Obituary: Erich Muckenberger

WHEN arraigned before a Berlin court for his responsibility, as a member of the ruling Politburo, for the deaths of the Berlin Wall victims, Muckenberger called the trial "victors' justice". He was subsequently allowed to withdraw from it on the grounds of ill-health in August 1996. The East German Communists had always claimed to head a sovereign, independent state, but at the trial they argued that they had been under orders from Moscow to maintain the Berlin Wall and, if necessary, shoot would-be escapers.

Many of those who defend the East German Communist leaders forget that Muckenberger, and virtually all of the others, were expelled from the party (SED/PDS) at its special congress in January 1990. At that time the Communists still ran the East German state (DDR). Had the DDR continued to exist they would probably have been tried for misuse of office and imprisoned. As it is, Muckenberger, and most of the other surviving SED Politburo members, have been permitted to spend their remaining days as pensioners.

Born in the industrial town of Chemnitz in 1910, Muckenberger grew up in a Social Democratic, working-class milieu. He completed his apprenticeship as a machine-fitter and enrolled in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) youth organisation in 1924. Three years later he joined the SPD and worked as a functionary of the Reichsbanner, the party's paramilitary formation. After the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 he carried on illegal political activity. Arrested in 1935, he spent several months in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

In 1938 he served a ten-month jail sentence. Although a known opponent of the Nazi regime he was called up for war service in 1942. After returning from the war in 1945 he rejoined the SPD. He supported its merger with the Communist KPD in 1946, and was appointed secretary of the new Socialist Unity Party (SED) in Chemnitz. He then rose rapidly through the ranks of the SED serving as first secretary of the party in Saxony (1948-49) and Thuringia (1949-52). Already a member of its Central Committee in 1950, he was also "elected" a candidate member of the Politburo.

Muckenberger owed his success to his enthusiastic implementation of the Stalinisation of the SED. This meant weeding out unreliable elements, above all his old Social Democratic comrades, and unswerving support for the SED leader Walter Ulbricht. He did not waver during the crisis of the workers' revolt of June 1953 and was rewarded by being promoted to full membership of the Politburo in 1954. As SED secretary for agriculture and forestry (1953-60), he was responsible for the forced collectivisation of the land in 1959-60. This helped to produce food shortages. The collectivisation was a factor in the growing flight of farmers and others to West Germany, which led to the building of the Berlin Wall in August 1961.

Although Muckenberger had supported Ulbricht during the SED leadership crisis of 1958, he was ready to support the change of leadership, which resulted in Erich Honecker replacing Ulbricht in May 1971. He gave up his job as first secretary of the Frankfurt/Oder SED organisation, a post he had held since 1961.

He then added to his many offices. From 1971 he became chairman of the all-important central control commission of the SED, a body responsible for party membership. From 1978 he was president of the German-Soviet Friendship Society, and from 1980 chairman of the SED group in the Volkskammer, the DDR parliament. He withstood the fall of Honecker in October 1989, when Egon Krenz and his fellow plotters were attempting to avoid civil war at the top.

The demonstrations for freedom increased throughout the DDR in the weeks that followed. In one of his last reports the security chief, General Erich Mielke, reported on 23 October on the "anti-socialist" demonstrations in Leipzig, Dresden and Muckenberger's home town Chemnitz (then still Karl-Marx-Stadt). Hundreds of thousands took to the streets. In Berlin thousands of SED members demonstrated in front of the party headquarters to demand renewal of the leadership and a fresh start. Muckenberger and most of the other Politburo members had no choice but to resign on 8 November 1989.

The following night saw the opening of the Berlin Wall and all DDR frontier crossings. Krenz himself stepped down with the entire Politburo on 3 December only 50 days after replacing Honecker. Krenz, Honecker, Mielke, Muckenberger and most of the other leaders were expelled from the SED on 21 January 1990.

Unlike Honecker, Mielke and others, Erich Muckenberger was at least spared arrest by the SED-led government he had reluctantly supported. Only his erstwhile comrade Willi Stoph, had survived longer in the jungle of the Politburo

David Childs

Erich Muckenberger, politician: born Chemnitz, Germany 8 June 1910; died Berlin 19 February 1998.

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