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The starting gun for a student movement

The news that Benno Ohnesorg was shot by a Stasi spy sheds new light on the birth of '68. By Wolfgang Kraushaar

The report on ZDF news last Thursday sent shock waves through the nation. It said that the policeman who shot Benno Ohnesorg (photo series) had been a member of the East German SED (Socialist Unity Party) since 1964 and as far back as 1955, a leading Stasi spy. There seems to be no doubt as to the validity of this information. Obviously the Birthler Agency, the government office which oversees the Stasi files, is too reliable. We are now confronted with the question of whether this offers an explanation for the terrible deed that took place on June 2 1967. Why did officer Karl-Heinz Kurras kill the demonstrator at close range? In both trials, the assurances of the accused that he had acted in 'self defence' were just as implausible as the theory put about by the interested parties that the shot had gone off accidentally in the confusion. After all Kurras was not only a gun freak, in the department of West German state security for which he was officially working, he was famous for being the best marksman. The key issue now is to explain whether Kurras's shot – and there is much to suggest this is the case – was premeditated – and if so, whether he was acting on Stasi orders.

The death of Benno Ohnesorg was the spark that ignited the student movement. During the 2 years preceding the event a revolution of sorts had taken over the campus of the Free University. But it was the outrage at the incredible circumstances surrounding his death – violent Persian claquers (SAVAK agents hired to welcome the Shar on his 1967 visit to Berlin), the "liverwurst" riot control tactics* used by the police, the incendiary headlines of the Springer Verlag newspapers, and much more besides – that carried the spark into the West to set universities and colleges alight over there. Without this signal the unrest would never have spread. Although the police initially tried to cover up the murder and the Senate issued a ban on demonstration, on 3 June 6,000 students gathered on the grounds of the Free University to discuss Ohnesorg's killing and the 'unofficial state of emergency" in West Berlin. The death of an innocent student had meanwhile sent a wave of fury sweeping through West German universities. June 2 became the starting gun for a student movement that took over the entire Federal Republic, and rapidly grew into an non-governmental opposition that came to be known as the 68er movement.

When, on November 21 1967, the district court of Moabit acquitted the armed police officer of charges of negligent manslaughter, the communard Fritz Teufel had been in custody for months on end for an alleged, but never proven stone throwing incident. This dissolved any last vestiges of faith the students may have had in the justice system and other institutions of the state.

The other key issue concerned what was happening on the side of the state, or more precisely, the political crisis in the Berlin Senate that was triggered by the events of June 2. A parliamentary fact-finding commission was launched and those held politically responsible for the scandalous police operation during the Shah's visit were forced to resign: the chief of police, the senator of the interior and, eventually, the mayor Heinrich Albertz.

The West German student movement was not just any old student movement. It grew with West Berlin on an island in the Eastern Bloc, it was shaped by the East-West conflict, which was also a system conflict. So it is no surprise that a politically radical movement like this should come under the sway of very different and opaque forces. This applied to both western and eastern sides, if to different extents.

The strength of the SED's interest in gaining political leverage from the death of Benno Ohnesorg was betrayed by one gesture, and it should have raised suspicions at the time. The East Germans allowed a convoy of mourners escorting the body of the German literature student to his funeral to pass uncontrolled through the GDR border from Berlin to Hanover. Over 100 cars carrying black flags crossed the border with none of the usual tolls and hour-long queues. The soldiers even formed a guard of honour and paid last honours to the coffin. On the bridges over the motorway teenage boys waved to the convoy. The affair bore all the trappings of an unofficial GDR act of state. But it would have been misguided to interpret the signs as genuine support for the student movement. On June 8, observers were not only being served up an act of propaganda, it was also anything but an act of solidarity. It was a brazen attempt to instrumentalise the student movement and a chance to brand the West Berlin police and Senate as murderous and fascistic.

Shortly beforehand, in April 1967 at the VIIth party congress, the strong man of the SED, Walter Ulbricht, had described the line of attack. The bits of West German intelligence which were useful to the state party, he explained, should be integrated, the unusable bits should be isolated and marginalised. Soon a secret file on "Youth Protest and Resistance" was doing the rounds of the SED politburo. It outlined a full-scale programme of action for the extraparliamentary opposition (APO). "Now is the time" the report said, "to focus on the resistance already existent among youths and students in West Germany and West Berlin towards West German government policy, to focus on their demands for a change in policy and the actions carried out by progressive energies in the various youth and student groups, and to develop these into a unified, steered youth movement in West Germany and West Berlin... In its character and aims, this movement should be anti-fascistic, anti-militaristic, anti-monopolistic and democratic". Note the tell-tale reference to a 'steered' movement.

There followed a series of exploratory talks and meetings between functionaries of the board of the West German Socialist German Student Union (SDS) and the central council of the East German Free German Youth (FDJ) movement in East Germany. Photographic documentation and information about the "fascist past" of members of the police force exchanged hands. These events appear particularly bizarre in the light of the recent findings about police officer Kurras.

Against this background the activities of a Stasi spy like Kurras inside the West Berlin police appear in another light. It suggests that he might indeed have played a key role for the Stasi, also in shaping their views of the student revolts. But we should be not let our imaginations run wild – for all that we now know about the dual existence of the policeman who killed Benno Ohnesorg, we are still almost entirely in the dark about his motives and the precise sequence of events. There is still one huge question mark hanging over all interpretations of the event: did the police officer shoot Ohnesorg on orders or did he have his own motives? Kurras still lives in West Berlin and is now 81. He begrudgingly admitted to the ZDF cameras that his SED membership card was real. The obvious thing would be to appeal to Kurras, 42 years on, to talk about possible Stasi and SED involvement as well as his own motives. Ohnesorg's widow is already dead but their son is alive. But this doesn't seem to be a realistic expectation. Kurras would have to face a retrial, because there is no statute of limitations on murder."

Police President Erich Duensing is credited with coining the expression. He explained the tactic: "Think of the demonstration as a liverwurst. We must strike in the middle so that it explodes out at the ends.

This article was originally published on 23 May, 2009 in the Berliner Zeitung.

Wolfgang Kraushaar is a political scientist and a leading chronicler of the '68 movement.

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