Benno Ohnesorg, a 26 year-old classics and German student living in West Berlin, attended his first-ever demonstration in June 1967. Protesters gathered outside the Deutsche Oper because the Shah of Iran was in town and going to watch a performance of the Magic Flute.
They were demonstrating against Iran's authoritarian regime, terrible human rights record, and the German government welcoming such a dictator to the capital.
The protest turned into violent chaos when the police and Iranian agents started attacking peaceful protestors. In the melee, plain clothed police sergeant Karl-Heinz Kurras shot Ohnesorg, who was unarmed, in the back of the head. As he was rushed to hospital, he died in the ambulance.
An early scene in the film The Baader Meinhof Complex documents the tragic events of June 2nd 1967:
He was a pacifist, wrote poetry and his wife was pregnant at the time of his death.
For the student movement, the murder of a peaceful, unarmed protestor was the perfect example of the kind of authoritarian state against which they were demonstrating.
Kurras was cleared of any wrong-doing after a number of controversial trials, and it was revealed in 2009 that he was a secret agent for the Stasi.
Rudi Dutschke, the unofficial leader of the student movement, demanded a denazification of the Berlin police, and criticized the demonization of the protesters in the conservative media.
The Axel Springer empire, including Bild, Die Welt and Berliner Zeitung, controlled 31% of the national daily newspaper market, along with 89% of regional and 85% of Sunday newspaper sales.
The coverage of the protest initially totally missed out the death of Ohnesorg, and when Bild finally acknowledged the murder days later, it described him as a “victim of the riots”.
Springer newspapers depicted the students as instigators, hooligans and rioters using violent rhetoric. An article in Berliner Zeitung about the protest concluded with the worryingly ambiguous final statement “Whoever creates terror has to accept force”.
As Dutschke became the face of the movement in 1967-8, he bore the brunt of negative coverage in the right-wing media.
It was the Springer press who first dubbed him ‘Red Rudi’.
By the start of 1968 this section of the media was against the movement and Dutschke in particular to such an extent, that it started subtly inciting readers to take direct action against it.
An article from Bild entitled ‘Stop the terror of the young reds now!’ identifies Dutschke as the main figure and goes on to suggest that the public doesn’t need to simply leave the ‘dirty-work’ to the police.
It is therefore no surprise that an individual took up this invitation.
Josef Bachmann, a right wing Bild reader, accosted Dutschke on 11th April 1968, calling him a “dirty communist pig” and shooting him three times in broad daylight.
Dutschke survived the attack, but had to relearn how to speak, read and write, and he died from health problems related to his injuries 12 years later. Having lost its reasonable leader, the student movement was crippled.
Just like the shooting of Ohnesorg, the assassination attempt on Dutschke further radicalized the movement, and a few former demonstrators went on to found the terrorist group Red Army Faction in 1970.
By Matty Edwards