally murdered by the "fascist pig" Kurras. When Kurras was twice acquitted in the killing--he claimed the shooting was accidental--it further "proved" that West Germany was merely a rump state of the Third Reich.

Following the Ohnesorg shooting, the philosopher Theodor Adorno momentarily abandoned abstruse Marxist theory for unambiguous hysteria, declaring that "the students have taken on a bit of the role of the Jews." To future Baader-Meinhof leader Gudrun Ensslin, the shooting demonstrated that West Germany was a "fascist state [that] means to kill us all." Ensslin, a 27-year-old pastor's daughter, provided a tidy apothegm for those who would join terror organizations like the 2nd of June Movement (a tribute to Ohnesorg) and the Red Army Faction: "Violence is the only way to answer violence."

And it is this narrative that has persisted--until last week. According to new documents uncovered by two German researchers, Karl-Heinz -Kurras was not the "fascist" cop of popular indignation, but a longtime agent of the East German Ministry for State Security (Stasi) and a member of the East German Communist party. In a rare moment of justified breathlessness, the ever-excitable German tabloid Bild called the discovery the "revelation of the year."

While there is no evidence that Kurras acted as an agent provocateur in shooting Ohnesorg, it is doubtless true that had his political sympathies--and his covert work for the Stasi--been known in 1967, the burgeoning radical student movement would have been deprived of its most effective recruiting tool. As Bettina Roehl, the journalist daughter of terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, argued in Die Welt, the glut of post-Ohnesorg propaganda helped establish "the legend of an evil and brutal West Germany," while simultaneously minimizing the very real brutality of Communist East Germany.

For those who sympathized with the '68 student left, the Kurras revelation struck like a thunderbolt. In an interview with the New York Times, Stefan Aust argued that "the pure fact that [Kurras] was an agent from the East changes a lot, whether he acted on orders or not." Otto Schily, who provided legal counsel for many Baader-Meinhof terrorists and would later serve as Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's interior minister, admitted that the Ohnesorg case must be "politically and legally reevaluated."

But when it comes to the wickedness and depravity of the (fantastically misnamed) German Democratic Republic (GDR), reevaluation is not something most Germans have been keen to engage in. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was only a superficial reckoning with the crimes perpetrated by the East German state--one or two high profile trials against the likes of Stasi chief Markus Wolf and a handful of unenthusiastic prosecutions of border policemen and party functionaries were soon followed by a spasm of Ostalgie--nostalgia for the former dictatorship--famously represented by the kitschy television series The GDR Show, hosted by former Olympic figure skater and Stasi collaborator Katarina Witt. (The New York Times picked up the trend last year, headlining a book review "East Germany Had Its Charms, Crushed by Capitalism.")