German hero faces town's wrath

Shanghai Star. 2002-05-16

"The hero is the bad conscience for our personal cowardice. Why was he better than us? I never would have stood in the way of a masked killer. You did. That's why the poor,despairing Erfurters hate you" Franz Josef Wagner

A SOFT-SPOKEN history teacher who put an end to Germany's worst post-war massacre with a few gentle words has been vilified by many in the city of Erfurt, still numbed by the school shooting that left 17 dead.

Rainer Heise has gone from an improbable national hero to a target of local wrath in the two weeks since he confronted the former student, pushed him into a supply room, and locked the door. Moments later the teenage gunman shot himself.

Heise was at first celebrated for his bravery and the image of the balding 60-year-old teacher with a white goatee giving animated interviews appeared on every major German television network and on newspaper front pages across the country.

But the friendly teacher's oft-told account of how he persuaded former pupil Robert Steinhaueser to put down his gun - after he had killed 16 people - with nothing more than a few words has created a backlash in this eastern German city of 197,000.

The first attack against Heise came from the school's head teacher, Christiane Alt. She publicly scolded him for giving so many interviews. Fellow teachers and even strangers on the street have since been calling him a "liar" and "dirty pig". He has even received telephone death threats.

"Sometimes I think he could have been a more quiet hero," said Alt, who hid in her locked office at the Johann Gutenberg high school as the expelled pupil shot her secretary in the head at point-blank range at the start of the April 26 attack.

Even local police, who at first said Heise's courage had probably prevented more bloodshed, have added to Heise's troubles. Erfurt police chief Rainer Grube said that most of the teacher's account about how he stopped the gunman is credible but there were nevertheless some "open questions".

Steinhaeuser, 19, was found dead in the art supply room after shooting himself in the head. During a 20-minute rampage at his former school he shot dead 12 teachers, a school secretary, two pupils and a police officer.


"I'm devastated and can't go on - all this animosity," Heise said. "I'm a bag of nerves. I can't change what happened. I don't understand the criticism from Mrs Alt."

A mixture of envy over his astonishing bravery, frustration over their own helplessness and anger over their own cowardice has made the mild-mannered Heise a focal point of emotions in Erfurt, which lies 320 km (200 miles) south of Berlin.

"The hero is always the sinner," wrote Bild columnist Franz Josef Wagner in a tribute. "The hero is the bad conscience for our personal cowardice. Why was he better than us? I never would have stood in the way of a masked killer. You did. That's why the poor, despairing Erfurters hate you."

A police spokeswoman said they currently have no major doubts about Heise's account, but some general details are still being examined.

Some investigators quoted in newspaper accounts said they had suspicions about why Heise ran back into his classroom after taking his students to safety, why he opened the door all the way after seeing the gunman in the hallway, and why he did not grab the pistol after Steinhaeuser put it down.

"Some contradictions have become apparent in the reconstruction of the events," said Grube, Erfurt's police chief, in an interview with the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

"I have an aversion to weapons," Heise told the Sunday weekly, responding to the doubts raised. The teacher said another reason he did not want to take the gun was that he feared police might then mistake him for an assailant.

Heise said he does not know why he told Steinhaeuser to take the gun with him into the supply room rather than take it away.

'Medal of death'

Word of Heise's heroics did not emerge until about 24 hours after the shooting, in part because he was interrogated by police for many hours. But news of his fearless actions offered a nation stunned by the massacre badly needed relief.

The government in Berlin quickly proposed awarding Heise the prestigious national medal of honour for his bravery. "Heise showed us courage," said Interior Minister Otto Schily.

But Heise, a divorced father of an adult son, said he is not interested in awards.

"That would be a medal of death," he told Focus magazine. "The only thing I want is to be left alone."

He said some teachers have accused him of being a "dirty pig who revels in the blood of my dead colleagues." He said some strangers have spat before his feet in town.

"Maybe the next thing I'll do is get a gun and kill myself," Heise told Focus.

Erfurt Mayor Manfred Ruge said he fully believes Heise, but acknowledged the teacher's rather direct and animated style combined with the vast media coverage had caused resentment in the town.

"He's being subjected to a lot of hostility," Ruge said. "He's been very open. That's just the way he is." (Agencies via Xinhua)

Copyright by Shanghai Star.