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Obituary: Erich Honecker

I WAS one of the last people - perhaps the last - to interview Erich Honecker before he went into exile in 1993, writes Canon Paul Oestreicher (further to the obituary by David Childs, 30 May).

He agreed to receive me in the hospital wing at Moabit Prison in Berlin and to answer previously submitted questions on the treatment of religion by the ruling party of the former German Democratic Republic. I was researching the history of the churches in the GDR. Honecker was somewhat surprisingly proud of his record in this field and evidently expected to impress me. He had fended off all journalists.

Far from the sick and rather broken old man I had expected, Honecker walked into the visitor's room upright and self-assured. Despite the prison fatigues in which he was dressed, he gave every appearance of a VIP according the privilege of an audience.

The hour-long interview, from beginning to end, was characterised by his pride at being once again - as under Hitler - the prisoner of the class enemy. This only confirmed for him how right he was and had always been. What else could you expect of the capitalists? His bitterness was reserved for the Soviet comrades who had stabbed him in the back, betrayed the revolution and put back the clock of history. But not for good. There were already signs that the people were returning to the true path of history. 'Now that I have time, I'm re-reading all my old speeches to the Party Congresses. They confirm how right I was.'

Had not the church leaders, he asked, been among his best friends? Probably he really believed it. Hardly any of them had been. The best of them, whom he had treated as dangerous subversives, had pleaded for a very different kind of socialism and had played a major role in the peaceful revolution that so dramatically brought the GDR to an end.

As I left Moabit Prison, I did not feel sorry for Honecker because he did not feel sorry for himself, let alone, as far as I could tell, for those who had been his victims. When good and ill come to be weighed in the balance, at least the years in Hitler's prisons will count in his favour. Would that that had taught him how prisons should not be run. I can only pray that before he died he might yet have come to see that there are many people with much to forgive him. Some will be able to do that. Others will not.