May 21, 2009

The Day That Changed Germany

The iconic photo by photographer Jürgen Henschel. Student Friederike Dollinger, a stranger to Ohnesorg, is holding him crying: "What did you do, you've killed him, he is dead and now look at that!"

On June 2, 1967, Benno Ohnesorg, a German student of Romance and German literature, was shot dead by a plain clothes police officer during a rally against the visit of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. As a pacifist, Ohnesorg was a member of a Christian Protestant community. He was a poet and aspired to become a grammar school teacher, married, his wife being pregnant with their first child. This had been the first rally he had ever attended. He was 26.

Karl-Heinz Kurras, the fatal shooter, was found not guilty of negligent homicide on November 21, 1967.

Benno Ohnesorgs death led to the militant radicalisation of the extreme left and became the central argument for the self-justification of those who later killed almost hundred people. The Movement 2 June was named after the day of his death. The rest is history.

Now two historians, Cornelia Jabs und Helmut Müller-Enbergs, have made an interesting, potentially explosive, discovery. In an article in the respected historic specialist magazine, "Deutschlandarchiv", they published an article "Der 2. Juni 1967 und die Staatssicherheit". While doing research in the Stasi archives, they found documents such as the signed formal obligation of Karl-Heinz Kurras, his SED-membership book and several personnel reviews by his case officers. Kurras had belonged, so it seems, to "Linie IV" within the Stasi, known to have been responsible for "less than pretty dealings", so Müller-Enbergs und Jabs.

Kurras, so the historians, got a radio message from the DDR-Ministerium für Staatssicherheit following Ohnesorge's death, saying: "Destroy material at once. Stop work for now. Consider event as deplorable mishap...".

Anyway, Kurras was, following June 2, 1967, not expelled from the SED and as a member of a special task force of the West Berlin police, a unit that was set up to detect traitors within their own ranks, he was working at an extremely sensitive spot indeed.

So far, the historians can not tell for sure, whether Kurras had killed Ohnesorg at East Berlin's instigation or not. Facts are, that he was a crack shot who was unlikely to have hit Ohnesorg by chance, that he hadn't been "attacked" by anybody and certainly not by Ohnesorg, that he had hopelessly entangled himself in contradictions in the aftermath of the fatal event, and that investigation authorities had done everything to clear the name of "one of them".

Asked 40 years later whether he had, then, made a mistake, Kurras, then 79, replied: "Mistake? I ought to have blasted them to send the scraps flying and not just once; I ought to have shot five, six times. Everybody who attacks me will be destroyed and that's that", letting, incidentally, slip that his defence about the warning shot he had allegedly fired had been a lie.

Elsewhere, Gesine Schwan, professor of political sciences, Greens-backed nominee of the Social Democratic Party for the upcoming federal presidential elections and possessor of a face she duly deserves, informed us, that she refuses to use the epithet "Unrechtsstaat" (lawless state) for the former GDR because not everything had been bad there.