A German Communist Party leader, Erich Honecker (1912-1994) was instrumental in establishing a Communist government in East Germany after World War II (East Germany was reunited with West Germany in 1990). He became general secretary of the Communist Party in East Germany and head of the German Democratic Republic in 1971 until 1989.
Erich Honecker was born on August 25, 1912, to a working-class family in Neunkirchen, in the Saar province. He grew up in a strongly Communist milieu. His father was a militant coal miner who joined the Communist Party after it was founded in 1918. He spent his youth in Wiebelskirchen, which voted heavily for the Communists. Honecker joined the Communist Party's children's group in 1922 and its youth organization (KJVD) in 1926. His upbringing, youthful experiences, and early intellectual development convinced him that Communism was the solution to the troubles of the working class and that the Soviet Union (now Russia/The Commonwealth of Independent States) was the best friend of all Communist movements. Despite the imposition of a restrictive form of Communism upon Eastern Germany by the Soviet Union after 1945, Honecker never changed his mind about these two basic ideas. He gave his life to German communism.
Honecker finished high school in 1926. University study was out of the question for the son of a coal miner in those days, so he worked on a farm for two years. Returning to Wiebelskirchen, he became a roofer's apprentice. Honecker's most important work, however, was for the Communist Party, where his sober dedication and organizational skills were rewarded. In 1928 he became head of the local youth group. In 1930 the party offered him his only opportunity for formal study, at a party school in Moscow. By 1934 he was a member of the KJVD's central committee.
The Nazis outlawed the German Communist Party in 1933, but Honecker continued to fight against them. Because the Saar was separated from Germany by the Versailles Treaty of 1919, he could work there openly until a plebiscite in 1935 reunited it with Germany. When an acquaintance admired his courage in agitating against the Nazis despite certain reprisals after the plebiscite, Honecker replied it was simply his conviction, not any special courage. Forced to flee to France after the vote, he reentered Germany in the fall under a false passport to lead the illegal Communist youth organization in Berlin. The Gestapo arrested him in December 1935, and in 1937 he was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was freed by the Soviet Army in 1945.
After the war Honecker participated enthusiastically in building a new state in eastern Germany according to the Soviet model of socialism. He held leadership positions beginning in 1946 and was one of those responsible for turning the ideas of German communism into a state run by one party, the Socialist Unity Party (SED), in which the leaders determine and satisfy the interests of the populations as they see fit. In 1950 he became a member of the SED's Central Committee. A co-founder of the Free German Youth, he headed that organization from 1946 to 1955. He spent 1955 and 1956 studying security issues in Moscow, returning to play an increasingly important role within the party. By 1960 he was a full member of the Politburo, with responsibility for security and military questions. When Walter Ulbricht resigned in 1971, the party elected Honecker its general secretary, effectively making him head of state.
Honecker's policies bore both similarities and differences to those of Ulbricht. The SED still dominated the government and continued to forbid public criticism of its policies. In the most spectacular example of this, during 1976 and 1977 many artists who had protested the party's restrictions on artistic freedom lost their citizenship and were forced to emigrate to the West. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) also remained closely tied to the Soviet Union: 70 percent of the GDR's trade in 1980, for example, was with the U.S.S.R. and its socialist allies. Although Honecker mentioned the advantages of superpower negotiations perhaps more than the Soviet leadership wished, he supported the Soviet Union publicly on every issue.
Honecker's leadership differed in his emphasis on the material needs of the working class. Arguing that class differences still existed in the GDR, he began a program to improve the "well-being of people." In 1976 the SED increased the minimum wage and raised retirement benefits. In 1977 it shortened the working day for shift workers. Perhaps most important, in 1973 the party began a massive program to construct three million low-cost apartments.
During the 1970s détente between the United States and the Soviet Union provided a favorable climate for the improvement of relations between the German states. Honecker signed three treaties with the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). The "Transit Agreement" and "Traffic Treaty" of 1972 facilitated trade and travel between the two countries. In the "Fundamentals Treaty" of 1973 the two countries agreed on the "inviolability of borders" and "respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty." Honecker achieved further recognition of the GDR's sovereign status through his position as signatory to the 1975 Helsinki accords. Trade with the West, and especially with the FRG, which these accords made possible, helped the East German economy and thus Honecker's program to improve citizens' well-being. The provisions which allowed freer travel were also widely popular in the GDR, especially because they allowed greater contact among family members separated by the border.
Further improvement in the relations between the GDR and FRG seemed unlikely. Honecker linked further concessions about travel with recognition of GDR citizenship, which the West German government refused. Tensions between the superpowers also reduced Honecker's freedom to make new overtures. After 1982 Helmut Kohl's new government in West Germany stressed anti-communism and German reunification rather than coexistence. Honecker appeared to want to retain good relations, but canceled a trip to the FRG in the fall of 1984 after hostile comments from conservative West German politicians, and, it was widely speculated, pressure from the Soviet Union.
Domestically, Honecker's greatest problems were economic. His campaign for economic improvement raised hopes in the GDR, but world-wide recessions made their fulfillment more difficult. Hopes for greater freedom to visit relatives in the West were threatened by stagnation in relations between the two governments. Honecker was expected to continue to seek rapprochement with the FRG, for diplomatic and economic reasons, but to pursue this only insofar as it could be reconciled with Soviet foreign policy. Not only was the GDR dependent upon the Soviet Union economically and militarily, but Erich Honecker remained loyal to the Soviet model of Communism.
Following the reunion of East and West Germany in 1990, Honecker was arrested on charges of treason and manslaughter and stayed in Moscow Hospital until 1991, when he sought asylum through the Chilean Embassy in Moscow. He was later charged with 13 counts of manslaughter for ordering the shooting of persons attempting to escape the German Democratic Republic, and was deported to Germany. Trial began in November, 1992, but was discontinued under controversy in January, 1993. Honecker was released and fled to Chile. He died there in exile at the age of 81 in May, 1994.
Further Reading on Erich Honecker
Honecker's autobiography, From My Life (Oxford 1980; Pergamon 1981), discusses all stages of his life. The last chapter contains an interview with a Western publisher.