Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Baader Meinhof Gang

Slaying of Benno Ohnesorg

West Berlin was going to be visited by the Shah of Iran and his beautiful wife Farah. The Shah was a popular figure with many in the West. Although he was only the second ruler in a dynasty that had been founded by his father, the handsome man had a regal bearing that seemed to speak of ancient authority. He was admired by many people for modernizing his country and for granting more rights to the women of his stoutly conservative Muslim land.

However, he also had many critics. His police force, SAVAK, was notorious for its torturing of prisoners and the royal dictator was brutal in dealing with political opponents. Just before they were scheduled to ride through Berlin in a royal procession, the Empress Farah published a misguided article about her family in the German magazine Neue Revue. The Shah's wife wrote, "summers are very hot in Iran, and like most Persians I and my family travel to the Persian Riviera on the Caspian Sea." The phrasing of this sentence is indeed curious.

Ulrike Meinhof published a rejoinder to the Empress that was circulated as a pamphlet. Meinhof was both tart and astute when she wrote, "Like most Persians isn't that somewhat exaggerated?... Most Persians are peasants with an annual income of less than $100." She went on to claim that "for most Persian women every second child dies" and to ask if those children of poor families who "knot carpets in their fourteen-hour day do they too, most of them, travel to the Persian Riviera at the Caspian Sea in the summer?"

When the Shah and Empress rode through the streets of West Berlin, many people of varying persuasions were there to greet them. Thousands of pro-Shah Iranians were there and so were many anti-Shah demonstrators. Most of the anti-Shah people were Germans because the Federal Republic had taken the highly undemocratic step of detaining Iranians known to be against the Shah. The police were out in force, trying to prevent attacks on the foreign dignitaries as well as prevent the pro- and anti-Shah people from attacking each other.

The pro-Shah crowd whooped with joy and shouted slogans of tribute to their monarch like, "Immortal Shah! Immortal Shah!" The anti-Shah demonstrators chanted, "Shah, Shah, charlatan!" The groups began jostling each other and some fighting broke out. Some among the pro-Shah group had come armed with wooden cudgels and violently bashed their opponents who naturally fought back furiously. The cops started making arrests and anti-Shah demonstrators got hit with police truncheons. The anti-Shah protestors tried to get away but police blocked off their exit routes.

Water was turned on the protestors. Many tried to flee, knocking each other down in the process. At some point during this melee, a plainclothes officer named Karl-Heinz Kurras pulled a gun and fired. A young man fell to the pavement. Another officer took the weapon away from Kurras.

Benno Ohnesorg, dead
Benno Ohnesorg, dead

The man who was shot was named Benno Ohnesorg. He was a 26-year-old, married college student majoring in Romance languages and literature. His wife was pregnant. He had never been in a political demonstration before. He had been shot in the back of the head.

Ohnesorg's death became a rallying cry for many on the left and led to the founding of a terrorist group called the "2 June Movement." Although separate from the Baader-Meinhof Group, it would be allied with it.

The next night, at a meeting of leftists, Gudrun Ensslin tearfully and angrily denounced the "fascist state" and "the generation of Auschwitz."

To the dismay of many, not just radicals, Karl-Heinz Kurras, who claimed the gun had "just gone off," was charged with manslaughter rather than murder in the death of Ohnesorg. There was widespread outrage when, on November 23, 1967, Kurras was acquitted of this relatively mild charge.

However, as one year gave way to another, the passions aroused by Ohnesorg's slaying and Kurras's acquittal cooled. During 1968, West German campuses became somewhat less politically frenzied. Many left the protest movement because of what they believed were its more outrageous and counter-productive tactics.

Gudrun was badly disillusioned by moderates on the left. They were not doing anything, in her opinion, but shoring up a corrupt and unjust system. As she became more immersed in radical action, she found that it was difficult to be a responsible mother and a revolutionary.

She chose the revolution and left her infant in the care of his father.

It was during this time of personal and political upheaval that she met Andreas Baader.

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