Erich Honecker, Mastermind of Berlin Wall, Dies

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Erich Honecker, the former East German Communist leader who built the Cold War's most chilling monument, the infamous Berlin Wall, died of liver cancer Sunday at his home in exile here. He was 81.

Honecker, who ruled for 18 years before the collapse of communism, had lived in Chile with his wife and his daughter's family since January, 1993, when Berlin judges ruled he was too ill to stand trial in connection with shootings at the Berlin Wall.

He lived his final days in sickness and bitterness, according to Chilean friends, still a committed Communist who fretted about the "social deterioration" of a unified Germany.

Although Honecker led the Communist East German state between 1971 and 1989, he will be remembered most for what he did long before--building the Wall.

In many ways, the structure served as a metaphor for the uncompromising, neo-Stalinist views Honecker held throughout his rule.

His regime fostered the most pervasive secret police organization in Communist Europe, penned in its people and shot those who tried to flee to the West.

Honecker's successor as head of the East German state, Egon Krenz, pleaded Sunday for "a fair judgment" of Honecker's life, saying, "He wanted to realize the dream of humanism."

But a spokesman for German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said that Honecker had failed in his political goals.

"His policies brought harm to countless people," government spokesman Dieter Vogel said. "Erich Honecker failed. Perhaps he didn't recognize it, but history gave proof of his failure."

On Sunday, news of Honecker's death drew shrugs of indifference in his homeland.

"At this point, I couldn't care less about Honecker, and I'm sure the same goes for most east Germans," said Klaus Sternberg, a teacher in Schwerin.

"He's in heaven now, and he can sit down with Marx, Engels and Lenin and think over what went wrong," said Lutz Wagner, a salesman in eastern Berlin.

In the early part of his years in power, Honecker enjoyed success. But later, poor health, advanced age and political isolation left him increasingly vulnerable to the winds of change sweeping the region.

An unbending hard-liner, he disliked the Soviet Union's reform-minded leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and was deeply suspicious of the liberalization under way in other parts of Moscow's empire.

In the end, Honecker was toppled by massive anti-government street demonstrations that marked the decisive phase of the 1989 East German revolution.

His control over the East German state had been so complete, and his fall so sudden, that Politburo colleagues who witnessed his political demise said Honecker was incapable of grasping what had happened.

Krenz has said that when he informed the ousted leader of his expulsion from the Communist Party, Honecker "had not understood at all" the contents of the message.

In his 1980 memoirs, "About My Life," Honecker described proudly how, as the Politburo member responsible for state security, he organized the operation that in a matter of a few pre-dawn hours on Aug. 13, 1961, cut one of Europe's largest cities in two, closed the last remaining hole in the Iron Curtain and stunned the West.

"At midnight the alarm was sounded and the action began," he wrote. "With it began an operation that . . . would make the world take notice. Later we determined with satisfaction that we had forgotten nothing essential (in the preparations)."

The 100-mile-long, heavily fortified wall through and around West Berlin endured for 28 years as the most compelling symbol of an ideologically divided world.

It was almost 10 years after supervising the Wall's construction that Honecker succeeded Walter Ulbricht as Communist Party boss and de facto East German leader.

Honecker was driven from power three weeks before the Wall's collapse in November, 1989, in a series of events that heralded the fall of Soviet Bloc communism itself.

The concrete barrier that he and other members of the East German hierarchy called the "anti-fascist protection wall" had effectively halted the westward flight of skilled manpower that threatened to bleed the Communist state to economic death.

For all its horror, Western economic and political analysts subsequently admitted that the Wall enabled East Germany to survive as a poorer neighbor of a highly successful West German state.

Born Aug. 25, 1912, in the western town of Neunkirchen as the third of six children of a coal miner, Honecker began his political career at age 10 by joining a Communist youth group. At 18, he became a full party member, quickly taking on responsibility in the Saarland region for stirring the party's youth into street actions during the tumultuous final days of Germany's Weimar Republic.

Spotted by the party's leadership as a future talent, Honecker was sent to Moscow's Communist Youth International School for a year and returned to become youth propaganda chief for his home region at age 19.

After Adolf Hitler's Nazis seized power in 1933, Honecker worked surreptitiously to stir resistance among factory workers in several parts of Germany, including the industrial Ruhr Valley.

He was finally arrested in Berlin by the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, convicted in 1936 of treason and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He remained there until advancing Allied forces reached his prison, 30 miles west of Berlin, and freed him in the fading days of World War II.

His comparatively light sentence and preferential treatment during his imprisonment led to persistent rumors that he had cooperated with his Nazi captors.

Those rumors continued virtually to the end, with reports that at the crucial 1989 Politburo meeting where Honecker was toppled, East German secret police chief Erich Mielke finally forced a reluctant Honecker to give up power by threatening to publicize apparently damning evidence relating to his actions in prison.

After his release from prison in the Soviet-controlled occupation zone, Honecker, then 33, joined the newly formed Communist hierarchy that would eventually lead the East German state.

Initially responsible for the reconstituted Communist youth organization, the Free German Youth, he joined the Politburo as security chief in 1958, later planning the Berlin Wall operation and emerging as Ulbricht's heir apparent.

During this period, he divorced his first wife and married Margot Feist, a youth group functionary, who eventually became his education minister. Also an unbending hard-liner, she was believed by many East Germans to reinforce his allergy to reform. She remained with him to the end.

In foreign affairs, Honecker concluded a treaty with West Germany in 1972 that formalized relations between the two states but avoided full mutual diplomatic recognition.

The accord eased travel restrictions on westerners visiting East Germany and permitted East German pensioners to visit the West.

It also paved the way for East Germany's longed-for acceptance in the global community, giving it a U.N. seat and relations with key Western countries, including the United States, Britain and France.

In 1984, Honecker received Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the first head of government from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to visit East Berlin, and three years later he crowned his achievements with an official trip to West Germany.

Although Honecker signed the Helsinki Final Act on security and human rights along with other European leaders in 1975, he kept East Germany among the Soviet Bloc's most hard-line states.

He also refined East Germany's cynical policy of "selling" political prisoners for badly needed Western goods and hard currency needed for economic development.

Between the mid-1960s and the fall of the Berlin Wall, West Germany is believed to have paid about $2 billion for the freedom of a quarter-million East Germans.

Recent information has revealed that East German judges were given quotas of people to sentence so that the supply of political prisoners remained high enough to guarantee the needed hard-currency income.

In his later years, the small, feisty Honecker became increasingly remote even from his own people, frequently delivering dry, uninspiring speeches in his strange, high-pitched lilt at such speed that he invariably swallowed his words.

One party member invited to the inner sanctum of his government offices for a reception in the mid-1980s was shocked that even in this safe, closed circle, Honecker remained distant and stiff.

"He marched in, sat down, picked a paper from his pocket, read it and then left," the party member said. "It was as if an invisible wall were between him and the rest of us."

In a visit to East Berlin in early October, 1989, Gorbachev urged Honecker to liberalize, warning him that "history punishes those who delay."

Within two weeks, Gorbachev's prediction became fact and Honecker was ousted by a panicky Politburo trying to save itself from being overwhelmed by the revolution.

Mentally out of touch and suffering from liver cancer, Honecker was briefly arrested in January, 1990, and charged with treason but was released 36 hours later for health reasons.

Following German unification, the Bonn government issued its own arrest warrant for Honecker, this time on Wall-related manslaughter charges. But by then, Honecker had been moved to a Soviet military hospital south of Berlin and the warrant could not be served.

Apparently out of a sense of loyalty to a former fellow Communist leader, Gorbachev personally approved Honecker's secret flight to Moscow in March, 1991, where he remained out of reach of German authorities.

With the failure of the August, 1991, coup in Moscow and the collapse of hard-line Soviet power, Honecker fled to the Chilean Embassy, where his friend, Clodomiro Almeyda, was ambassador.

Honecker was eventually returned to Berlin in July, 1992, to face up to 75 criminal charges--most of them linked to shooting deaths that occurred at the Berlin Wall during his rule.

He was put on trial a few months later with Mielke and other members of the East German regime in proceedings that some likened to the post-World War II trials of Nazi leaders at Nuremberg.

But suffering from depression and advanced cancer, he was released for health reasons in January, 1993, and allowed to fly to Chile.

Long reported from Santiago, Chile, and Marshall reported from Berlin.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
63°