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A left wing martyrdom reconsidered

Deutsche Welle reports:

New information indicates that the killer in the controversial shooting of student protester Benno Ohnesorg in Berlin in 1967 was a West German policeman who was also working for the East German Stasi secret police.

Sifting through reams of old files from the communist state security apparatus in East Germany, two historians, Helmut Mueller-Enbergs and Cornelia Jabs, say they accidently uncovered information that the policeman, Karl-Heinz Kurras, was a so-called unofficial employee of the East German Ministry for State Security (MfS) and a member of the country’s Socialist Unity Party (SED).

According to Der Spiegel,

It was one of the most important events leading up to the wave of radical left-wing violence which washed over West Germany in the 1970s.

Deutsche Welle asks the obvious question:

What would have happened to the German student protest movement of the late 1960s had people known that Ohnesorg’s killer had been a spy for communist East Germany?

My question is, what happens to the group memory of the German Left now that people do know that one of its iconic moments was not all it seemed to be – was in fact the opposite of what it seemed to be?

Perhaps not much. Since the Stasi files were opened there have been plenty of revelations. But that works both ways: the steady drip, drip has worn away the stone of the German Left’s own perception of its history. This resonates with me despite the fact that I did not know who the unfortunate Benno Ohnesorg was. I may have been precocious as a young leftwinger in the 1970s but not even my precocity extended to knowing the names of demonstrators killed by West German police brutality (as it seemed) when I was three years old. But though I might not have known about him, I knew – or thought I knew – there were many like him, all over the world. I knew that those better informed than I, the sort of admirable people whose book-lined shelves showed as background to their talking heads on BBC2, they knew about all such victims. Only it turns out that in this case they did not know the whole story.

I wonder if this revelation will have a similar effect on Germans of a certain age and intellectual profile as the revelation that members of CND such as Vic Allen really were Soviet spies had on me?

(ADDED LATER) Forgive me for coming back to a post after pressing “publish”, but I realise the line above gives the wrong impression, and there is more I want to say. The effect of the revelation that what the right wing press had hinted about CND – that it had been infiltrated – was the truth did not astound me. I had already changed my allegiance. If anything, it made me laugh. Well waddya know: the very thing that I clearly remembered thinking was a smear so ridiculous that not even the Torygraph smearers could really believe it, turns out to be a fact. But that laugh was my last laugh against my old self. From then on I thought of my former self as having been not just misguided but fooled.

21 comments to A left wing martyrdom reconsidered

  • dearieme

    “revelation that members of CND such as Vic Allen really were Soviet spies”: it surely couldn’t have been a surprise? CND was funded by the CPGB and therefore by Moscow.

  • Dearieme, as it happens, while you were writing your comment I was adding an extra part to the post dealing with that very point. Answer: yes, it was a surprise, but a surprise that came after I had already changed my opinion on CND for more general reasons. I was not so well informed as I thought I was and had not, in fact, known that CND was funded by CPGB. At least, I had been told it but I hadn’t believed it. It took quite a few knocks to get unwelcome information through my thick head.

  • Alice

    Today, we all know that Senator McCarthy — he who gave his name to the politicially incorrect hate crime of McCarthyism — was correct in substance if not in detail. Yes, the federal government, academia, Hollywood, & the media were indeed infested with anti-American communist fellow travellers.

    But has this truth changed any minds on the Left? The ability to believe sincerely in known untruths is a necessary characteristic of all true Leftists.

  • The difficulty when discussing McCarthy is that there are two ideas to get across, (1) McCarthy was a bully who persecuted many innocent people; (2) his central claim of widespread infiltration was true (particularly in the US State Department) and not all those he hounded were innocent.

  • I hate to disagree with anyone named Natalie, but I’m afraid that McCarthy’s biggest problem was not that he was vulgar and uncouth, but that he tried to play hard ball politics against people who were far better at it than he was.

    The role of communist intelligence agencies in left wing politics in the 20th century is going to be a lasting source of fun for the rest of us. Note that the left wing sage I.F. Stone has now been definitively exposed as a Soviet agent.

  • McCarthy was right that communism is a bad idea.

    The pope may have been right during the inquisition that Catholicism was a good idea.

    Both discredited their causes by their methods.

  • DavidNcl

    Alice, moderately: “the media were indeed infested with anti-American communist fellow travellers.”

    David, accurately “the media were indeed infested with anti-American communist traitors working for the Soviet secret services.”

  • el windy

    The trouble with both left and right of this thankfully by-gone era is that they were joined at the hip like siamese twins. The failure of one led to the failure of the other and the strength of one gives strength to the other. Communists and pro-Western propagandists were arguing over how best to organise a materialist society. Sixties fashion items are now as quaint (but admittedly more aesthetically pleasing) as aTrabant. KGB spies in Western peace movements were matched by lots of silly money being thrown at West Berlin for propaganda purposes as well as other corrupt deals elsewhere as well as arming and financing odious regimes because they were fighting the right enemy. Once the Berlin Wall crumbled many pro-American parties and organisations along with their lefty opposition also melted away or splintered. We will all carry on being fooled and take sides as we happily did later on over the Iraq war, WMD’s etc..

  • Natalie’s post seems to assume that the left will feel the need to integrate inconvenient historical facts into its narrative rather than simply ignore them. If you look at their willingness to ignore other inconvenient facts such as the atrocities committed by Che Guevara that strikes me as a questionable assumption

  • John K

    Sadly, the net effect of this information will be zero. As has been said, the narrative has been established, and cannot be changed. Thus, the Cuban Revolution was a Good Thing, and the fact that Che Guevara was a pschopathic killer, and Fidel Castro a dictator who imprisons gays does not figure. Now, if Pinochet had imprisoned gays that would be another thing, but Guevara and Castro are men of the left, so they get a free pass.

    Still interesting to know though!

  • Dale Amon

    I also fully expect to hear some day that the events in Londonderry that date the start of a terrible period of Northern Ireland’s history were done by a KGB assassin.

    Other revelations that have dripped out over the years:

    * the russians actually did acquire some of Hitlers remains and I believe still have a bit of skull with his bullet hole in it.

    * The Rosenbergs really were spies and really did pass nuclear weapons information to the KGB.

  • Subotai Bahadur

    Alice, moderately: “the media were indeed infested with anti-American communist fellow travellers.”

    The use of the past tense may be considered by some to be overly optimistic.

    Subotai Bahadur

  • Here in NZ our legacy of those days is our nuclear free fantasy. Based of course on fear, and driven by left wing “peace activists” it is a blot on the image of NZ as a free thinking society.

    The politicians who supported the Soviet led Western “peace movement” in NZ and elsewhere are still powerful. Helen Clark our ex PM. has recently been appointed No. 3 at the UN.

    I abhor those hypocrites, who must have known at the time of their activism that they were working on behalf of the Soviet Union. Today’s green movement is a reincarnation of that discredited 1970/80’s hypocrisy.

  • Paul Marks

    Rich Paul (or rather other people – as Rich Paul is as a master of the “drive by comment”, he says something and does not bother to read anything that might show he is in error), you know nothing about Senator McCarthy’s “methods”.

    You are simply going along with the B.S. you were taught at school, college and which is backed up by Hollywood and the rest of the media.

    It is easy to prove me wrong – show me that you have read M. Stanton Evan’s “Blacklisted by History” (Random House, New York, 2007) and have refuted the generally pro McCarthy case made there.

    Although of course Joe McCarthy made terrible blunders – the worst being the appointment of Roy Cohn as his chief assistant rather than Robert Kennedy.

    Certainly Cohn was better qualified – but that was not the point. The Kennedy Clan could have protected McCarthy – whereas Roy Cohn was a target.

    He was a Jew and a homosexual – which made people like Senator Flanders of Vermont fantical enemies, and enemies of anyone who employed him.

    I am not saying that Joe McCarthy should have been antisemitic or a “homophobe” – but he should have shown some common sense (and promoted Kennedy not Cohn). Not put his head down and charged with his normal I-will-do-what-is-right-regardless-of-the-odds-or-the-consequences mantra.

    That attitude reminds me of my father – and it also reminds me of me. And it is really dumb to behave the way I do.

    Taking on the Communists was hard enough – without taking on Republicans like Senator Flanders as well. A serious politician has to live in the real world (where bigots have to be worked with). It was bad enough (from certain people’s point of view) that McCarthy was Catholic and not from a good family, without him making things worse for himself.

  • Paul Marks

    Still back the main theme of the post – “right wing atrocities” that turn out to be have in fact been committed by leftists for the purpose of discrediting antisocialists.

    One example of this was the Taipei mass shootings.

    When the Nationalists came to the island of Formosa (once a Portugese colony, then a Dutch one – and only later part of the Chinese empire) on the defeat of the Japanese Empire (which had ruled the island since 1895) the locals protested against inflation, and other misrule by the new government.

    And the protesters were shot down in their hundreds – an event that helped further tarnish the image of the KMT

    However, the General responsible for these shootings (his name – I can not remember his name) turned out to be a long term Communist agent, who was soon back on the mainland openly supporting Mao.

    The Nationalist Army was full of such agents, they went right back to the terrible judgement of Sun Yat Sen to have the Soviets help set up the Nationalist miltary college back in the 1920’s – Chou en-lai (later foolishly considered the moderate force in Mao’s China – actually he was a lickspittle who went along with Mao’s crimes) was one of the main Communist recruiters of sleeper agents at the college.

    A successful Communist takes care to either build up his own military force or to subvert the existing one – or both.

  • Paul, if you have time I would be most interested to find out more about the events in Taiwan. I had heard of the “228” incident but had not heard this. Googling does not seem to turn up much, but perhaps I am using the wrong search terms.

  • tehag

    It would have made no difference. JFK was killed by a toad openly communist. Evil right-wingers still had the blame forced upon them by the likes of I F Stone.

    Because the communists ran the media, even if the the police officer had been revealed as a spy at the time, the steady drumbeat of the big lie (that the shooting exposed the repression inherent in the Capitalist system) would have overwhelmed all truth. Plus ca change….

  • Ignatz Zablonsky

    Could we call the murder of Benno Ohnesorg a Communist ‘Reischstag fire’? Could we call Karl-Heinz Kurras a Communist ‘agent-provacateur’?

    Or is it politically incorrect to employ such terms in reference to Communists, as is the case with ‘Holocaust’?

    To those who say that Joe McCarthy ruined the lives of innocent people, M. Stanton Evans replies: “Name one.” Yes, he used rough language, although not as rough as his antagonists in the media (including Soviet intelligence sources I.F. Stone, Michael Straight and Walter Lippmann), who routinely smeared him as a ‘fascist,’ a ‘Nazi,’ a homosexual, etc.

    While McCarthy certainly made mistakes, his opponents actually lied to cover up the facts he got right. What got him in trouble were not his relatively minor errors, but his very important though inconvenient truths.

    To get a flavor of how such truths were handled, see this.

  • Paul Marks

    Natalie, the book to read on Communist infilitration on of the Nationalist Army (and many other things) is “Mao: The Untold Story”.

    You have no doubt read “Wild Swans” – but it is possible you have not read the larger work.

  • Thanks, Paul. Right both times. Borrowed a copy of Mao but didn’t have time to read it all. Must remedy that.

  • .. in fact I feel a Samizdata post germinating on “Books I have read random bits of”, and the definciencies that come from my wicked habits of dipping here there and everywhere in books rather than starting at Page 1.

    Returning to the subject of this post, there is also a great deal to be said about the sheer disparity of curiosity historians and journalists (even those who do not think of themselves as left wing) show about left wing villanies versus right wing. Yet I persist in thinking that the truth usually percolates through in the end. Look at Communism, the force than animated all these infiltrators, and to which hundreds of millions sincerely dedicated their lives. Evaporated like a bad smell. Yes, I know other related ideologies are very much alive (alas) but who now would dedicate themselves to that dead thing?