To meet, he is like a dowdy little bird with shy, black eyes that give nothing away. In public, he is always dressed in an anonymous coat whose cut has that wilful, in his case expensively-tailored, ugliness favoured in the German Democratic Republic. You could easily lose him in a crowd of pensioners queueing at the Alexanderplatz crossing to visit relatives in the west. Such economically useless people have been allowed to go as they please since 1964, foot soldiers in the class war against “the imperialist, revanchist west”.
At 77, the East German leader, Erich Honecker, does not look or sound like a ruthless tyrant, still less the object of an 18-year-long cult of personality. He is said to be dying, or even dead. He is certainly very ill after a gall bladder operation, and conspicuously silent about the this week’s great exodus of East Germans through Hungary.
Since 1985, his position and the very existence of the state he governs has depended on a Soviet Union whose leader patently does not like Honecker and is, apparently, prepared to reopen the German Question. The elaborate nonsense of the GDR is coming unravelled and with it the economic support of West Germany on which it has depended for more than a decade. As his doctors in East Berlin try to keep Honecker going long enough to take part in the fortieth anniversary of the GDR on 7 October, the piquant absurdity of his position becomes ever more apparent.
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