Honecker, Erich (Germany)

Reference work entry


Erich Honecker was the Secretary General of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) from 1971–89, and held the post of Chairman of the Council of State from 1976–89. In these dual roles, he was head of both party and government in East Germany. A lifelong communist, he helped develop a closer relationship with West Germany with the country benefiting economically as a result. He was, however, a hard-liner who tried to stamp out criticism and encouraged a Stalinesque cult of the personality. His reluctance to adapt to the democratic reforms sweeping through the Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s led to his downfall in 1989, shortly before the collapse of the East German state.

Early Life

Honecker was born on 25 Aug. 1912 in Neunkirchen in Germany’s Saar region. His father was a miner and communist. Honecker joined the Communist Youth Movement when he was in his early teens before joining the Communist party proper when he was 17. In 1930 he went to the International Lenin School in Moscow. A roofer by trade, his political activities soon took precedence and, after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, he was an organizer for the outlawed Communist Youth Movement. He was arrested 2 years later and in 1947 was sentenced to 10 years hard labour. With the arrival of the Red Army at the end of World War II in 1945 he was freed from prison in Brandenburg.

He helped prepare the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany for Communist government and in 1946 he established a new movement, Free German Youth, which he chaired until 1955. 1946 also saw the establishment of the SED, a party created by a merger between the German Communist Party and the Social Democrat Party. He travelled to Moscow in 1956–57 for further training, returning to East Germany the following year when he became a full member of the Politburo. He was given responsibility for security matters, and in this guise was responsible for the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

East Germany’s leader during this period was Walter Ulbricht, who had helped propel Honecker’s career along since 1945. In 1967 Honecker was officially designated his successor. Their relationship, however, soured and in 1971 Honecker actively conspired with other Politburo members to have Ulbricht removed. Ulbricht resigned as First Secretary of the Party and Honecker was unanimously voted into the post, which was changed to General Secretary 5 years later. Ulbricht died in 1973 and 3 years later Honecker became Chairman of the Council of State.

Career Peak

Honecker employed the feared Stasi (Secret Police) to retain order and eliminate opposition within the country. However, he did allow for a relaxation in the laws governing artistic expression. More radically, he pursued closer ties with capitalist West Germany. The rewards included extensive West German loans and grants, international recognition of East Germany, increasing world trade and a general upsurge in East Germany’s economy. Guided by his Finance Minister Günter Mittag, East Germany enjoyed industrial modernization, improved social benefits and large-scale housing projects.

Détente with the West was not without its disadvantages, however, as the country became over reliant on Western money. As more people travelled to and from East Germany and Western media became more accessible, the lie that life in East Germany was incomparably better than elsewhere was hard to justify. This was even more so after Honecker positioned himself against the democratizing reforms, epitomised by Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (‘openness’), that were sweeping through the Soviet sphere of influence.

In 1989 it was intended to hold celebrations throughout the country to mark the 40th anniversary of the East German state. However, in a climate of growing discontent, the celebrations turned into riots and calls for democratic elections. Honecker’s resignation became inevitable when, on 9 Oct. 1989, his order to open fire on protesters in Leipzig was openly disobeyed. He was replaced briefly by Egon Krenz, but within a few weeks the Berlin Wall had fallen and communist rule came to an end.

Later Life

Honecker went first to a Soviet hospital in Berlin and then to Moscow. In Feb. 1990 treason and manslaughter were issued against him in Berlin. He went back to Germany in 1992 but, in consideration of his failing health, proceedings against him were dropped and he was allowed to go to Chile. On 29 May 1994 he died of liver cancer.

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