2nd of June 1967 – a German-Iranian-German Event
This article highlights a public event that was organized by Birgit Schäbler, professor of history of the Middle East, on June 1st 2017 in the cinema Arsenal in Berlin. It brought together outspoken 1967 contemporary witnesses such as the writer Bahman Nirumand, politician Hans-Christian Ströbele and filmmaker Wolfgang Landgraeber, as well as the historian Jens Gieseke, students and the general public in Berlin.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of an event that is taken as one of the milestones of German social and cultural history of the post-war period: June 2nd, 1967.
The death of student Benno Ohnesorg on this day in Berlin is generally seen within the national context of the old Federal Republic as the origin of the radicalization of the West German student movement of the 1960s/70s culminating in what has been called „the German automn“ 10 years later. Yet, this event is not only a national event but one with transnational and transregional implications.
The state visit of the Shah and his wife Farah Diba, followed with quite some fascination by the general public triggered the protests during which Berlin policeman Kurras shot Benno Ohnesorg on the evening of June 2nd. This event involves also Iranian supporters of the Shah who beat up protesting Berliners under the eyes of German police, as well as the Iranian students and their organisations who were in close contact with the German student movement.
In addition to this Westgerman-Iranian dimension there is therefore a wider Eastgerman one since Kurras was working for the Stasi, the secret police and intelligence of the GDR, a fact that was only discovered in 2009. While the GDR harboured the exiled leadership of the Communist Tudeh Party, residing in Leipzig, by command of the Soviets, the Federal Republic was home to the European headquarters of the Iranian secret service Savak, camouflaged as an Iranian legation. Thus, there is also an East-West and North-South dimension to the story, making it a complex transregional one.
Central questions are: Why was Iran under the Shah such a central issue to the student movement in Germany, while elsewhere it seemed to be much more the Vietnam war which radicalized students? Why were the Shah and Farah Diba so omnipresent in German mass media, the Imperial couple such sought-after guests? Was the CISNU (Confederation of Iranian Students/National Union) in Germany more radical than its branches elsewhere, did it influence and was it influenced by the German student movement SDS (Socialist German Student Alliance)? And what was the role of the secret police Stasi and the GDR at large?
The relations between Germany and Iran date back to the beginning of the 20th century. The Germans were the major foreign trade partner of the Iranians in the 1930s and the second largest one (after the US) in the 1960s/70s. Shah Muhammad Reza had been married to Soraya, born in Germany, and the couple on the peacock throne was therefore dearly loved by German glossy lady magazines.
Already in the 1920s and 1930s there had been Iranian students in Germany opposing his father, the first Shah, Reza Pahlavi. In 1931 a first „congress of revolutionary Iranian students“ took place in Cologne. In 1960 West-Germany became the hub of Iranian political student activities with the first international organisation being founded in Heidelberg (CIS), which became the CISNU (Confederation of Iranian Students/National Union) two years later in a convention in Paris. In 1965 the number of Iranian students in Germany had reached 5.000 (the US was home to 6.000 in the same year).
Interestingly, the Iranians in Germany, mostly academics and business people, never fell into the categories associated with migrants in general in Germany at the time. They were generally well-adapted – except the students who organized and radicalized together with their German fellow students. In fact, on June 1st, the eve of the Shah‘s visit, German and Iranian students (Asta, SDS and CISNU) organized an extra-curricular event at Berlin’s Free University in which Bahman Nirumand delivered a fiery keynote speech on the ills of the Shah regime which motivated great numbers of people to turn up at the protests. Things got out of control when supporters of the Shah and German police started to beat up demonstrators, culminating in the deadly shot on Benno Ohnesorg.
The severe mismanagement and disinformation from the part of the police together with a kind of political crisis in Westgerman society at large in 1966 with emergency laws on the political agenda led to a serious split in German society, between establishment and society at large on the one hand, and students and other „extra-parliamentary“ opposition (APO) on the other.
German and Iranian students radicalized side by side, speaking of an „emerging fascist regime“ in Germany and the „fascist dictatorship of the Shah“ in Iran. This kind of political language set them apart from their fellow students elsewhere in the West. In France, Great Britain and the USA students usually did not speak of fascism when attacking their governments or the Shah regime. Iranian students elesewhere spoke of the „brutal dictatorship“ of the Shah. But also considerable parts of the German public and establishment saw in the activists of the student movement revenants of Nazi thugs in the Weimar Republic.
Taking great offence at the demonstrations against him during his state visit the Shah demanded that the German judiciary prosecute those who had insulted him on the basis of § 103 „insult of a foreign head of state“, something he had already demanded in 1958 when magazines had reported unfavorably about his divorce from Soraya. (The paragraph became famous as „lex Soraya“ and was in the news again recently when Turkey’s prime minister Erdogan felt offended by a German comedian.)
The German government appreciated Iran as a market for its industries and wanted to retain the longstanding Iranian-German relations which Iran theoretically could also have been maintaining with the GDR. This gave the Shah quite some leverage in his dealings with the West German government.
Had the Stasi ordered its spy Kurras to murder Benno Ohnesorg, a popular conspiracy argument in 2009, when the GDR involvement of Kurras was discovered? From a perspective unfriendly to the student movement of the 1960’s it was swiftly argued that the GDR steered events in Germany and had undercut the movement anyway. Yet, no proof could be found in the archives. Rather, it emerged that the Stasi officers in charge of Kurras were not pleased with his act.
Why he had shot the peaceful student of German literature wearing a red shirt in a back yard from which he was trying to escape was never really established. Much speaks to the fact that as a fanatic gun nut and spy he was both overwhelmed and taking advantage of a chaotic situation in which he felt he was in the right. That he was acquitted in two court hearings (with much of the evidence having been destroyed, his police colleagues covering up for him and other witnesses being not taken seriously) and drew his pension until the end still seems scandalous.
The great number of Iranians in West Germany and the fact that so many of them had leftist leanings had led the Soviets to base the leadership of the Tudeh party in exile in neighbouring GDR, namely Leipzig. Did it hope to monitor the Iranan students in the West? While the CISNU in West Germany harboured also strong Maoist tendencies, the relations between the two groups seem to have been not unfriendly – yet, the archives still await researchers to delve further into the matter. On June 2nd, there were also rumours of an assassination attempt against the Shah in Berlin which have not been totally cleared up yet. So it is the Iranian side in its entanglement with the two Germanies at the time which would be interesting to explore further.
Birgit Schäbler studied History, Islamic and Political Science at the Universities of Würzburg, Berkeley and Erlangen-Nürnberg. In 1997 she was Visiting Professor at the Duke University and from 1997 to 1999 Fellow at the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard University. Afterwards she was Professor at the Georgia College State University. Since 2002 she holds the Chair of Westasian History at the University of Erfurt. Her research focuses on Area History and Global History, Middle Eastern Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Social and Cultural History, Nationalism and Islamism.
Iran Report zur Zusammenarbeit SAVAK-Verfassungsschutz, Frankfurt am Main, Selbstverlag, 1977.
Matin-Asgari, Afshin, Iranian Student Opposition to the Shah, Costa Mesa, Mazda Publishers, 2002.
Michels, Eckard, Schahbesuch 1967, Fanal für die Studentenbewegung, Berlin, Christoph Links Verlag, 2017.
Möller, Harald, Der Schahbesuch 1967 und “politische Theorie”. Was geschah am 1. und 2. Juni 1967 in Berlin und wie lässt es sich erklären? 19 Theorien und „Erklärungsansätze“, Berlin, Logos Verlag, 2014.
Nirumand, Bahman, Persien, Modell eines Entwicklungslandes oder Die Diktatur der Freien Welt, Reinbeck bei Hamburg, Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 1967.
Citation: Birgit Schäbler, 2nd of June 1967 – a German-Iranian-German Event, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 13.09.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/7758