Hero or Villain? Egon Krenz

Communist who got to the top just as the Party was over

Egon Krenz rose through the ranks of the East German communist party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, like gas in a stagnant pond. His ascent was so smooth, so inexorable, that it seemed less a matter of politics than of the laws of physics. Up and up he passed from its inert depths until, in 1989, he reached the top. At the age of 52, the tailor's son from Pomerania became master of the German Democratic Republic (DDR). But by then, the country didn't want one. It wanted freedom – from the party, its restrictions, especially, from people like him.

He was, throughout his adult life, the supreme apparatchik. He joined the party at 18, served in its military, studied in Moscow, and returned, at 30, to don the ill-fitting suit of an Eastern bloc careerist. He became the secretary of agitation and propaganda of the communist youth movement, Free German Youth; at 34, he joined the People's Chamber; at 36, the Central Committee; at 37, was leader of the communist youth movement; and at 44, on the Council of State. A year later, he was in the politburo, and a spell as head of state security followed.

As a 43-year-old head of the youth section, he had been – to a slightly sad, earnest extent – often commented upon: a besuited man among boys and girls. Among the sclerotic, seventysomething senior ranks of the party, he was the very essence of vitality. And so, having been the creature of East German leader Erich Honecker, he became also his deputy and chosen successor. His adroitness in party ways, and his fluency in the vocabulary of the Soviet system, had been the making of him.

The trouble was, when he finally achieved the pinnacle of his career, they were his tragedy, too. As the 1980s wore on, the system to which he had dedicated his life was blowing his inheritance. By the time he succeeded, it was all but gone. The imploding economies of Eastern Europe, the examples of a liberalised Poland and Hungary, and the unwillingness of the Russians to respond to "counter-revolution" with their traditional rolling in of the tanks had stoked the pent-up desires for freedom. Thousands of East Germans simply abandoned their own country. By the autumn, those for whom escape was not a solution began to take to the streets. When the demonstrations grew in size and strength, Honecker fell, and Krenz took over.

He was, by East German standards, dizzyingly young; but in the atmosphere of October 1989, he was no match for history and the newly uppity will of his fellow countrymen. He cleared out the worst of the old guard, instituted new liberal travel arrangements, and allowed the Berlin Wall to fall. But East Germans didn't want a kinder, gentler party; they wanted something Krenz couldn't give them – an end to the old system, to his system. And thus, in December, a month after the Wall fell, so did he. He can, at least, be credited with the fact that the German Democratic Republic ended, not in a bloodbath, but in a chug of Trabants and sprays of champagne.

Few politicians have ever been quite so redundant. He watched Germany unify, and communism collapse, and then, in 1995, experienced the knock on the door he had so often set in motion for others. A three-year investigation by the new authorities into the killings of 580 East Germans attempting to flee to the West led to Krenz and three other high-ranking members of the communist regime being charged with manslaughter. In 1997, he was found guilty, and served four years in jail. Today, he remains an unrepentant defender of the old system. Capitalism, he believes, is not the end of history. Given what's happened to the world financial system in the last year or so, supposing old Egon's right?

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