German Policeman Unmasked as Stasi Spy

German Policeman Unmasked as Stasi Spy

When Benno Ohnesorg was shot on June 2, 1967, by a policeman in West Berlin
during a demonstration against the Shah of Iran, the young German student
became a martyr for a generation of left-wing activists. The killing
triggered the radicalization of the mass protest movement in West Germany,
which directed its anger against the police, the government and the
conservative establishment. The poignant image of a woman cradling
Ohnesorg’s head as he lay dying on the ground became etched in Germans’
minds. But now it has emerged that the police officer who pulled the trigger
was actually a spy working for the Stasi, East Germany’s dreaded secret
police. The revelation has stunned Germans and thrown a whole new light on
Germany’s past.

A researcher working for a government agency that manages the old communist
regime’s secret police records stumbled across the new information as she
was carrying out research on another project. The former West Berlin cop,
Karl-Heinz Kurras, has a bulging Stasi file of some 7,000 pages. Kurras, it
turns out, was a member of the East German SED Communist Party as well as an
active Stasi agent. He joined the West Berlin police at the age of 22 in
1950, but five years later he switched sides and went to the authorities in
East Berlin. Kurras wanted to move to East Germany, but he was persuaded to
stay with the police in West Berlin and spy for the Stasi under the cover
name of Otto Bohl. For years, Kurras delivered sensitive information about
Allied soldiers and police officers to his controllers in East Berlin.
According to government officials, he was rewarded handsomely for his
services. One payment alone in 1966, for instance, came to 4,500 German
marks, worth just over $1,000 at the time.

“The discovery of the new Kurras file confirms the view that the East German
secret police, the Stasi, was also active in West Berlin and West Germany
and had agents in important positions, as well as being active of course in
East Germany,” says Hans Altendorf, director of the Birthler Agency, which
preserves the old Stasi files. “But no one would have thought that Kurras, a
police officer, was also a Stasi man. It was unimaginable for us, for
researchers, historians and ordinary Germans.”

According to the Birthler Agency, the Stasi surprisingly broke off contact
with Kurras shortly after the shooting in 1967. In the file, the Stasi merely
described the shooting as an “unlucky accident.” Kurras was charged with
manslaughter but acquitted in November 1967. After a successful appeal by
prosecutors and the Ohnesorg family lawyer to Germany’s highest civil court,
Kurras was put on trial again in 1970 and acquitted anew. He carried on
working as a police officer and steadfastly maintains to this day that the
shooting was an accident.

The researchers who unearthed the new documents say there was no evidence in
the files to suggest that Kurras was acting on direct Stasi orders to kill Ohnesorg. But the discovery that it was a Stasi spy who shot him has raised new questions about the history of the student movement. Prime among them: how might the student protest movement have developed if Germans
had known at the time that Kurras was in the pay of the East German secret
police The question is all the more sensitive since that movement spawned
the Red Army Faction, postwar Europe’s most deadly terrorist organization,
which killed at least 34 people in a series of flamboyant attacks stretching
into the 1980s.

The Birthler Agency has come under hefty criticism from politicians and
researchers who claim that the late disclosures showed it wasn’t researching the
Stasi files thoroughly. “We always assumed Kurras was some kind of
right-wing extremist, and now it turns out he was a Marxist,” says Hugo
Diederich, deputy head of the Association of Victims of Stalinism. “If we’d
known that earlier, it could have changed the student protests and the
course of history.” Diederich advocates a thorough investigation of “all
politicians, police officers and members of the intelligence services now, to
see if any of them were Stasi agents.”

Many Germans are still determined to confront their past, and thousands have
tried to get access to the files kept on them by the Stasi. According to the
Birthler Agency, 87,000 applications to examine the files were submitted in
2008, fewer than the 100,000 applications that were sent in 2007.
But this year’s 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall has sparked
renewed interest and heightened demand. “It’s important that the Stasi files
are open and there is access for victims, researchers, historians and
Germans to learn about their personal histories,” says Altendorf. “Many people need a certain distance to
deal with their own past, and that could explain why so many Germans are
interested now in seeing their files.”

Kurras, now 81, lives in Berlin with his wife, but his retirement is no
longer peaceful. The Interior Minister of Berlin, Erhart Koerting, has
called for Kurras’ police pension to be put under review. And Berlin
prosecutors have retrieved the old Kurras files from the archives in
order to review the criminal case. However those issues play out for Kurras,
the revelations offer further proof that the final version of Germany’s
shadowy postwar history has yet to be written — indeed, it may never be.

Read a TIME story on the 1967 shooting.

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