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Germans Once Again Look To Past, As West German Officer Revealed As Stasi Agent

  • Bernd Volkert

Former West German policeman and Stasi agent Karl-Heinz Kurras in Berlin on May 27, 2009

Former West German policeman and Stasi agent Karl-Heinz Kurras in Berlin on May 27, 2009

Twenty years after the fall of the Third Reich, a single event led many living in 1960s West Germany to conclude their country had yet to outgrow the tactics of its National Socialist past.

On June 2, 1967, a visit to West Berlin by the leader of Iran, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, sparked large street protests against German involvement in the brutalities of Tehran's authoritarian regime.

German police and members of the shah's secret service responded with force, beating protesters and attempting to break up the demonstration.

In the course of the fracas, a German police officer drew his gun and shot an unarmed protester, 26-year-old Benno Ohnesorg, in the back of the head, killing him instantly and burning an indelible image in the public psyche.

Radicalized Witnesses

German historian Gerd Koenen says the nature of the crackdown was controversial from the start. "The setting was a police operation titled Hunting Foxes, headed by a commanding officer with experience in antiguerrilla warfare in the German Wehrmacht during World War II," Koenen says. "This was the lineup."

Ohnesorg's killing sparked a radicalization of the German protest movement of the 1960s, with some activists founding armed guerrilla groups that engaged in the kidnapping and murder of politicians and other representatives of what they called "fascist Germany."

One such group even dubbed itself the June 2 Movement, establishing the day of Ohnesorg's killing as a turning point in Germany's postwar history.

The stark shift in the protest movement is now credited with helping to banish the remaining traces of national socialism and create the liberal social system that marks contemporary, post-unification Germany.

But now, more than 40 years since the shooting, Germans have reason to examine their postwar history once again.

Upending Long-Held Notions

Researchers have discovered that Karl-Heinz Kurras, the West German police officer who shot Ohnesorg, was in fact a paid agent for East Germany's Stasi secret police, and had been a member of SED, the East German socialist state party, since 1955.

The revelation has stunned detractors and supporters of Kurras alike. Koenen, who as a student activist in the 1960s was trailed by Stasi agents, suggests the story is even more complicated.

"It's a fact that it was not only the West German police, as we know now, who were deeply infiltrated from the East by the Stasi, but also the student movement," Koenen says. "The Stasi watched us professionally, and took advantage of both our student radicals and our state security bodies."

German commentators across the political spectrum have seized on the peculiar irony of the latest discovery -- the incident long seen as responsible for radicalizing the protest movement and liberalizing German society was sparked by the gunshot of a communist agent working within the ranks of the anticommunist West German police.

Reinhard Mueller, writing in "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," asks: "Are we in need of another rewriting of German history?"

Germans, he suggests, may be forced to abandon past notions about the entwined histories of the German Democratic Republic in the East and the Federal Republic of Germany in the West.

Probing Deeper...

Many accepted truths, Mueller writes, were in fact "co-molded by the GDR and its intelligence services, without many of the people in the West suspecting it."

Mueller is among the Germans now demanding a more thorough investigation into the East's infiltration of politics and events in the West.

Many complain that lawmakers can pass into the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, without an obligatory screening of their pre-unification associations and actions.

There has also been no investigation into the degree to which East German intelligence agents were able to penetrate law-enforcement bodies in the West.

But such unanswered questions extend to West Germany's actions as well. Koenen notes that authorities in the West are believed to have used agents provocateurs to infiltrate the radical fringes of the student movement, in some cases even providing them with weapons and explosives.

"This was West Berlin. It was a jungle, a jungle of intelligence services, and the student movement burst into this constellation," Koenen says. "That was the situation. And to clear it up, all sides have to ask themselves questions."

...Into The 'Abysses Of History'

Thus, 60 years after the adoption of the West German constitution and nearly 20 years after the unification of East and West Germany, the past remains an evolving and elusive issue for many Germans.

Koenen says the matter borders on "obsession" for many Germans. "German history abounds with material for debate," he says, "and as this case shows, the various abysses of Germany's postwar history haven't been fathomed until now."

The fate of the man at the heart of the debate, the 81-year-old Kurras, remains uncertain. Kurras was found not guilty of manslaughter charges in 1967 and again in 1970.

But the new revelations mean the former agent and police officer may face new charges, of murder, not manslaughter.

The Association of the Victims of Stalinization, which has petitioned the court to reopen the case, hopes a hearing would reveal whether Kurras was acting on the instructions of the Stasi when he shot Ohnesorg.

Researchers, however, have suggested that the Stasi files do not confirm that any East Germans ordered the shooting.

Kurras, for his part, maintains the shooting was committed in self-defense, and has denied records showing he had been paid by the East German security service.

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