That a highly controversial, polarizing Middle Eastern head of state came to Germany and all the protesters turned out. Prime Minister Erdogan is coming to speak in Cologne — Köln to the natives. According to the FAZ, the protesters are already assembling from all over Europe.
It was Berlin, June, 1967, and the Shah of Iran was coming to town. Granted, he was only going to the opera — Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte — but hey! he was an American ally and puppet. Berlin, which has somewhat prided itself on civil disobedience ever since the latter days of the Kaiser’s reign, turned out in force. Actually, when one says “Berlin,” one must bear in mind that back in those days the population of Berlin contained an enormous element of disaffected youth from all over the rest of Germany. Because of its four-power occupied status (I’m going from memory of what I heard from my German friends 25+ years ago), if you were a male resident in Berlin you weren’t subject to the draft. And apparently even student residence was sufficient to get you out. Which means that Berlin university students skewed even more strongly left than university students typically do.
The demonstrations turned ugly, and fast. I’ve never found a book-length treatment of that night, although I’m sure such exist. Knowing what I do about how that place worked and to some extent still works, I’m quite confident there was a great deal of provocation among the demonstrators, in that they would have been liberally sprinkled with plants, mostly from the communist East, whose sole mission was to see to it that the demonstrators got well out of control.
On the other side you had the police. Something to understand about Germany at this time is that large numbers of their senior leadership in all public agencies had . . . ummmm . . . not exactly pristine consciences, when it came to what they were doing for . . . oh, say . . . the years 1933 to 1945. Oh sure, they’d got their “de-nazificationj” certification, but to an alarming extent those were simply fraudulent. How that process worked, at least in the Foreign Office, is laid out pretty thoroughly in Das Amt und die Vergangenheit, the government-commissioned study of the office before, during, and after the Nazi era. Let’s just say that there was a lively industry among former willing participants, fellow-travelers, and opportunists, where each would vouch for the other’s anti-Nazi bona fides. And a lot — a lot — of people whose fingerprints were all over files, files detailing close cooperation with the SS, the SD, and the Gestapo in occupied and allied countries, in identifying Jews and Jewish assets, as well as leaning on host country officialdom, to get in the boat and row on implementing the Endlösung got their “Persilschein” (referring to a popular European laundry detergent, Persil, famed for its whitening powers). I have no reason, no reason at all, to suppose that the police would have been any different, especially since the police had been even more tightly integrated into the apparatus of horror. Let’s just say that it’s a safe working assumption that the police on the street that night were anything but disappointed that the commies wanted to mix it up and maybe crack some skulls. For some of their senior officials it might well have awakened fond memories of the Kapp Putsch or the glory days when the Sturmabteilung went about breaking up communist rallies and smashing Jewish shop windows.
As Lincoln observed in his Second Inaugural, “And the war came.”
On the streets the night of June 2 was a student named Benno Ohnesorg (ironically his last name translates to “without worry”). He was married, expecting his first child, and this was his very first political demonstration (or so we’re told; it doesn’t really matter). Also on the streets that night was a plain-clothes police officer, Karl-Heinz Kurras. In the courtyard of a building he shot Ohnesorg, who died before they could get him treated at a hospital. At the time Kurras was cleared (of course he was, all his fellow officers swore up and down on it, didn’t they?)
Except that Kurras wasn’t just any old beat cop. He was also an agent of the Stasi, the principal East German surveillance and terror ministry. He was also a long-time member of the SED, the official East German political party. That didn’t come out until years later. Also not coming out until years later was that the June 2, 1967, demonstrations weren’t Kurras’s first rodeo. Turns out he’d been spying for the Soviets during the 1961 Checkpoint Charlie stand-off (English language link, this time).
The BBC calls it “the shot that changed Germany.” And boy did it ever. Among other young Germans radicalized by the events was a certain Gudrun Ensslin, who became one of the leaders of the Rote Armee Fraktion, the RAF, or as perhaps more widely-known in the Anglosphere, the Baader-Meinhof Gang (somewhat inaccurately; Ulrike Meinhof had long been marginalized, by among others Ensslin, well before the German Autumn of 1978). October, 1978 saw the suicides of the senior leadership in prison, but by then the organization had morphed into a second-generation, even more violent, operation. And they kept it up for years afterward, with bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and so forth, only formally dissolving in April, 1988.
By way of postscript: By 2012 new investigations (Kurras is still alive) cast serious doubt on the story told by Kurras and his colleagues (English-language link). That story was that the officer was attacked by knife-wielding demonstrators and to defend himself he shot back. Apparently that story can’t be squared with what is now known of the remaining physical, photographic, and documentary evidence.
Post-communist review of Stasi files does not reveal, it seems, that Kurras was acting on positive orders. And after the shooting the Stasi broke off contact with him (well of course they would; their asset had to be considered a watched man, by the left if not by the authorities). On the other hand, the Stasi recruited its agents very carefully, watched them like a hawk (counterintelligence), and generally spent a great deal of effort to ensure that they did things, and only those things, consistent with command from above. And Kurras had joined the Stasi in 1955, so by June, 1967 he’s been on the payroll for some twelve years. Even apart from his 1961 services to the Soviets he’s no rookie.
The promised demonstrations against Erdogan are supposed to be peaceful. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.