Honecker, Erich (1912–1994)

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HONECKER, ERICH (1912–1994)


East German politician.

Erich Honecker presided over both the flowering and the demise of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). His career was emblematic of the Communists who ruled the various states of the Soviet bloc after World War II.

Honecker was born into a politically active, working-class family in the Saar region of western Germany. His formative years transpired amid the turbulence of the Weimar Republic (1918–1933), which was marked by almost constant political and class conflict and large-scale unemployment. Honecker became active in the communist youth movement and in 1930 formally joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). The KPD gave young men like Honecker an identity and a purpose in life: to transform the difficult conditions around them through revolutionary activism. The party absorbed almost all their waking hours with an endless stream of meetings, rallies, demonstrations, leaflet distributions, and street fights. The promise of a prosperous and flourishing socialist future animated them, but they also came to support an authoritarian and violent form of politics. The Soviet Union was their ideal model.

In 1933 the Nazis came to power. Honecker was involved in resistance activity, and in 1935 the Gestapo caught him. He spent the rest of the Third Reich in Nazi prisons until he was freed by Soviet troops in April 1945. The KPD leaders who returned from exile in the Soviet Union in the company of the Red Army quickly tapped Honecker as a valuable party worker. He became the KPD leader Walter Ulbricht's protégé and quickly acquired a reputation as a dedicated, determined, and authoritarian activist. Already in 1945 he was assigned to lead the communist youth movement, and in 1946, when the Soviet occupation forces and their German communist allies compelled the merger of the Social Democratic Party and the KPD in the Soviet zone, Honecker was elected to the executive of the new Socialist Unity Party (SED). After the German Democratic Republic was founded in 1949, Honecker retained the leadership of the youth movement and was given a series of other special assignments. He supervised the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and in subsequent years led the campaign against dissident artists and writers.

In the 1960s Ulbricht began to stake out a more independent course from the Soviet Union. The Soviets threw their support behind Honecker, and in 1971 he became the first secretary of the Central Committee of the SED and in 1976 also the chairman of the State Council of the GDR, combining in his person the union of party and state typical of Soviet-style systems. Honecker sought to improve living standards and ease relations with the West. So long as the Soviets and the Western powers pursued détente, there was room for East and West Germany to follow similar policies. A series of agreements in the early 1970s eased Western access to the GDR and promoted trade and somewhat normal relations between the two states. The GDR won formal recognition from many countries, including the United States, and became a member of the United Nations. Domestically, Honecker announced the "unity of economic and social policies," a program that did greatly improve living standards and social services. The GDR had the highest formal labor participation rates of women anywhere in the world, and in the 1970s launched an extensive program of preand postnatal care, day care, and paid maternity leave for women.

In the early 1980s the GDR seemed like a successful communist society. But much of the material improvement was fueled by borrowing from Western banks. By the middle of the decade, the economy was faltering. Moreover, the state kept a rigid lock on politics. The realms of free expression were severely limited, East Germans were not free to travel, and the Ministry for State Security kept up an extensive net of informal operatives who spied on their fellow citizens.

In the 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev instituted major reforms in the Soviet Union. The reverberations came quickly to the GDR. Citizen groups formed and demanded democratization. In 1989, while thousands of East Germans gathered in demonstrations and fled to West German missions and embassies, Honecker maintained the rigid and repressive policies he had promoted for decades. Even Gorbachev made clear his discontent with the GDR leadership. Finally, a reform movement developed also within the SED and deposed Honecker in mid-October. But it was too little, too late. The GDR was swamped by a popular surge in favor of unification with West Germany and by West German political interests that also favored unification. After the absorption of East Germany in 1990, Honecker was criminally charged with complicity for murder in the shootings of East Germans who had attempted to flee to the West, but the charges were dropped because of his poor health. He went into exile to Chile, where he died in 1994. To the very end, he was a Communist formed by his experiences in Weimar and Nazi Germany, a world ever more removed from the concerns of GDR citizens of the late twentieth century.

See alsoCold War; Communism; Germany; Soviet Union.


Epstein, Catherine. The Last Revolutionaries: German Communists and Their Century. Cambridge, Mass., 2003.

Fulbrook, Mary. Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR, 1949–1989. Oxford, U.K., 1995.

Maier, Charles S. Dissolution: The Crisis of Communism and the End of East Germany. Princeton, N.J., 1997.

Naimark, Norman M. The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945–1949. Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

Weitz, Eric D. Creating German Communism, 1890–1990: From Popular Protests to Socialist State. Princeton, N.J.,1997.

Eric D. Weitz