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JANUARY 23, 2012 7:42AM

The murder case that refuses to die: June 2, 1967

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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.

Peter Lorenz

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 grave 

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:


Surprise! Notorious 1967 assassin was an East German spy

Baader-Meinhof shoots its way onto American screens 

From Pastor's daughter to terrorist: Gudrun Ensslin at 70

The tomato that launched a women's revolution

Kristallnacht averted: November 9, 1969 

In search of a better Germany - east of the Berlin Wall








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I knew nothing about this case and was fascinated by your writing. I agree, if there is a conceiveable truth behind such cases, how will we recognize it.

A little bit of info. A little bit of falsehood. It's a dangerous ploy in full bloom. Another example of Hegel that thesis +antithesis = synthesis.
The truth is lost somewhere in the mix.
Thanks. I enthusiastically recommend the movie "The Baader-Meinhof Complex for a solid general introduction to this period.

It sounds like that all right, although the current view is that the Stasi were just as dismayed as everyone else. bur who knows what will be revealed next?

Yes, the police and government have been very clever about only releasing little tidbits of information and disinformation at a time.
Yes, this case is yet another proof (as if we needed any more).
Interesting. I knew nothing about this until your article. R.
Thanks, Rw, I'll check that out!
These cases are mirrors within mirrors within mirrors and the true loyalties of people like Kurras are always suspect. At the Kent State shootings there was a mysterious FBI informant named Terry Norman waving a gun. He may have been the one who set off the massacre. Our government seems to take no interest in finding out what his role was. Same old same old.
Thanks for this reporting Alan. I'd always been interested in the Baader-Meinhof history and became more so after seeing the movie. Is it possible the cops just shot someone more or less at random to set the tone? And I didn't realize there was any ongoing controversy about RFK's assassination. Sirhan seemed to be the lone crazed gunman. You might have added MLK to your list. That is quite the tangled mystery.

As for your larger question, there are some mysteries that will never be known. The JFK assassination is one. If the truth were actually presented, and maybe it already has been, I've no idea how we'd recognize it.
I had no knowledge of this, what an interesting mystery. There must be so many layers to it.
The creepy factor goes up many more notches...
I really don't know how to judge this one. You wrote it very well, Alan. R
When I started reading this and discovered the story is about something that happened in Berlin I was going to stop reading. But it grew in interest, and in not many words turned out to be pretty compelling reading.

I was stationed in Germany in the Army from early 1969 to mid 1971, mostly in Heidelberg. During that time I became aware of a growing violence-ready anti-Vietnam war movement, consisting mainly of students and student-age Germans. My unit was placed on riot alert several times in 1970 because students were demonstrating against the war at the Army's European headquarters in Heidelberg. In one demonstration the protesters killed a German policeman. They were very hard-core.

Some anti-war GIs were involved with these German students, and ironically they were among the soldiers who were being readied for riot control. I knew a few of them, and one guy in particular gradually transformed from a peacenik drug dealer to a bitter, sloganeering ideologue. He referred to himself as a Communist, and by it he didn't mean someone who believed in living communally so much as being a supporter of the Soviet Union. I took this to mean this is what his German friends espoused. He got a "European out," and I never saw or heard from him again.

This was in the spring of 1971. It wasn't long after this that the Baader-Meinhoff gang began wreaking havoc in Germany. That this group, and other fellow-traveler associations that sprang up at that time started from such convoluted beginnings as a murder by an East German spy working with "former" Nazi officers is mind-boggling. Among the lessons we can learn from this is that any society should be very careful about the kinds of people it places in positions of authority and responsibility.

Thanks for writing this. It takes more than a little bit of courage to write something like this for an American audience. It worked.
@John Hamilton
Thanks for your message! I wasn't familiar with the GI sympathizers. For more on the topic, you might want to check out my other pieces (listed above) and also watch "The Baader-Meinhof Complex," which provides a pretty vivid historical overview. To get a feel for the movie, either read my review (above) or else watch the trailer on Youtube.
Very interesting and well written although when I got to the comment regarding the "two irresolvable Kennedy assassinations" and the hint that 9/11 was part of some grand conspiracy, it lost some of its credibility.