The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine. Over forty years after the fact, documents have been unearthed that turn on its head the common understanding of a seminal event in German history:
The killing in 1967 of an unarmed demonstrator [Benno Ohnesorg] by a police officer in West Berlin set off a left-wing protest movement and put conservative West Germany on course to evolve into the progressive country it has become today.
Now a discovery in the archives of the East German secret police, known as the Stasi, has upended Germany’s perception of its postwar history. The killer, Karl-Heinz Kurras, though working for the West Berlin police, was at the time also acting as a Stasi spy for East Germany.
Here’s the photo that accompanied the tragic event, one that those of us who were around during the 60s will immediately recognize as similar to the famous one of the Kent State killings that occurred during the same era, in May of 1970:
I’ve discussed the power of news photos before: that they can give an extraordinary impression and shape opinion and history, but that the facts behind them are usually more complex and sometimes have to be revised.
This appears to be true of the Ohnesorg killing. As the Times article says:
It is as if the shooting deaths of four students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard had been committed by an undercover K.G.B. officer, though the reverberations in Germany seemed to have run deeper.
“It makes a hell of a difference whether John F. Kennedy was killed by just a loose cannon running around or a Secret Service agent working for the East,” said Stefan Aust, the former editor in chief of the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel. “I would never, never, ever have thought that this could be true.”
Ten years ago, I would not have thought it to be true either. Now I am not the least bit surprised; I’ve discovered for myself the truth of the old song “A Puzzlement” from Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s “The King and I”:
There are times I almost think
I am not sure of what I absolutely know.
Very often find confusion
In conclusion I concluded long ago
In my head are many facts
That, as a student, I have studied to procure,
In my head are many facts..
Of which I wish I was more certain I was sure!
In Germany today, many people are finding themselves unsure of what they thought they absolutely knew for the last forty years, raising:
a host of uncomfortable issues that are suddenly the subject of national debate.
For the left, Mr. Kurras’s [the shooter's] true allegiance strikes at the underpinnings of the 1968 protest movement in Germany. The killing provided the clear-cut rationale for the movement’s opposition to what its members saw as a violent, unjust state, when in fact the supposed fascist villain of leftist lore was himself a committed socialist.
The incident seems to have been even more formative than the Kent State killings in this country, an event that was enormously important as well. Here, by the way, is the famous picture from the latter, in case you’ve never seen it:
And here’s the Times on the German photo:
Mr. Ohnesorg’s death had a powerful mobilizing effect. The photograph of a woman cradling his head as he lay on the ground is among the most iconic images in Germany. Average students who might never have joined the 1968 protest movement were moved to action. And on a darker note it became the chief justification for violent action by terrorist groups like the Red Army Faction and the Second of June Movement, which even took its name from the day of Mr. Ohnesorg’s killing.
No one knows even now whether the killing was ordered by the Stasi to create just such social upheaval, distrust, and unrest, or whether it was something that Kurras did on his own. His own statements (he was acquitted in a trial after the killing) are predictably self-serving and can be dismissed; the man was a spy: And what if I did work for them? What does it matter? It doesn’t change anything.
We may never know the whole truth. But there’s no question that the killing itself did change quite a bit. The question for today is whether the knowledge of Kurras’s actual identity will change anything for those Germans who believed it to have been something quite different for the last forty years. Just remember, as the song “A Puzzlement” goes on to say, people will defend and rationalize and even fight against a change in their perceptions of the world:
And it puzzle me to learn
That tho’ a man may be in doubt of what he know,
Very quickly he will fight…
He’ll fight to prove that what he does not know is so!