The murder case that refuses to die: June 2, 1967
Benno Ohnesorg was shot on June 2, 1967
CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER, AS Alice would say. Perhaps the most poisonous cold case of postwar German history, namely the shooting death of student Benno Ohnesorg at the hands of a Berlin plainclothes police officer during a demonstration against the Shah of Iran’s state visit to the divided city on June 2, 1967, which unleashed decades of turmoil and terrorism, has just heated up a couple more degrees. And it sure smells bad. Can somebody please open a window?
One of the biggest stories of 2009 was the revelation that Ohnesorg’s killer, West Berlin police officer Karl-Heinz Kurras, was actually an East German agent in disguise. (I wrote all about the case HERE and you can find a list of my extensive writing on Ohnesorg, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and left-wing German terrorism at the end of this article.) But according to an article in this week’s edition of Der Spiegel, everything else we thought we knew about the case is fake as well.
During the flawed investigation following the killing, as the West Berlin police circled the wagons around a man they believed was one of their own and not a Stasi plant, Kurras testified that he acted in self-defense when he killed the twenty-six year-old pacifist. He said that “leftists” had drawn knives and were about to attack him. Few outside of police headquarters really believed that story. Witnesses heard Kurras saying his gun “just went off,” which fit his popular image of a cop with an itchy trigger finger.
In 1975, Berlin politician Peter Lorenz was kidnapped by the "June 2 Movement" to force the release of their imprisoned comrades
German students and leftist activists certainly didn’t believe the official line. They instead claimed that Kurras – whom they regarded as the very essence of the West German “pig” policeman and neo-fascist – had murdered Ohnesorg deliberately. As far as they were concerned, it was January, 1933 all over again. (In fact, the heavily militarized West Berlin police was packed with former Wehrmacht officers.) They reacted to the murder by founding the violent “June 2 Movement” and the terrorist Baader-Meinhof Gang a.k.a. Red Army Faction, which committed over seventy murders along with scores of bombings, kidnappings, and bank robberies. The RAF officially disbanded in 1996.
Kurras was found innocent of manslaughter. The result was a mass hysteria topped only by the September 11 attacks. But were the terrorists and their sympathizers actually right about Kurras and Ohnesorg, even if they were wrong about so many other things? According to Hans-Christian Ströbele, a leftist lawyer who defended the Baader-Meinhof Gang in court and who today serves as a Green Bundestag deputy from Berlin-Kreuzberg, the new revelations are “worse than the worst we ever suspected back then. Our imagination didn’t reach that far.”
The Spiegel report shows that everyone on the scene lied under oath. Newly examined photo and video material show that Kurras did not act in self-defense, or even under duress, but actually walked deliberately over to the unarmed Ohnesorg and shot him in the head. Nor was he alone, but was in fact surrounded by policemen who failed to intervene. He actually braced himself against another policeman’s shoulder while administering the deadly shot. His superior officer, Helmut Starke, was not far distant at the time, as he claimed in his deposition, but was in fact standing just meters away. Immediately after Kurras fired the shot, three other policemen moved in and started clubbing the unconscious Ohnesorg. Neither these three men nor the man against whom Kurras supported himself were ever interrogated. Their names do not appear in any of the records.
Ohnesorg died in the ambulance on the way to Moabit Hospital. But the deception continued after his arrival there: Surgeons opened the dead student’s scalp, sawed out the section of his skull with the bullet hole in it, then sewed up the wound. The official cause of death was recorded as “skull damage by a blunt instrument.” Der Spiegel got hold of the doctor who signed the certificate. “I didn’t do so based on my own examination,” the retiree told the magazine this week, “but on the instructions of my boss from back then.”
Ohnesorg's gravesite in his hometown of Hanover
So we'll have to start all over again. Why did Kurras really kill Ohnesorg? Who else was behind it? Was the Stasi involved after all, or else someone from the West German security services? And if the killing was deliberate, why did they choose the largely apolitical and certainly unknown Ohnesorg? This case, which is starting to resemble such irresolvable mysteries as the two Kennedy assassinations and the Olaf Palme killing, let alone 9/11 and plenty more, reopens the entire Baader-Meinhof, German Autumn can of worms. Perhaps everything we know about that dark era is wrong. But to me the new findings also raise deeper epistemological questions: How can we ever know anything for sure? Is there a single, coherent truth behind these contradictory events that anyone can ever arrive at? If so, how will we recognize this truth when it is found?
As Saint Paul once wrote, “For now, we see through a glass, darkly.”
And so we look. And we look…
My other articles on this and related topics: