Benno Ohnesorg – Source:

In the ‘Next Door Radicals’ series, Sul Nowroz explores individual stories about ordinary people taking extraordinary action to resist injustice and oppression. While corporate and state media often portray activists as ‘other’, defining them by their actions, Sul gives us their personal stories and journeys, revealing nothing more radical than compassion and public-spiritedness.

Tamino is a handsome prince, the swashbuckling type from which legends are created. Women fawn over him but alas he is in love with princess Pamina. For Tamino, life is complicated as he battles villains and anti-heroes and Pamina’s mean spirited mother. But Tamino has luck on his side, and with the help of a magical flute he creates a new moment where light sweeps away his foes, and their wickedly destructive powers of hypocrisy and deception.

Tamino’s story is told in Mozart’s two-part opera, The Magic Flute. The opera was first performed in 1791 in Vienna. In 1967 it would be performed at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, would be in the audience, university student and protestor Benno Ohnesorg would be outside, and by 8:30pm he would be dead.

Deutsche Oper Berlin

The Deutsche Oper Berlin first opened in 1912. It was subsequently destroyed in 1943 and rebuilt in 1961. Its reincarnation is a sober square block rising four storeys and finished in a light grey façade. It is functional rather than artistic. The building faces onto the multi-lane thoroughfare of Bismarck Strasse, with the much narrower Krumm Strasse running down the side. Today, the tree lined residential side street is quiet; cars are neatly parked, and bright orange bins ensure litter free pavements. On Friday June 2nd 1967, the street was very different.

The Shah and the Students

Six days earlier the Shah and his third wife, Farah, landed in West Germany on a state visit. Although the Shah was a frequent guest to the country, the trip generated particular interest for two very different reasons. The Shah’s second wife, Soraya was well known to Germans – she was the daughter of the Iranian ambassador to West Germany and his German wife, and she had spent time in Berlin. Soraya was considered a local, and when she married the Shah in 1951 a German tabloid ran the headline German Girl on the Peacock Throne. Conversely, little was known about Farah, and this generated a natural curiosity about the woman who had unseated Soraya.  

Others were less consumed with Farah and more concerned about Iran’s record on human rights abuses, and its cosying up to the West German government. There was a public restlessness that summer, triggered by the threat of emergency laws restricting protest against the Vietnam war, and a general unease over governments adopting autocratic behaviours and enacting repressive policies.

The Town Hall, the Palace and the Opera House

Friday June 2nd was warm, with temperatures in the low twenties. The Shah arrived in Berlin with a full entourage – he was well known for his over-the-top exhibitions of grandeur and ceremony and on this occasion he didn’t disappoint. After being met by local dignitaries his motorcade, consisting of twelve vehicles and twelve motorcycle outriders dressed in white jackets, made its way to Schöneberg Town Hall. Four years earlier US president John F Kennedy declared “Ich bin ein Berliner” from the very same building. The sense of occasion was not lost on the Shah, who bused in crowds of Iranians to ensure a euphoric welcome, nor on student protestors, who noisily chanted anti-Shah slogans. It wasn’t long before the two groups clashed. News footage of the day captures the violence as wooden sticks are wielded by men in suits against shabbily dressed students. It was messy, and several protestors were hurt before the police finally stepped in and separated the two groups.

Source: NDR

The Shah and Empress Farah were then hosted at Charlottenburg Palace. Governing mayor at the time, Heinrich Albertz, greeted the couple and over champagne and canapes introduced them to members of the Berlin Senate. Outside the palace a crowd of approximately 200 protestors had gathered determined to express their objection to the Shah’s presence in the city.  

At around 7:45 the couple arrived at the Deutsche Oper. They were met by protestors, many who had travelled the one-mile journey from Charlottenburg Palace on foot. As the royal convoy pulled up to the entrance, tomatoes and eggs were hurled, and although none hit the Shah or Empress, some did hit the motorcade. There was a hurried effort to get the royal group into the building. Mayor Albertz, frustrated and embarrassed told police “When I come out, all this will be cleared up.

Number 66 Krumm Strasse

At 8pm the police launched a series of brutal assaults against the demonstrators. Batons were extensively used as officers rushed into the crowd to disperse it. It didn’t work. Students responded by using metal railings to push the police back. What little ground the police made was quickly recaptured by the crowd. Something else was needed. The order was given to deploy water cannon vehicles. Several of them drove towards the crowd blasting it and leaving protestors drenched. Police on foot rushed in – some protesters cowered using their arms to shield their skulls from truncheon blows, others, including twenty-six-year-old Benno Ohnesorg, ran.

Ohnesorg, studying Romance and German studies at the time, was new to protesting and this was his first demonstration. Frightened, he crossed the multi-lane Bismarck Strasse and ran 200 metres down a side street called Krumm Strasse. The street consists of three and four storey apartment blocks, several with open courtyards underneath for parking. Ohnesorg made it to number 66 and took shelter.

Karl-Heinz Kurras, an undercover police officer gave chase. Kurras was a complex character.  His father was a police officer and a soldier who died in WWII , Kurras served in the military himself before being injured. In 1946 he was arrested by the Russians and found guilty of counter-revolutionary sabotage and sentenced to ten years in prison, although he was released in 1950 and subsequently joined the police. Kurras had an overly zealous belief in law and order.

Karl-Heinz Kurras

Kurras, armed with a handgun, tracked Ohnesorg down in the courtyard of number 66 where he was hiding behind a VW Beetle. At approximately 8:30pm there were reports of a shot being fired. A female protestor was the first on the scene. She comforted Ohnesorg who had been shot in the head and lay in a pool of blood. He was unresponsive and was later pronounced dead.

Source: Screengrab @wrkclasshistory

Kurras claimed he shot Ohnesorg in self-defence. The gun Kurras used disappeared while being held in evidence before any ballistics tests were carried out. Bizarrely, parts of Ohnesorg’s skull also disappeared before an autopsy could be performed.

Kurras stood trial for involuntary manslaughter and was acquitted on November 27th 1967. Following an appeal by Ohnesorg’s family lawyer, Kurras was retried in 1970 and acquitted.

Ohnesorg was married and his wife pregnant with their first child at the time of his murder.  He was buried in his hometown of Hanover. His funeral was attended by 15,000 mourners.

Source: X

The Bullet That Changed Everything

Ohnesorg’s killing radicalised the student protest movement in Germany, who were alarmed by the increasingly authoritarian style of the West German government. His death was described as the “first political murder in the Federal Republic” by writer and 1999 Nobel Prize recipient Günter Grass. Abstract fears about state control, loss of civil liberties and a swing to right-wing politics became very real after June 2nd 1967.

In September of the same year, a conference took place in West Berlin to discuss forms of student resistance. A follow-up conference took place in early 1968 with some 3,000 – 4,000 attendees. Topics such as university ‘action centres’ and organising for ‘urban guerrillas’ were discussed. 1968 would go on to witness West Germany’s largest student protest movement, from which the early incarnations of the Red Army Faction and Germany’s Green Party would emerge.

Source: NDR

Ohnesorg was a student, married, with a child on the way. He was preoccupied by studies and grades, money and bills. Yet he found himself on a Friday evening standing opposite one of the world’s most ruthless dictators. Ohnesorg was demanding rights for all of us. All the while he was moments from his own death. Ohnesorg was buried in Hamburg having revolutionised West Germany’s protest movement. His death was a rupture in history, which for a short period allowed in enough light to sweep away the wickedly destructive powers of hypocrisy and deception.

In 2009 it was discovered Kurras had been an undercover member of East Germany’s Ministry for State, commonly referred to as the Stasi. He was a double agent regularly sharing information with his East German handlers, and on occasion getting orders from them. He died in December 2014.

©2024 Sul Nowroz – Real Media staff writer