History's lessons for the Quebec student movement: Remembering Benno Ohnesorg

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The burial of  Benno Ohnesorg. (Photo: KasamaProject.org)

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In the history of the German student movement of the 1960s, the name Benno Ohnesorg signifies a crisis, a turning point and a bizarre lesson in state power and media manipulation.

To the Quebec student movement and its allies, his name is perhaps not widely known. But it is a message in a bottle and a call to remember the past and to envision a future worthy of the name - a future that does not include the continuation of iniquities and a drift into violence.

Who was Benno Ohnesorg?

West Berlin, June 2, 1967. The Shah of Iran was on a state visit and an event was organized to protest his presence in West Germany. The scene was chaotic. Supporters of the Shah clashed with his critics. The substantial police presence at the demonstration led to further confrontations with the protesters.

At one point, the police turned on the anti-Shah demonstrators on Krumme Street. An order was given to the police to disperse the protesters using truncheons. In the fray, a plainclothes state police detective named Karl-Heinz Kurras shot Benno Ohnesorg in the back of the head. It is suspected that policemen beat Ohnesorg as he lay dying on the ground.

Kurras claimed he had been defending himself against knife-wielding attackers who had trampled him. His gun had gone off "by accident" and he claimed to be unaware that he had killed anyone until the next day. He was acquitted of all charges in two separate trials.

Ohnesorg was a student and a pacifist, participating in his first demonstration.

Surprising revelations

In 2009, some astonishing information came to light. It was discovered that Kurras was a spy, working for the East German Stasi. Some wondered whether he was also a provocateur ordered to assassinate someone in order to radicalize the student movement. Absolutely no documentary evidence has surfaced in support of this theory. But other evidence has since appeared that makes such notions seem insufficiently inventive.

In early 2012, the respected German news magazine Der Spiegel argued, convincingly, that there had been a massive cover-up. The West Berlin police, the doctors who received Ohnesorg's body at the hospital, and the media were all involved. Kurras's commander, Helmut Starke, claimed not to have seen him at the scene. But a recently discovered photo, which had previously been circulated only in cropped form, now shows Starke and Kurras together near Ohnesorg's body, just a few feet from each other. Moreover, restored film footage strongly suggests that Kurras was not under attack prior to firing the shot. On the contrary, we see a figure-almost certainly Kurras-slowly advancing into the fray, gun drawn.

At the hospital, a doctor was ordered by his superior to produce a death certificate claiming blunt trauma as the cause of death, rather than a gunshot wound. The wound was camouflaged accordingly.

Meanwhile, the media intimated that Ohnesorg died at the hands of student radicals. Papers controlled by the powerful Springer Corporation ran terrible anti-student headlines, such as "They Are Out for Blood."

The entire story was the work of malicious intent and pure fabrication. It was Kurras who shot Ohnesorg, and it would seem that he did so deliberately. Why? The exact motive remains unclear. The least we can say is that it was a brutal act on the part of someone who saw himself as defending some notion of law and order. But the cover-up suggests far more: a concerted effort on the part of the police, doctors, and journalists representing powerful interests, in order to both scare and demonize the students in view of dissolving and discrediting the movement. It was not the Stasi that was pulling the strings but the agents of state power.


At the time, none of this was known, except that Kurras had "accidentally" shot Ohnesorg. Yet this was enough to radicalize elements of the movement. In 1968, journalist Ulrike Meinhof, soon-to-be co-founder of the Red Army Faction, wrote: "Democracy ceases to exist when journalism serves only to describe police actions, when police batons, water cannons and service pistols become the logical, uninterrupted continuation of journalism. At that point, the police state has taken over."

Two groups in particular grew out of this time: the communist Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, and the anarchist June 2nd Movement (Bewegung 2. Juni), named after the date of Ohnesorg's death. Their actions included bank robberies, kidnappings, bombings and political assassinations in response to abuses of state power.

Many people associate the violence of these groups with the death of Ohnesorg. Of course, many other factors were at work, but it has become something of a commonplace to consider his murder as the proximate cause of the subsequent growth of the student movement, of a radicalization of some elements of the movement, and of their turn to violence.

Today, we should perhaps lay more emphasis on the fact that Ohnesorg was a pacifist, and so represented an alternative to violence.

Alternative futures

One might say that two futures opened up for West Germany at the moment of Ohnesorg's murder. The first, the future that in fact came to pass: violence was met with violence. The second, a future as yet unrealized-but not for that reason unrealizable-stemming from the same frustration and repression that led to Ohnesorg's tragic death. This second future would be one in which repression is countered by peaceful actions, such as non-violent civil disobedience, but also by investing democratic institutions with the force of a generation aiming to make society more fair, more just.

Of course, history does not boil down to such simple alternatives. But that is not the point. The advantage of the present over the past is that it contains unrealized possibilities, inherited from past generations or latent in existing conditions, that have not yet been stifled by the institutional guardians of social inequalities and the status quo. Among these possibilities, there are some that do not perpetuate the cycle of violence that events such as the murder of Ohnesorg can set in motion.

Let us hope, here in Quebec, that we do not have to face the terrible situation in which a protester or anyone else is killed-due to intransigence or ensuing frustrations, for example. Present circumstances (including one-sided reporting, reports and videos of shocking police brutality, and the absurdly repressive and freedom-killing Bill 78) make this hope particularly important, along with the actions that it may inspire.

At this juncture, let us pause to remember Benno Ohnesorg. June 2 was the 45th anniversary of his death at the age of 26. He was a victim of repressive, manipulative state power.

Proverbial wisdom would have us fight fire with fire, but there are other means. Occupy possibility.


Iain Macdonald is a Professor of Philosophy at the Université de Montréal.

This article first appeared in French in the Journal des alternatives.

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