NOVEMBER 9, 2011 2:57PM

Kristallnacht averted: November 9, 1969

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The burning New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse,
Berlin. Contrary to popular perceptions, the synagogue wasn't
torched by the Nazis but rather by Allied bombers in 1943.
(Source: Museum of Tolerance) 

THEY SAY A PICTURE is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a simple calendar date can outweigh millions of printed pages. Numerous dates have acquired iconic status throughout history: the Ides of March for the Romans, the fourth of July for Americans, the fifth of November for the British, the fourteenth of July for the French, and the sixth of June for the nations of the former World War II Alliance. For both Germans and the world’s Jews, the ninth of November performs a particularly powerful function since, among other things, it was the date of the German revolution of 1918, Hitler’s “Beer Hall Putsch” of 1923, the “Kristallnacht” pogrom of 1938, and German reunification in 1989 (I have written extensively on this historic date HERE). But what few remember, and as historian Wolfgang Kraushaar has documented in a 2005 book,1 November 9 marked a near-event of appalling proportions – a renewed massacre of Jews in the heart of West Berlin in 1969.

By that year the “summer of love” had long since turned hateful in Germany’s once and future capital city. The Vietnam War had poisoned the tentative German romance with the United States that had been developing in the days of the Marshal Plan and John F. Kennedy’s visit to the new Berlin Wall in 1963. The same went for Germany’s relationship with Israel, which many Germans – many of them with deep personal or at least family roots in the Third Reich – had come to regard as little better than a new version of Hitler’s “Führer State” due to its treatment of hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians.


Dieter Kunzelmann 
Dieter Kunzelmann (born in 1939):
"Political clown" or 60s "Storm Trooper"?


A left-wing resistance movement, which came to be called the “Extra-Parliamentary Opposition,” had been forming for years. On June 2, 1967, the student Benno Ohnesorg was shot dead by a West Berlin policeman during a protest against the hated, American-supported Shah of Iran (forty years later, it was revealed that the gunman was actually an East German agent). This led to the creation of the militant “June 2 Organization.” The following year, radical ne’er-do-well Andreas Baader and his girlfriend Ulrike Meinhof firebombed two Frankfurt department stores. They and their friends would later become known as the “Baader-Meinhof Gang,” responsible for dozens of assassinations and bomb attacks over the ensuing years.


One of the most sinister figures of the German leftist terror scene was Dieter Kunzelmann (born in 1939). Kunzelmann came from the art scene and was a co-founder of the so-called Situationist International in West Berlin in the 1960s. He soon gained a reputation for his artistic “happenings” throughout the city and gained lasting notoriety as a co-founder of the radical free-love Kommune I in Berlin-Friedenau in 1967, where he assumed the title of “chief provocateur.” That same year, he and his fellow "communards" were arrested for attempting to throw pudding on American Vice President Hubert Humphrey, an outspoken supporter of the Vietnam War.


Kommune 1 
"The personal is political!"
Iconic photo of West Berlin's infamous Kommune I (1967)


But Kunzelmann strove for higher things than just rapidly rotating sex partners and street theater. He wanted revolution, and so, like an entire generation of German terrorists, Kunzelmann traveled to Jordan, where he received military training from Yassir Arafat’s Fatah organization: “With a joint in one hand/Revolution in Arabland,” as the slogan went. Upon his return he founded the underground “Tupamaros West Berlin,” an urban guerilla organization patterned after the Uruguayan Tupamaros resistance group. Their plan was to bomb Berlin into a better world. In this miasma of half-baked revolutionary ideas and swiftly shifting alliances, Kunzelmann had “the leading role,” historian Kraushaar tells us. “He was the secret magnet below the surface of group relationships, forming a force field that was not always visible, but all the more powerful.”


It is not clear whether Kunzelmann’s contact with Palestinian refugees and Fatah fighters hardened his resolve to strike a blow against “the Jews” in general, but his letters from Amman during this period reveal a man with a mission. “The German Left,” he wrote, “has to overcome its Judenknacks (Jew hang-up).” Jews – not just Israelis – were fascists, he told anyone who would listen, and thus deserved to be treated as such. Finally he decided it was time to give these fascists a taste of their own medicine.


November 9, 1969 was the thirty-first anniversary of the Nazis’ Kristallnacht, a pogrom organized by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, in the course of which some 400 Jews were murdered and 1,400 synagogues were set on fire. The Jewish community center on Fasanenstrasse – built on the foundations of a torched synagogue – in the heart of West Berlin was preparing to stage its annual memorial service. 250 persons were on the guest list, including West Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Schütz, congregation chairman and Auschwitz survivor Heinz Galinski, and many prominent German and foreign Jews. Kraushaar’s research has revealed that it was Kunzelmann and his guerilleros from the Tupamaros group who got hold of a massive bomb (apparently from a government informer who was unaware of its ultimate purpose) several months before the event. Group member Albert Fichter then placed it in the community center and set the timer so as to set it off during the ceremony. The bomb was powerful enough to “tear the building to shreds,” a police report later stated.


Entrance to the Jewish Community Center
on Fasanenstrasse


The memorial service came and went without incident. The next morning a maintenance worker discovered the bomb. The police determined that the timer had gone off, but a defective detonator had kept it from unleashing a second “Kristallnacht.”


West Berlin awoke that morning to graffiti sprayed on Jewish institutions and memorials to war victims: “Shalom,” “napalm,” and “El Fatah,” it read. At the Free University, students stumbled over hundreds of copies of a Tupamaros leaflet called “Shalom + Napalm” that had been distributed the night before in order to justify what had now turned out to be an abortive massacre. It cited the “fascist atrocities of Israel against the Palestinian Arabs” and “the Kristallnacht that is today being repeated on a daily basis in the refugee camps and in the Israeli prisons.” In a previous message to chairman Galinski, the Tupamaros group had directly compared Israel with the Third Reich: “The billions in [West German] restitution are financing a new fascist genocide.”


Kunzelmann flew back to Jordan until things settled down, and was then arrested in 1970 for firebombing the home of a Berlin tabloid editor. After three years in prison, he repeatedly ran for local office and gradually adopted a new identity as a political clown in the 1990s when he repeatedly threw eggs at Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen. After yet another stint in the Big House, Kunzelmann still lives in Berlin today.


While Kunzelmann has never admitted to his central role in the attack, he did deliver an apology of sorts in his 1998 memoirs: “Every leftist had to know that such an operation would arouse no sympathy for the (legitimate) concerns of the Palestinian people.” Well, thank heaven for small blessings. But it is hard to imagine just how disastrous a successful Kristallnacht operation would have been for Germany’s frail  international image  on that November day forty-two years ago, let alone what it would have done to Israel and the Zionist movement. The attack would have rewritten post-war history and would also have pulled the very conception of “the Left” down with the allegedly “fascist” Federal Republic.


Today, Germany’s relationship with Israel is both close and deeply problematic. The Berlin government is one of Netanyahu’s most loyal allies when it comes to keeping the Palestinians in what Israel regards as “their place,” and any potential Israeli attack on Iran - which could end up killing thousands, if not millions of people across the region - would undoubtedly use German-built submarines as a launching platform for its nuclear arsenal. This relationship is in desperate need of review. But Kunzelmann’s “solution” has nothing whatsoever to do with this debate. It remains one of the most shameful memories from those turbulent days. With “leftists” like Kunzelmann around, who needs “fascists”?


Sometimes in history, cool heads prevail. Much of the time, though, we have to rely on faulty detonators. Yes indeed, thank heaven for small miracles.


Anyone can change: 

In his declining years, the unrepentant Kunzelmann has
gone over to throwing eggs, not bombs.


1Wolfgang Kraushaar, Die Bombe im jüdischen Gemeindehaus, Hamburger Edition, Hamburg 2005.

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Very interesting piece. I knew nothing about this. I especially liked your closing line: "Sometimes in history, cool heads prevail. Much of the time, though, we have to rely on faulty detonators. Yes indeed, thank heaven for small miracles." Here is to small miracles, that we should all have them now and then, and be appreciative.
Thanks Sheila. It doesn't surprise me that you haven't heard about it. Nobody gains by making it into a big deal (except us bloggers, of course).
This was new to me Alan. You're right that it would have widely discredited the left while simultaneously splitting its ranks. Also news to me that the cop who shot Benno Ohnesorg was East German. My knowledge of this incident is mostly from The Baader Meinhof Complex and I thought they treated it as just another West German policeman.
As the old saying goes, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. As for this clown, he would be indistinguishable from other protestors at a Tea Party rally here in the States.
I did not know that. Very interesting, and very frightening. Like Guy Fawkes, it seems this guy came within a whisker of changing history in a very bad way.
The brilliant "Baader-Meinhof Complex" was made before the revelations about the Ohnesorg case. While the story is a true bombshell, there is no evidence that the police officer was acting on orders from the Stasi. On the contrary: the East German authorities were livid and took away his agent status. For more on the case, you can read my essay - just click on the link in the relevant sentence above.
Very well done. And yes, the closing lines are excellent. Downright aphoristic.
hard for a german to condemn zionism, only nutters can manage to get over the threshhold of history.
Al loomis:
It is not on the agenda to overcome history of Nazi Germany,to the contrary.
Remembering the terror and learning from it:That is what happens in schools today.Terror victims,so they are still alive,go into classes and inform the students. Schoolclasses drive to the holocaust places,and the peace network between Israel and Germany has a long tradtion.