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. (See pictures of East Germany making light of its dark 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. (See pictures of the dangers of printing money in Germany.)
"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. (Read "Germany's Islamic Terrorists: Echoes of Baader-Meinhoff.")
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." (See pictures of the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall.)
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.