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Sorry about the Baader-Meinhof gang. And syndrome.
February 1, 2010 7:46 AM   Subscribe

The truth about the gunshot that changed Germany. On June 2, 1967, a West Berlin police officer named Karl-Heinz Kurras killed a leftist protester named Benno Ohnesorg. This killing galvanized the West German student movement, and led to a decade of protesting and actual armed conflict (notably by the Red Army Faction, aka the Baader-Meinhof gang [previously]). It turns out that the police officer was a member of the Stasi, the infamous East German secret police.

This event is memorably depicted in the 2008 film Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, and is remembered as the event that set off the '68' movement. My own interest in this may well be attributed to another meaning for "Baader-Meinhof complex".

The revelation last year has led to interesting discussions about the alternative histories that might have resulted if this fact was learned earlier.
posted by norm (22 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow. So was the shooting an intentional Stasi false flag operation, or a mistake that worked out for the DDR?

Auferstanden aus Ruinen, indeed.
posted by orthogonality at 7:58 AM on February 1, 2010


I highly recommend the Baader Meinhof Komplex film--it's absolutely engrossing.
posted by orrnyereg at 8:04 AM on February 1, 2010


Would history have turned out differently if people knew then the killer was a member of East Germany's secret police?

I'm inclined to say no. Not differently at all. There was so much momentum behind the leftist movement in 1968 that nothing was gonna stop that train.
posted by three blind mice at 8:04 AM on February 1, 2010


Baader Meinhoff Complex is a great film. Left me with a thought about the differences between leftist and rightist terrorists.

Right-wing terrorists are sociopaths, left-wing terrorists are narcissists.
posted by mpbx at 8:07 AM on February 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


Meyer's former comrade-in-arms Michael "Bommi" Baumann writes off Stasi agent Kurras as nothing but an embarrassing and grotesque relic of the Cold War for all parties involved. "An SED communist opens fire and kills a peaceful liberal, and the West Berlin police protect a Stasi man."

I belive this is probably the most likely scenario. However, totally fascinating. Awesome find norm. Tremendous FPP.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:11 AM on February 1, 2010


Man, I just hand "baader-meinhof" as a word earworm (what else to call when you find yourself repeating the same word to yourself all day?) yesterday. And then this shows up!
posted by notsnot at 8:15 AM on February 1, 2010


Would history have turned out differently if people knew then the killer was a member of East Germany's secret police?

Nope, I don't think so, and for two reasons:

Firstly, the West German protestors were, as a rule, not awfully sympathetic towards the East German regime either. Even though some Red Army Fraction terrorists would end up, ironically enough, cooperating with the Stasi and even living in East Germany, this was more a pragmatic choice than a heartfelt endorsement of the SED, and hardly respected even by the far left in West Germany.

Secondly, as three blind mice points out, there were many sources of discontent among the West German activists. While the death of Ohnesorg may have been one detonator, West German society was overdue for upheaval anyway, as the rather callous treatment of Ohnesorg's death by the authorities and segments of the press went on to show.

And, from that SPIEGEL article, it doesn't seem that the Stasi actually ordered that killing. It rather seems that the killer, besides a double agent, was a loose cannon anyway, with quite a deranged personality. In fact, for the Stasi it must have seemed a catastrophe at the time: there they had a high-level mole in West Berlin's police, an Internal Affairs cop ostensibly working in counterespionage, suddenly making headlines in the press, scrutinised by the West Berlin justice and losing much of his previous access. The Stasi people weren't particularly imaginative or adventurous: they must have blown a fuse.
posted by Skeptic at 8:26 AM on February 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


What a crazy mixed up world we live in.
posted by humannaire at 8:33 AM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Very interesting, thanks.
posted by shothotbot at 8:41 AM on February 1, 2010


I don't think that sympathy for the DDR has anything to do with why an earlier revelation might have changed history, and I'm struggling to find a US-centric analogy for it. How about this: if Kent State had been, in a weird alternate universe, ordered by a Soviet spy, for example, the resulting protests would have looked a lot different. Even that is a bad comparison, though, because the US hadn't been ruled by a notorious fascist state only twenty two years earlier. So Germans, worried about a perceived slide into fascism, get galvanized by what looks like the tactics of the SA; that it was (possibly) an act by an agent provocateur for the communists makes the whole resulting history more poignant, if not pointless.

I do agree with Skeptic, though, that the odds that Kurrus was actually acting on orders from the Stasi look pretty slim.
posted by norm at 8:42 AM on February 1, 2010


Man, I just hand "baader-meinhof" as a word earworm (what else to call when you find yourself repeating the same word to yourself all day?) yesterday. And then this shows up!

Interpreted loosely, the term is actually pretty awesomely self-referential. You start noticing Baader-Meinhof phenomena as well as people using the term Baader-Meinhof phenomena all the time after you first enounter the idea of "Baader-Meinhof phenomena"
posted by crayz at 8:50 AM on February 1, 2010


You start noticing Baader-Meinhof phenomena as well as people using the term Baader-Meinhof phenomena all the time after you first enounter the idea of "Baader-Meinhof phenomena"

It's like, some years ago when I was involved with community theater, we did a production of Nunsense, and soon thereafter a production of The Sound Of Music (hey, we already had half the costumes we needed!). And suddenly EVERY television show and EVERY movie and EVERY bit of life had nuns in it. Nuns in the background as extras, nuns in the foreground as actual characters, nuns in a van or shopping at the supermarket. It was just creepy. Turns out, nuns are EVERYWHERE ALL THE TIME, but I seem to just tune them out most of the time.
posted by hippybear at 9:17 AM on February 1, 2010


norm I forgot to write: even if Kurrus had been uncovered as a Stasi agent provocateur, most West German left-wing activists would never have believed such a revelation. They'd have seen it as as propaganda anyway. They were highly suspicious (with some reason) of West Germany's mostly conservative press of the time, and in particular of the Axel-Springer-Verlag, which publishes the best-selling Bild tabloid, and openly despised both the students and the GDR (for instance, up to the GDR's demise, all Axel Springer journalists were under strict order to always refer to it in scare quotes: "DDR").
posted by Skeptic at 9:25 AM on February 1, 2010


Norm: it still doesn't come down to Ohnesorg; there would have still been the attempted assassination of Rudi Dutschke the following year.

Particular (and terrible) attacks on student protesters aside, the German student movement and subsequent radicalization has to be seen in context, as Skeptic and three blind mice both suggest: first, the context of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of 1963-65, which unleashed a level of suspicion, rage, and contempt among young people in Germany toward their parents and grandparents -- forcing people to look at "the Nazi in the family photos," to paraphrase Gerhard Richter -- that has no real analogy in the U.S. or anywhere else. In other words, as galvanizing as Ohnesorg's death was, it wasn't actually going to take a student protester getting shot (i.e., the equivalent of Kent State) for that generation to believe that their parents' generation and the West German state were fascists and murderers; they already had concrete enough reason to believe that.

Second, it was obviously part of a growing (and radicalizing) international movement against Vietnam, for women's liberation, etc. That is to say, 1968 "happened," as it were, throughout the world, not just W. Germany. I think it's possible that the particular chronology of how and when everything played out in W. Germany may have been somewhat altered if Ohnesorg had not been killed, or it the truth about his killer came out earlier -- but (and this is the proverbial Big But) this presumes that the revelations about Kurras would have even been believed if they came out at the time, which I think is highly doubtful; why would the students have been inclined to believe the authorities on this score and not on any other? (on preview: jinx, Skeptic!)

In any case, as three blind mice says, I think the train had already left the station before Ohnesorg had ever been shot.
posted by scody at 9:34 AM on February 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


I am not arguing that there wouldn't have been a 68 movement if this had been known earlier, and mostly presenting the alternative history angle as an 'interesting thing to think about'*. That being said, in my mind the most obvious alternative history would have been the reaction from politicians and the more conservative people in West Germany. To go back to the Kent State hypothetical, it's not hard to imagine a third Red Scare resulting from finding out that the shootings were ordered by a Soviet plant. Finding out that the West Berlin police had been infiltrated by Stasi would have likely led to a big purge or worse. As for the students? I'm not sure how much it would have changed, but it sure is a crazy plot twist that the spark for protests wasn't what they thought it was.

*At the risk of seeming like I'm trying to moderate this thread, which I swear to god I'm not.
posted by norm at 10:33 AM on February 1, 2010


If revealed, this would possibly have led to a bit more distrust of the West Germans by other countries. "if their police are so heavily penetrated, what else"
posted by Megafly at 10:53 AM on February 1, 2010


Oh, I agree that it's a fascinating twist to the story (and I meant to thank you for this post when I commented, by the way, lest I sound too fighty).
posted by scody at 10:57 AM on February 1, 2010


Baader-Meinhoff also an album by english musician Luke Haines (of Auteurs and Black Box Recorderfame).

Tasters here:
Meet me at the airport.
Theres Gonna be an accident

notsnot - if you think the names Baader-Meinhoff together is an earworm, seek out this album. You will not be dissapointed.

p.s. I one day intend to make an epic Luke Haines post akin to the amazing Shane McGowan and the Pogues post from last year. One day...
posted by therubettes at 11:59 AM on February 1, 2010


Finding out that the West Berlin police had been infiltrated by Stasi would have likely led to a big purge or worse.

Hardly. The West Germans knew perfectly well that their state was infiltrated at all levels by the Stasi. After all, even the head of West German counterespionage had defected to the East (and back!) in the 50s. And then in the 70s, even the Chancellor's aide was revealed as a mole. Even that failed to unleash a witch hunt...
posted by Skeptic at 12:02 PM on February 1, 2010 [2 favorites]



And, from that SPIEGEL article, it doesn't seem that the Stasi actually ordered that killing.

Yes, and like Skeptic suggests, some of the coverage of this in the English-language media seems to miss how pervasive the infiltration of the Stasi was in West Germany.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 12:24 PM on February 1, 2010


Well, so far as the Red Army Fraction themselves go, how different would history really have been if they had never existed at all, or if they had instead developed into some tiny, ineffectual clown-show on the order of the Symbionese Liberation Army?

The RAF might have been one of the more effective New Left urban guerilla movements from a purely operational point of view, but it would seem to me that, like all of the other groups of their type in developed countries, they signally failed to accomplish any of their political or strategic objectives, in spite of all of the attention they garnered. I can't really see how the world or Germany is different in any material way today for their having existed.

The broader '68 movement I have no trouble seeing the significance of, but, as as several posters have already pointed out, that would clearly have happened in some very similar form even if the Ohnesorg shooting had never happened at all.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 3:23 PM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Everyone read the article right? It's made very clear that all the evidence suggests that this wasn't ordered by the Stasi and in fact they were pissed off about it. At the end of the article Kurras claims he wishes he'd shot Ohnesorg "5 or 6 times" and that he killed him "for fun". There were extensive notes in his Stasi file how he was a gun freak and had a uniform fetish. He was a crazy asshole who just happened to be useful, and the Stasi even suspected it before he inevitably screwed things up.
posted by DecemberBoy at 4:19 AM on February 2, 2010


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