Espionage – Treason with Death
Just a strange coincidence – or more? Before he fatally shot student Benno Ohnesorg, police officer and Stasi agent Karl-Heinz Kurras betrayed a defector who later died in Bulgarian custody. His name: Bernd Ohnesorge. Espionage Treason with Death
The encrypted telex informed Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher about a politically relevant death. In the early morning of December 15, 1987, according to the embassy in Sofia, a German citizen in the Bulgarian prison in Stara Zagora poured flammable liquid over himself and set himself on fire. The man, sentenced to 15 years in prison for spying for the CIA, is in mortal danger.
Two days later, the prisoner was dead. Sixty percent of his skin was destroyed, and the nylon prisoner’s overalls were burned into his body. After the body of the 43-year-old was flown to Germany in a zinc coffin, several secret services immediately closed their files. The dead man was well known to the American CIA, the British MI 6, and the East German Ministry for State Security (MfS). His name was Bernd Ohnesorge.
The striking resemblance to the name Benno Ohnesorg, the student who died on June 2, 1967, by a Berlin police bullet, may be coincidental. But another connection between the deaths could be troubling intelligence services and investigators again now, decades later. The man who shot Ohnesorg may also have shared responsibility for the death of Ohnesorg in Bulgaria. Karl-Heinz Kurras, West Berlin police officer and Stasi spy, had provided the MfS with incriminating material against the agent years later was apparently fatal to him.
The detective and the later CIA spy Ohnesorge met in 1966 in Berlin, the surreal espionage capital between East and West. The Cold War raged at its hottest in the divided city. Spies of all stripes stalked each other, offering their services as double agents; Moles penetrated the innermost areas of each enemy’s headquarters. Espionage Treason with Death
At the time, Kurras acted as a top source for state security. He had been hired by the East German secret service in 1955 and was now working in the West Berlin Criminal Police Department I, the state security service that mainly hunted down Stasi agents.
Bernd Ohnesorge was also a spy for the Stasi at the time. At 22, he had wanted to move from West to East Berlin, but the Stasi – like Kurras – had decided that he could be more useful in the West. Ohnesorge signed a declaration of commitment, adopted the code name “Urban,” and provided material “about border security from the West Berlin side.” In addition, he was assigned to alleged smugglers for money. However, the problem with his reports was that they often contained more fiction than the truth.
So the secret German-German relationship cooled off quickly. Ohnesorge, enthusiastic about the life of an agent, went in search of a new client. In the autumn of 1966, he revealed himself to the British secret service and offered his cooperation. But he didn’t want anything to do with the defector and promptly gave the West Berlin detective a tip to get on with MfS man Ohnesorge.
The case ended up with state protector Kurras of all people. During his investigations into Ohnesorge, the Stasi man was disgusted by the defector’s family, who had “repeatedly attracted the attention of the criminal police” for years. Kurras described the mother as a “notorious liar and cheater” who was “certainly an outlandish, querulous personality.” Kurras noted contemptuously that Bernd Ohnesorge’s underage sister had been in intimate relationships with older men from an early age. In letters to her mother, Ina Ohnesorge even debunked her liaison with a Stasi officer in East Berlin.
Kurras had gained such insights through interrogations and a house search at the Ohnesorges’ house, during which the sister’s letters had also been confiscated. Of course, Kurras immediately disclosed the content to the Stasi. Also, they handed over copies of his reports to the State Security West to warn the MfS about the family as a security risk – especially about Bernd and his sister Ina. At a conspiratorial meeting on January 7, 1967, Kurras reported to his officer in charge: “The house search took place because Bernd Ohnesorge revealed his connection to the MfS to the Englishman.” Kurras’ information had consequences in both parts of Berlin. In the West, Bernd Ohnesorge was arrested on suspicion of treasonable activities; in the east, the Stasi meticulously archived Kurras’ Reports about the defector. Ohnesorge’s sister, who was in East Berlin, was immediately targeted by the MfS. The 20-year-old was arrested four days after Kurras unpacked with his agent leader. In a trial before the city court, she was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for “state defamation” of the GDR and “false accusation.” Espionage Treason with Death
It wasn’t the source’s only momentous betrayal. According to his files, the top agent delivered hundreds of reports to the Stasi between 1955 and 1967. Including 24 “information about arrested MfS IMs” and details about at least five “deserted MfS members.”
In the shadowy world of agents and secret services, files can develop a fatal life of their own, even if they have slumbered untouched in the in-house archives for decades. Nothing is thrown away; at most, something incriminating is destroyed.
Bernd Ohnesorge was no longer able to earn a serious living. He lived on welfare and odd jobs, and the trained taxidermist posed as a doctorate in pathology. Eventually, he returned to the secret services. In the early 1980s, he was hired by the CIA. He flew to the US for training and returned to Europe with a delicate assignment. He was supposed to approach the wife of a high-ranking Bulgarian military man.
In the role of Romeo, Ohnesorge proved successful, as a spy less so. In August 1984, he revealed himself to the Bulgarian secret service and offered to work as a double agent in the future. In the interrogations that lasted for days, Ohnesorge also claimed that he was an illegal member of the terrorist group Red Army Faction. Counterintelligence experts in Sofia grew ever more suspicious. By telex, they asked the Brother Service in East Berlin whether the man was known there.
The answer was fatal. The MfS retrieved Ohnesorge’s file from the archive and found the old Kurras reports. In August 1984, the Stasi’s central department II, responsible for counterintelligence, reported that the “operational use” of Ohnesorge had already been “broken off” in 1967 because of “deconspiration and dishonesty.” Espionage Treason with Death
The Bulgarian chekists, who had traveled to East Berlin especially, understood immediately. Ohnesorge was a notorious defector, not deployable. In a secret trial before a military tribunal, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison without a lawyer.
The CIA, his last client, also dropped the agent and ignored the German citizen. Also, Ohnesorge’s desperate letters to Chancellor Helmut Kohl never arrived – the Bulgarian secret service intercepted them.
Only years later, his mysterious death by fire became public, thanks to the meticulous investigations of the Berlin political scientist Stefan Appelius. The scientist is shocked by how the German authorities handled the Ohnesorge case: “Despite the precarious prison conditions, a hunger strike and finally the self-immolation that fellow inmates doubted, there was a wall of silence about the case – to this day.” Shortly before his death, Ohnesorge asked a German consular officer for help in vain. He feared that he would not leave prison alive. Espionage Treason with Death
Kurras, who betrayed Ohnesorge to the Stasi, may have had little sympathy for him. In early 1967 he had already explained to a Stasi officer what should happen to defectors like him. One must “take sharp action against such traitors.”