Obituary: Erich Honecker
Monday 30 May 1994
THE OPENING of sections of the Berlin Wall on the night of 9 November 1989 was in many respects the symbolic ending of the rule of Erich Honecker, the builder of the wall. In fact, Honecker had been overthrown 22 days earlier on 18 October. His fall as General Secretary of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) of East Germany was the result of a Soviet-sanctioned coup. This coup had been organised by his crown prince and security secretary, Egon Krenz, Minister of State Security, Erich Mielke, the Berlin party secretary, Guenter Schabowski, and some others.
It was very similar to the way Honecker, then secretary for security, had overthrown his own mentor, Walter Ulbricht, in 1971.
The Soviets had agreed to the overthrow of Honecker after mass demonstrations erupted all over the German Democratic Republic (GDR), giving rise to fears of violence. The SED regime had indeed prepared its security troops to fire on peaceful demonstrators in Leipzig but, at the last moment, the action had been called off, many said on the orders of the Soviet military authorities.
After his fall Honecker was, together with the economic expert Guenter Mittag, made a scapegoat for the years of economic and political failure. Only weeks later most of his associates in the SED's Politburo were also accused of mismanagement and corruption and they were then arrested. Honecker was spared imprisonment because of his terminal condition.
The crisis, which ended Honecker's 18 years of power, started after the falsification of local election results in May 1989. Angry demonstrators took to the streets of Leipzig. It deepened in the summer, when hundreds then thousands of East Germans, many posing as tourists in Hungary, crossed into Austria. Although a member of the Warsaw Pact, Hungary had opened its frontier to neutral Austria and had refused to stop East Germans heading for West Germany via Austria. The tidal wave of emigrants severely strained the already weak East German economy and exposed the political bankruptcy of the Honecker regime.
A Communist from his youth, Honecker was sentenced in 1937 by a Nazi court to 10 years' penal servitude. He was 25. He did not realise how lucky he had been in his sentence. As a Communist activist, he could have been sent to a concentration camp. There his treatment would have been harsher, and his chances of survival less good, than in the normal prison (Brandenburg-Goerdon) where he served his sentence. As a potentially valuable cadre, he could have been ordered to Moscow by his superiors in the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). In the Soviet homeland his chances of survival would not have been good either. Many German Communist refugees were among the victims of Stalin's purges, others died in the war and others died because of the primitive living and working conditions.
That Honecker would risk his life to act as a courier, helping to distribute illegal Communist literature taken to Berlin from Prague, is a measure of his Communist conviction at that time. He could have said, as Nye Bevan said of his membership of the Labour Party, 'I did not join the Party, I was born in it, I grew up in it, and I have had no reason to change my mind.'
Born in Neuenkirchen in the Saarland in 1912, Honecker grew up a few miles away in Wiebelskirchen. His father, Wilhelm Honecker, a miner, joined the newly founded KPD and rose to prominence as a local council member and trade union activist in what was known as a Red area. During his early years Erich Honecker heard about, saw and felt, war, hunger, revolution, counter-revolution and foreign (French) occupation. He joined the Communist children's organisation and later the youth movement (KJVD).
He became a fully fledged KPD member in 1929. The next few years were exciting ones. The capitalist system appeared in terminal crisis, the KPD vote was rising and the Soviet Union was starting its five-year plans. He was sent to Moscow for a year's schooling in 1930-31. On his return he became a full-time KJVD official in charge of its agitation and propaganda in the Saar. Given his background, it is not so surprising that he had no trouble with the party line, which had turned the Social Democrats into the main enemy and underestimated the Nazis.
Honecker was of the working class, but did he understand it? After elementary schooling he became an apprentice roofer with his uncle and, without finishing the apprenticeship, a professional revolutionary. Unlike his father, he was never employed as a worker, among workers - socialists, Communists, Catholics, Nazis, non-politicals - and could live more easily in a fantasy world of revolutionary myth. Blows were struck at this fantasy in 1933, when the Nazis took over Germany, and in 1935, when the Saar population voted to be re-incorporated into the German Reich. Honecker was then travelling around Europe on KPD assignments until his arrest in 1935.
Little is known about Honecker's years in prison, though East German accounts naturally claim he carried on underground anti-Nazi activities whilst in Brandenburg. It is known that he was a 'trustie' and was given various duties as such. The years 1935-43 must have been years of great spiritual and psychological difficulty for any German Communist. Germany was successful first in the economic, then in the diplomatic and military spheres. There was the trauma of the Hitler-Stalin Pact (1939-41) and the early massive defeats of the Soviet armed forces. As the war intensified Honecker's skills as a roofer were remembered and he was set to work repairing bomb-damaged buildings. It was while doing this that he absconded from a working party in March 1945. He lived illegally until the Nazi surrender in May 1945.
When the KPD re-emerged in the summer of 1945, Honecker, aged 33, was put in charge of youth affairs. He was responsible, under Soviet supervision, for the setting up of the Free German Youth (FDJ) in March 1946. He remained at the head of that body until 1955.
The FDJ represented the Communist takeover of East German youth at both official and unofficial levels. Originally, it was represented as a non-party, non-ideological, yet democratic and 'anti-Fascist' patriotic organisation. It had a virtual monopoly of all sports facilities, clubs for young people, youth hostels and subsidised youth holidays. Any attempts to form other young groups were crushed and the FDJ increasingly showed its Stalinist face. In 1955 it became officially, what it had been virtually from the start, the German equivalent of the Komsomol, the Soviet party's youth wing.
Honecker's career had taken off in other directions as well. In 1946 he had been elected to the central committee of the KPD. When the Social Democrats in the Soviet Zone were forcibly merged with the KPD in the same year, to form the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), he was 'elected' to the new joint central committee. In 1950 he became a candidate member of the ruling Politburo, reaching full membership in 1958. In the meantime he had spent a year of further training in Moscow. On his return, he was appointed central committee secretary for security.
At 46 Honecker had become one of the three or four most important men in the GDR. Much of his success he owed to his pro-Soviet attitude. His orthodox profile before 1945 and his single-minded pursuit of success helped. But his success was also based on his relationship with Walter Ulbricht, head of the SED from 1950. Yet he could have fallen on the way.
Political disillusionment and personal ambition brought any number of cadres to grief during those early years. There were those who were appalled at the Russification of the GDR and clung to the old policy of 'the German road to Socialism'. Others opposed rearmament or held Social Democratic notions of democracy. Honecker, with little education, experience or real knowledge of the Soviet Union, kept to the prevailing orthodoxy.
Most of what worried people could be explained, thought those like Honecker, by the Soviet Union's historical backwardness and war losses. German imperialism was responsible for the war and the Germans had to pay for it. Those who took a different view were 'objectively' (and whatever their 'subjective' views were) aiding revanchism, imperialism and war.
Honecker did not become a 'defeatist' in June 1953 when the East German workers rose against the system only to be crushed by Soviet tanks. However, he could have been in trouble then because many of his young men, whom he had helped to train in the FDJ for service in the people's police, failed in their duty. And, shortly before, he was in danger over his labour service scheme (Service for Germany) for young men and women, which ended abruptly after charges that its members were prey to hunger, lack of discipline, venereal disease and moral degeneracy.
His saviour was Ulbricht. When Ulbricht had to fight off his own enemies in 1958, Honecker was with him. He was also with him when he initiated, following a similar Soviet plan, a catch-up-with- the-West plan in 1958. Many of the economic difficulties which followed, caused the crises which made the Berlin Wall a necessity for the SED. As security secretary Honecker planned the move (with the Soviets) and saw to its execution in 1961.
In the 1960s Ulbricht was at the height of his powers. The economy improved through the stimulus of the New Economic System and the end of the outpouring of human resources to the West. Honecker was seen as the crown prince. As the decade drew to a close the two men seemed to move apart. Honecker felt he had waited long enough for his master's job. Yet the two remained formal allies.
They agreed on a recentralisation of economic affairs. They agreed on the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, as that state attempted to introduce 'Socialism with a human face'. They agreed on a tough policy towards West Germany and West Berlin. They felt thwarted by West German economic power, on which they were to a degree dependent. They were virtually unknown and unrecognised outside the Soviet bloc.
The change of government in Bonn in September 1969, after 20 years of Christian Democratic rule, must have been a shock and a surprise. Now the smiling Willy Brandt, Deputy Chancellor in the previous grand coalition, took over as Chancellor. His smiles, and his more conciliatory tones, left Ulbricht and Honecker with deep unease. Nothing had changed in Bonn, they claimed.
The matter was taken out of their hands by a higher authority - Comrade Brezhnev. He and the US President Richard Nixon had decided on better East-West relations. This clearly suited Bonn, but not East Berlin. By 1971, just before the Eighth Congress of the SED, Ulbricht was told he was no longer acceptable to Moscow. He went quietly: officially on the grounds of age and health. He had got too old and too proud to dance to the Kremlin's latest tune. Politically dead, Ulbricht died physically two years later, still head of state.
Honecker's image, when he took over, was far from good. He had always looked stern, stiff and unsmiling. The fact that he had been secretary for security did not help. Very little was ever revealed about his private life. Few knew that he had been married twice. His first wife was Edith Baumann, three years his senior, whom he married after the war. She was a former left-Social Democrat who eventually became his deputy in the FDJ. She was also a member of the central committee of the SED for many years. It is said that she helped him both personally and politically when he was readjusting to his new freedom.
They divorced in 1953 and Honecker married Margot Feist, the daughter of a Communist worker from Halle. Originally a telephonist and shorthand typist, she climbed the FDJ ladder, serving as head of the children's organisation, Young Pioneers. After a year of schooling in the Soviet Union, she was posted to the education ministry, becoming minister in 1963. She was elected a candidate member of the central committee of the SED in 1950, and a full member in 1963.
With Ulbricht out of the way and obvious signs of a thaw in East-West relations, the East German people were looking for an improvement in their situation. Honecker knew this and he gave hints of it. In cultural policy there were to be 'no taboos', in economic policy there was to be greater realism.
The big cause for hope was, however, the Basic Treaty signed between Willy Brandt and Willi Stoph, the East German head of government, on 21 December 1972. This represented a revolution in the relations between the two German states. The Federal Republic was prepared to recognise, what it had denied for 20 years, that there was another state in Germany, the GDR, and it was prepared to enter into formal relations with this state on the basis of equality. The only thing it was not prepared to do was to recognise this state as a foreign state, which is what the GDR rather foolishly, and needlessly, wanted.
The new treaty, which followed a four-power treaty on Berlin, relaxing the situation there, was certainly a challenge and an opportunity to Honecker and the SED. The opportunity was for international recognition. Bonn had dropped its objections to recognition of the GDR, and this gave the green light to all the non-Communist states to enter into relations with it. This was of the greatest importance for the SED in its efforts to convince its own people that they live in a real state. Honecker greatly benefited from this, though he had done nothing to earn it.
In 1980 Honecker visited Austria, following a visit by Bruno Kreisky, the Austrian Chancellor, to the GDR. This was Honecker's first visit to a Western state (he had previously attended an international security conference in Helsinki). Over the years, visits to Japan, Mexico, Finland, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Sweden, China, Holland and, in 1987, West Germany, followed. There were also trips to other Soviet bloc and Third World states.
Honecker was very anxious to travel to show his people that he was recognised by the great and the good of this world, and that they, the people of the GDR, should recognise him also. He never really got that recognition he craved.
First, he was unable to provide them with a standard of living similar to that of West Germany. In the GDR there were always shortages of one thing or another. Shopping remained a headache, queueing was normal. The only decent goods to be had were in the hard-currency shops. The towns of the GDR remained grey, run down, unwelcoming places with few leisure facilities. Public transport, though cheap, and public welfare services were run down too. Holidaying either inside or outside the GDR was extremely difficult.
More than the discontent over living standards was that lack of personal freedom. The state security service (SSD) boasted it had 'helpers' everywhere. Relations with anyone outside the GDR, especially in the West, were very difficult to carry on for anyone with ambition. People felt humiliated by having to take part in farcical 'elections' every five years and many other activities in between. Their only relief was the West German radio and television, which enjoyed enormous influence.
Some Western observers found it difficult to understand that there was not more open opposition. One reason is that the East Germans had been impressed by the way earlier revolts had been dealt with. They did not want to put at risk what little they had achieved. Another reason was that the many gifts from West Germany made life a little more tolerable, as did the West German media. Finally, it was easy for the SSD to arrest the leaders of the many dissident groups over the years, imprison them and then pack them off to the West.
Despite the repressive nature of the GDR system, few people were actually killed by state action. Those who died were usually shot while trying to cross to the West. The death penalty was formally abolished in July 1987 just before Honecker's visit to Bonn.
Honecker had to grapple continuously with the GDR's dependency on both Moscow and Bonn. West German aid was vital to keep the economy ticking over. This meant that Honecker had to make his police state milder than some others in East Europe. During his final years he faced demands for the introduction of Gorbachev- style reforms in the GDR. Officially his party would have nothing to do with such reforms. He hoped that by granting a little more cultural freedom, improving living standards a little, allowing a few more people to go West, he could banish the spectre of glasnost.
In his final years of power Honecker's reputation abroad grew. He was seen as an 'anti-Fascist' veteran who led an important industrial state with high cultural, educational and welfare standards. Resentment, in some quarters, of West German wealth also helped his cause slightly. The anti-Fascist myth was created in the 1930s by the Communist International to seduce 'bourgeois democrats'. To be anti-Fascist was to be civilised. Yet would the KPD, totally Stalinist as it was, have been so civilised had it gained power in Germany? It served as a merciless, murderous, instrument of Stalin in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. But something of this anti-Fascist myth remains. Most of the other myths surrounding the 'achievements' of the GDR were exposed after October 1989. Honecker, to a degree, convinced a handful of journalists, a few diplomats, some academics and more leftists from the West. He convinced very few of his long-suffering people.
After his fall from power Honecker was given hospitality by the Soviet army in Germany and then flown, with his wife, to Moscow on 14 March 1991 'for medical treatment'. Since the summer of 1989 it had been reported that he was terminally ill with cancer. Bonn demanded his return from Moscow to face trial for issuing the shoot-to-kill order to his border guards. As the Soviet Union fell apart Honecker's position looked more and more precarious. In desperation he sought sanctuary in the Chilean Embassy in Moscow where his friend was ambassador. Under Honecker the GDR had given asylum to Chilean leftists after the Pinochet coup of 1974. His daughter married a Chilean and lives in Chile. As Bonn pressed the new Russian regime for Honecker's extradition, the Stalinist regime of North Korea announced, in December 1991, it would give him sanctuary. In February 1992 it was reported that Chile had also offered asylum.
Bonn, Moscow and Santiago de Chile faced months of embarrassment as Honecker played cat-and- mouse with his pursuers, issuing messages of his preparation for death and condemning German unification. The Honecker story was turning from a drama into a farce. The final decision to expel Honecker from the Chilean Embassy was taken at the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 at a private meeting between Chancellor Kohl and the Chilean President, Patricio Aylwin. Aylwin and his Christian Democratic Party had been supported by Kohl's Christian Democrats during the nightmare years of the dictator General Augusto Pinochet. The Russian authorities then rejected a defence plea by Honecker and put him on a plane for Germany. Honecker left the Chilean Embassy on 29 July, giving a clenched-fist salute of defiance. He was returned to Germany where he was charged with manslaughter in connection with the shoot-to-kill order at the old GDR border and Berlin Wall.
Although there were doubts about the wisdom of seeking to prosecute the 87-year-old, frail, unrepentant ex-dictator, the German view was that it was wrong to prosecute those who fired the shots and not those who gave the orders. The GDR had ratified the Helsinki CSCE Final Act and other international human-rights agreements which guaranteed the freedom of movement for individuals. Shooting would-be border crossers was therefore in breach of the GDR's own undertakings signed by Honecker.
As the date set for Erich Honecker's trial approached, in November 1992, there were almost daily reports of his impending end. Many hoped that he would die before his trial: some of his supporters so as to deny any further discrediting of the GDR and its leader; others because of possible embarrassment to the Bonn establishment who had, of necessity, courted him for many years. There was general relief when his trial was suspended because of his health and he was allowed to leave for Chile in 1993. Before he left medical experts believed he would live for between 18 and 24 months. His grip on life was remarkable when one considers his world had collapsed twice. He had seen everything he stood for rejected. Yet he showed no sign of remorse.
Honecker was dead politically long before he died physically. It is to be hoped that his death will not aid the development of a GDR nostalgia.
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