One of the nice things about working in counterintelligence is the acceptance of the notion that some things are not quite what they seem to be. (One of the bad things is that it can make you weird, even slightly crazy, if you stick to it too long; see: James Angleton.) Working in CI, every day you encounter people, even whole organizations, acting out secret agendas that are carefully hidden from public view … but you get to know the hidden truth.
It is fashionable to deride anything like what I’m suggesting as a “conspiracy theory” which conveniently cuts off discussion amidst images of people living in basements wearing tinfoil hats. Yet conspiracies do exist – pretty much every revolution starts as one – and such thinking forms the basis of all espionage. There is a good reason the Russian word for espionage activities, what Americans term “tradecraft,” is konspiratsiya. Those who have labored in counterintelligence know that agents provocateurs, fronts, and even false flags happen all the time, indeed they are unexceptional, bread-and-butter things on Planet CI. Just don’t expect civilians, normal people – especially academics, mainstream journalists, and nearly all “deep thinkers” – to believe you. Yet every once in a while the secret world jumps into open view, and the reaction to the revelation can be anything from outright denial to speechless confusion.
Back in the spring of 1967, West Germany was enjoying a wave of student protests of the sort then causing annoyance across much of the Western world as the baby boomers came of age, crankily, and acted out in public. On the evening of June 2, a big demo in West Berlin protesting the visit of the Shah of Iran, who was in town that night seeing an opera, got out of hand. Police were jumpy and soon the demo was verging on something ugly. Then a twenty-six year old student named Benno Ohnesorg was shot in the back of the head by a policeman – for no reason, according to his friends. Ohnesorg died at this, his first demo, leaving behind a pregnant young wife.
Outrage ensued, not least because the protestors claimed that the unarmed Ohnesorg had been murdered by the police without cause; no one under thirty believed the policeman when he said that he had seen a knife and had to defend himself. For a generation, the murder became “the shot that changed Germany.” It didn’t help matters that the killer, Karl-Heinz Kurras, was a middle-aged cop of thuggish inclinations who had served in Hitler’s army in the Second World War, and was almost a caricature of the “fascist mentality” that West German baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s so detested about their parents. Kurras was an ideal stand-in for the so-called “Auschwitz generation” that younger leftists reviled and wanted to junk on the ash heap of history as soon as possible.
For the hard Left, Ohnesorg was a welcome martyr, since his death confirmed all their dark fears about West Germany, which they asserted was objectively a fascist state, despite actually being a high-functioning democracy, not to mention a quite prosperous one, with exceptionally stringent protection of civil liberties and dissent. There soon arose the June 2 Movement, a terrorist group dedicated to Ohnesorg’s martyrdom. Next came the far more dangerous Red Army Faction, popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, a terrorist movement dedicated to Ohnesorg’s memory that claimed to be fighting fascism, but whose leaders seemed mostly into fast cars, turgid ideological dissertations, and murder-as-self-actualization. It took the West German intelligence and police agencies over a decade to stamp out the RAF, even though the gang was small and not very adept, a longevity that, it turned out, had a lot to do with the RAF’s close relationship with the Stasi, East Germany’s notorious Ministry for State Security (MfS). The Stasi offered RAF fighters sanctuary, logistical support, training, even weaponry. (The support by East Bloc intelligence services for terrorist groups in the West was another issue dismissed as a “conspiracy theory” by mainstream thinkers in the 1970s and 1980s, but with the collapse of the Soviet empire and access to secret files – whoops – turned out to be quite true.)
Plenty of West Germans to the right of the Baader Meinhof thugs were troubled by the conduct of the German police. Kurras was never seriously punished for the Ohnesorg killing. Twice he was acquitted of major charges and was suspended from the force for four years, working in private security, but after that suspension he was back with the Berlin police and was actually promoted. Kurras continued a normal career, retiring to a pension at age sixty, remaining defiant and unrepentant: “Anyone who attacks me is destroyed,” he explained to a reporter who asked him about the shooting of Benno Ohnesorg.
By 2009, Karl-Heinz Kurras was an elderly pensioner and a mostly forgotten minor hate figure, yet that May he returned to the front pages in a sensational fashion when it was revealed that he had been for years a highly valued agent of the Stasi. Information from the files of the MfS, which German authorities have combed through carefully for over twenty years, revealed that Kurras had volunteered to work for East German intelligence in 1955. He wanted to move to the DDR, but Stasi handlers convinced him to stay where he was and to serve as an agent-in-place inside the West Berlin police. Files indicate that Kurras was a loyal and effective Stasi source, handing over reams of documents and all the information he could find to the MfS. He was decorated several times and was allowed to secretly join the SED, the East German ruling Communist Party, in 1964, a rare honor for a foreign agent. He helped the Stasi and the KGB expose double agents, reported regularly on U.S. and NATO military developments, and during the 1961 Berlin Crisis was informing the Stasi about critical events at Checkpoint Charlie, the heart of the East-West confrontation.
The revelation that Kurras was a long-term and highly valued agent of East German intelligence exploded like a bombshell, turning a generation’s worldview on its head. The man that Germany’s baby boomers loathed as the archetype of fascism, a living symbol of the evil Nazi-ish past, actually was a Stasi hero, a loyal servant of Communism. Many had no idea what to make of it, as the implications of the news were so stunning.The important question arose at once: Did Kurras kill Ohnesorg on the orders of the MfS, to bolster the radical Left movement in West Germany? It is impossible to answer this question with certainty, though it seems to be the obvious explanation for the crime, since the files are incomplete (and Kurras is keeping his mouth shut about any details, though he has admitted in recent years that he did serve the Stasi). Fearing that he was now toxic, the MfS put Kurras on ice after the Ohnesorg killing, as he was the recipient of much media attention. A recent reexamination of the Ohnesorg case has revealed that the killing was indeed premeditated, no one had threatened Kurras – he simply shot the young protestor in the back of the head without provocation, a crime which the Berlin police actively covered up the facts about. Why Kurras did this may never be known, but it seems unlikely to this former counterintelligence hand that an agent of such value to the Stasi would do something so certain to cause scandal and uproar out of literally nowhere, for no reason.
This sensational case is destined to leave behind as many questions as answers. It has caused a more-than-minor reassessment of the 1960s in German life, and the path of the Left in Germany in the decades since. Not to mention the irony noted by many that both Kurras and the radicals his criminal act gave birth to in the form of terrorism, were under the control of the Stasi. A brilliant op, clearly. And a good reminder that some things are not quite what they seem to be.