The real-life crime played out across 3 days of TV

One of the most notorious criminals in Germany post-war history felt his first taste of freedom last week after 27 years in jail. During a wild three-day crime spree in 1988 his infamy spread across the nation.

The real-life crime played out across 3 days of TV
Hans-Jürgen Rösner shows journalists how far he is prepared to go. Photo: DPA

In the centre of a small town near the Dutch border last week, a man in his late fifties sat down for a coffee before browsing though CDs in a music shop, the Kölner Stadt Anzeiger reports.

Under his clothes his hands and feet were chained, but nevertheless the discreet outing barely raised an eyebrow.

The contrast with his last public appearance could hardly be starker.

Twenty seven years and two months ago Hans-Jürgen Rösner was received by crowds of journalists from Cologne to Bremen like a rock star – despite the fact that he had a gun in his hand and he was holding dozens of people hostage.

Rösner was perhaps the wildest and most reckless criminal of his generation. With arms covered in tattoos, a shaggy beard and greased hair, he looked like someone who would stop at nothing – and he was.

In an age when round-the-clock media coverage was in its infancy, he became instant TV gold.

Journalists ask Hans-Jürgen Rösner what he wants from police. 

Bungled bank robbery

On the morning of August 16th 1988 Rösner and accomplice Dieter Degowski entered a Deutsche Bank branch in Gladbeck, a town near Holland, through an emergency ladder at the back of the building.

Rösner was already on the run. Two years earlier he had escaped from prison after 11 years behind bars. In the intervening period he had been involved in dozens of robberies.

But this time they made a mistake. A doctor had seen their entrance and alerted the police. As they left the bank with 120,000 Deutsch Marks (€100,000 in today's money) in loot a police car was waiting for them. 

The pair turned on their heels, rushed back inside and took two clerks hostage.

It was at this point that the media first got involved.

A local radio station received a telephone call. It was one of the hostages relaying the criminals' demands. In a fashion which was to repeat itself over the next few days, the pair had gone all in. Not only were they demanding a route out, they wanted more money – 300,000 DM to be precise.

Other news outlets sensed a story and began to call the bank up in a hunt for exclusives. Rösner's growling voice, which he willingly gave to TV and radio journalists, was just the ingredient to send a shiver of engrossed terror down the German public's spine.

After several hours the police buckled and brought the demanded car and money to the bank.

With their hostages in tow the bank robbers drove off.

But instead of trying to leave town immediately, they went shopping for liquor, food and sleeping pills. Strangely, despite the fact that they had their weapons drawn, the men paid on each occasion. A last stop saw them pick up Rösner's girlfriend Marion Löblich. Then they headed north.

First death

Hans-Jürgen Rösner being interviewed in Bremen. Photo: DPA

On the next day they were in Bremen, 240 kilometres to the north.

“The spectacular hostage drama from Gladbeck is far from over, especially not for us. Quite the opposite – the gangsters arrived in Bremen today” announced a newsreader on local radio in a tone one commentator compared to reporting the arrival of the Beatles.

Despite switching cars several times and changing their outfits the fugitives had failed to shake off police. So again they upped the stakes – this time taking a bus full of commuters hostage.

An emboldened press approached the bus and Rösner and Degowski gave interviews to TV cameras – even allowed their hostages to answer questions, while they pointed guns at their heads.

They then took the bus out of Bremen with 27 hostages including several children on board.

Up until this point police had remained at a distance, scared to do anything that would put people's lives at risk.

But as the bus stopped at a roadside restaurant their first intervention ended in a death. Apparently acting without the knowledge of their superiors, two officers managed to seize Löblich as she went to the toilet.

Rösen and Degowski threatening to start killing hostages if she wasn't handed back.

But in the confusion officers had driven off with her, and before she could be returned Degowski shot a 15-year-old Italian tourist  Emanuele De Giorgi in the head, killing him as he tried to protect his nine-year-old sister.

When the trio were reunited they set off again, this time for Holland.

During the chase a policeman died and another was seriously injured when their car collided with a truck.

Sight seeing

Dieter Degowski with hostage Silke Bischoff. Photo: DPA

In Holland, Dutch police negotiated the release of the remaining children in captivity. There was a brief shootout in which Löblich was injured.

Eventually police provided the criminals with a BMW and along with two hostages, one of them 18-year-old Silke Bischoff, they headed back to Germany.  

Next stop Cologne. Rösner wanted to see the town's famous cathedral.

A pack of journalists were waiting for them. They surrounded the car and started conducting live interviews. Some show the criminals photos of police officers who might be smuggled in in a possible hostage exchange.

Udo Röbel, the future editor-in-chief of Bild, Germany's most popular newspaper, agreed to accompany them in their car to show them the way out of the city. Others drove behind, competing for the best pictures.

At about midday on the third day of the chase the fugitives were driving south in the direction of Frankfurt.

As the BMW approached the state border, the police finally struck.

An armoured car smashed into the fugitives' vehicle, knocking it off the road. Special commandos started shooting. A total of 62 bullets were later found to have been fired from the police's side.

Tragically, the only death is that of the young hostage Bischoff – apparently killed by a bullet from Rösner's gun.

Tough verdicts

At the end of their trial, three years later, both Rösner and Degowski were handed life sentences. Rösner's will only come up for review next year, although he can now leave the jail for short periods under police surveillance.

Tougher questions also lay at the feet of the journalists who reported the story.

Speaking years later Röbel, the journalist who showed them the way out of Cologne, said “journalistically, we totally messed up.”

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EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Germany is known for having some of the world’s strictest gun laws, but shooting incidents continue to cause concern.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Is it difficult to get a gun in Germany?

To get a gun in Germany you firstly have to obtain a firearms ownership license (Waffenbesitzkarte) – and you may need a different one for each weapon you buy – or a license to carry (Waffenschein).

Applicants for a license must be at least 18-years-old and undergo what’s called a reliability check. This includes checking for criminal records, whether the person is an alcohol or drug addict, whether they have a mental illness or any other attributes that might make them owning a gun a potential concern for authorities.

They also have to pass a “specialised knowledge test” on guns and people younger than 25 applying for their first license must go through a psychiatric evaluation.

Crucially, applicants must also prove a specific and approved “need“ for the weapon, which is mainly limited to use by hunters, competitive marksmen, collectors and security workers – not for self-defence.

Once you have a license, you’re also limited in the number of and kinds of guns you may own, depending on what kind of license you have: Fully automatic weapons are banned for everyone, while semiautomatic firearms are banned for anything other than hunting or competitive shooting.

A revolver lies on an application for the issuance of a firearms license. Photo: picture alliance / Carsten Rehder/dpa | Carsten Rehder

How many legal guns are there in Germany? 

According to the latest figures from the Federal Ministry of the Interior, as of May 31st, 2022, there were 5.018,963 registered guns in Germany, and 946,546 gun owners entered in the National Weapons Register (NWR).

Where are the most guns in Germany?

Most legal guns are found in rural areas and are used in hunting or shooting sports. Guns are also more widespread in the western States than in the states that make up the former East Germany, where private gun ownership was extremely limited. 

READ ALSO: German prosecutors say poaching led to double police murder

What about undocumented guns in Germany?

One problem in Germany is so-called ‘old’ weapons. It’s impossible to estimate how many weapons from the two world wars are still in circulation and such antiques have appeared in a number of high-profile incidents in the last few years.

The pistol hidden in a Vienna airport by Bundeswehr officer Franco A was a Unique pistol from 1917 and the 2007 murder of a police officer in Heilbronn involved a Wehrmacht pistol. 

In 2009, around 200,000 weapons were returned in a gun amnesty, but it is still unclear how many illegal weapons are still out there.

Does Germany have a gun violence problem?

Gun crime is relatively rare in Germany, which has some of the strictest gun laws in Europe and, according to the latest figures from the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), gun-related crimes in Germany are decreasing.

In 2021, there were 9.8 percent fewer crimes committed with a firearm than the previous year, while the number of cases recorded by the police in which a firearm was used to threaten fell by 11.2 percent. Shots were fired in 4,074 of the total number of recorded cases, down 8.5 percent from 2021.

An armored weapons cabinet filled with long guns. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Friso Gentsch

Despite this, there have been several mass shootings within the past two decades, which have had a big impact on public consciousness and on gun control policy. 

Between 2002 and 2009 there were three major incidents of young men carrying out shootings at their former high schools and, in 2020, a racially motivated gunman shot and killed 11 people and injured numerous others in an attack on two shisha bars in Hanau. The perpetrator was allowed to legally possess firearms, although he had previously sent letters with right-wing extremist content to authorities.

Recently there were also shootings at Heidelberg University in southwestern Germany and at a supermarket in Schwalmstadt in Hesse.

Are German gun laws about to change?

The German parliament reacted to the mass shooting incidents in the early 2000s by tightening the gun laws, and, in the wake of the Hanau attack, a new amendment is in the works, which aims to shift focus towards monitoring gun owners with extremist, right-wing views.

READ ALSO: Germany marks a year since deadly racist shooting in Hanau

In December 2021, Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) announced her intention to further tighten gun laws, as part of a plan to tackle right-wing extremism.

The authorities in charge of the protection of the constitution have been warning for some time that neo-Nazis are deliberately joining shooting clubs to obtain guns and the Federal Ministry of the Interior reports that 1.500 suspected right-wing extremists among legal gun owners.

Campaigners say more needs to be done to stop gun crime. 

Dagmar Ellerbrock, a historian and expert on weapons history at the Technical University of Dresden said: “It is high time that we try to at least make it more difficult for these political groups to find their way through the shooting associations.”