Ghosts of the '60s in Germany - WSJ
The past can never be predicted, and perhaps never more so than when it comes to the German left. Two years ago, we learned that Nobel Laureate Günter Grass -- the literary scourge of all things fascist, especially America -- had himself been a member of the Waffen SS. Now comes another zinger that casts the radical political and social upheavals of the late 1960s in new and revealing light.
The historical surprise concerns a turning point whose ripple effects were felt in Europe and beyond. On June 2, 1967, a West German policeman fatally shot an unarmed, 26-year-old literature student in the back of his head during a demonstration in West Berlin against the visiting Shah of Iran. Benno Ohnesorg became "the left wing's first martyr" (per the weekly Der Spiegel). His dying moments captured in a famous news photograph, Ohnesorg galvanized a generation of left-wing students and activists who rose up in the iconic year of 1968. What was a fringe soon turned to terrorism.
To them his killer, Karl-Heinz Kurras, was the "fascist cop" at the service of a capitalist, pro-American "latent fascist state." "The post-fascist system has become a pre-fascist one," the German Socialist Student Union declared in their indictment hours after the killing. The ensuing movement drew its legitimacy and fervor from the Ohnesorg killing. Further enraging righteous passions, Mr. Kurras was acquitted by a court and returned to the police force.
Now all that's being turned on its head. Last week, a pair of German historians unearthed the truth about Mr. Kurras. Since 1955, he had worked for the Stasi, East Germany's dreaded secret police. According to voluminous Stasi archives, his code name was Otto Bohl. The files don't say whether the Stasi ordered him to do what he did in 1967. But that only fuels speculation about a Stasi hand behind one of postwar Germany's transformative events.
Mr. Kurras, who is 81 and lives in Berlin, told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that he belonged to the East German Communist Party. "Should I be ashamed of that or something?" He denied he was paid to spy for the Stasi, but asked, "What if I did work for them? What does it matter? It doesn't change anything." Mr. Kurras may be the monster of the leftist imagination -- albeit now it turns out he is one of their own.
To answer his last question, this revelation matters. It belies yet again the claims of the '68 hard left, passed on to our times as anti-globalization riots, that a free market and liberal democracy are somehow "fascistic." This brand of intolerance is at core prone to violence. The true, ruthless heirs to National Socialism and the Gestapo were the East German regime and the Stasi, the Soviets and the KGB. And in turn, some of the terrorist groups that emerged from the radicalization of the 1960s.
Present in Berlin that June day in 1967 were Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, who went on to found the "Baader-Meinhof Gang," aka the Red Army Faction. From 1968 until 1991, the RAF carried out dozens of kidnappings, bombing and murders -- all to fight the "roots of capitalism" and a "resurgent Nazi state." As 1968 historian Paul Berman notes, the most famous terrorist organization born in this era was the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The analogue in the U.S. became the Weather Underground.
Some '68ers grew up and peeled away. Others took time to see its dark side. An early reveille came at the 1972 Munich Olympics, when PLO gunmen aided by a leftist German group, the Revolutionary Cells, took hostage and killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches. The 1974 publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago" was another. So was Pol Pot, the Vietnamese boat people; the list goes on.
Historical amnesia makes us vulnerable to repeating mistakes. Particularly in an America, where many quickly forgot the lessons of the Cold War and of 9/11. More than most nations, Germans are condemned to a living history. That turns up the kinds of surprises that force a hard re-examination of the past and the present.
Posted by: Besoeker 2009-05-29