Erich Honecker

From Academic Kids

Erich Honecker – official GDR portrait
Erich Honecker – official GDR portrait

Erich Honecker (25 August 191229 May 1994) was a German Communist politician who led East Germany from 1971 until 1989. After German re-unification, he first fled to the Soviet Union but was extradited by the new democratic Russian government to Germany, where he was imprisoned and tried for high treason and crimes committed during the Cold War (specifically the deaths of 172 Germans who tried to escape the Honecker regime). However, as he was dying of cancer, he was released from prison. He died in exile in Chile shortly after.


Early political career

Honecker was born in Neunkirchen, in Saarland, as the son of a politically militant coal miner. He joined the youth section (Jugendverband) of the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD) in 1926 and joined the KPD itself in 1929. That year he was sent to Moscow to study at the International Lenin School. He returned to Germany in 1931 and was arrested in 1935 after the Nazis had come to power (Machtbernahme). In 1937 he was sentenced to ten years for Communist activities and remained in captivity until the end of World War II.

At the end of the war, Honecker resumed activity in the party under leader Walter Ulbricht. In 1946, Honecker was one of the first members of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED), made up of the old KPD and the Social Democrats of eastern Germany. Following a sweeping victory in the October 1946 elections, he took his place amongst the SED leadership in the short-lived parliament. The German Democratic Republic was proclaimed on October 7, 1949 in the Soviet Occupation Zone with the adoption of a new constitution. In a political system similar to that of the Soviet Union, he was a candidate member for the secretariat of the Central Committee in 1950 and full member in 1958.

Leadership of East Germany

In 1961 Honecker was in charge of the building of the Berlin Wall. In 1971, he initiated a political power struggle that led, with Soviet support, to himself becoming the new leader, replacing Walter Ulbricht as General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party. In 1976 he also became Chairman of the Council of State (Staatsratsvorsitzender).

Despite Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to liberalize communism after 1985, Honecker remained a hardliner and opposed any internal reform. However, as the reform movement spread throughout the Eastern bloc, popular protest increased pressure on Honecker's government to liberalize. Eventually, Honecker's politburo comrades colluded to replace him. He was forced to resign on October 18, 1989, and was replaced by his short-lived successor Egon Krenz.

Depictions of Erich Honecker

As in many communist countries, the image of the leader was everpresent in public offices (where portraits such as the one above were hung), in newspapers and on television news. The record for most number of photographs of Erich Honecker in the official SED newspaper, Neues Deutschland, was 41, in the edition of 16 March 1987, on the occasion of Honecker's opening of the Leipzig Messe, as he was shown with different politicians and exhibitors.


Missing image
Erich Honecker

After the GDR was abolished, Honecker initially remained in a Soviet military hospital near Berlin before he fled to Moscow, trying to avoid prosecution over Cold War crimes, specifically the 192 deaths of those trying to escape over the Berlin Wall, and high treason. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union he was extradited to Germany in 1992. But when he did come to trial in 1993 he was released due to ill-health and moved to Chile where he died in exile of liver cancer in Santiago some months later, in May 1994.

Famous quotes

  • "The Wall will remain so long as the conditions that led to its erection are not changed. It will be standing even in 50 and even in 100 years, if the necessary conditions are not removed." (Berlin, 19 January 1989)
  • "We have done our perestroika, we have nothing to restructure."

External links

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