Honecker, Erich
born Aug. 25, 1912, Neunkirchen, Ger.
died May 29, 1994, Chile

German communist head of East Germany's Socialist Unity Party (1971–89) and chairman of the Council of State (1976–89).

A member of the German Communist Party, he was imprisoned by the Nazis from 1935 to 1945. In 1946 he cofounded and led the Free German Youth movement in East Germany. In 1961 he oversaw the building of the Berlin Wall. He succeeded Walter Ulbricht as head of East Germany, which under his rule was one of the most repressive but also one of the most prosperous of the Soviet-bloc countries. He allowed the growth of some trade and travel ties with West Germany in return for West German financial aid. He was forced to resign with the collapse of communism in 1989.

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▪ 1995

      German political leader (b. Aug. 25, 1912, Neunkirchen, Germany—d. May 29, 1994, Santiago, Chile), was first secretary of the Socialist Unity (Communist) Party (SED) and thus head of state of the German Democratic Republic (GDR; East Germany) from 1971 to 1989. Honecker's career was inextricably linked with the Berlin Wall, the supreme emblem of the Cold War, from 1961 (when he was placed in charge of its construction) through 1989 (when it was physically breached in the bloodless revolution that overthrew his communist regime) to 1993 (when criminal charges that he had issued "shoot-to-kill" orders to East German border guards were dropped because he was dying of cancer). Honecker, who was the son of communist activists, joined the Young Pioneers at age 10 and left school to work four years later. After Adolf Hitler's accession to power (1933), he organized anti-Nazi opposition in northern Germany. He was arrested in 1935 and in 1937 was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment, a sentence that probably spared him from being shot in later crackdowns on the opposition. He was released in 1945 and was the founding chairman of the Free German Youth Movement (1946-55). As the new GDR was forming, Honecker rose rapidly in the SED. By 1967 he was the designated successor to the East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, who resigned under pressure in 1971. As head of state Honecker took advantage of West Germany's policy of accommodation and signed the Basic Treaty by which Bonn recognized East Germany's existence as an independent nation. For a time he successfully balanced the GDR's ties to the Soviet Union and to West Germany, which he visited in 1987. Internal unrest grew, however, and thousands of East Germans fled to the West, despite Honecker's tightfisted rule, tough emigration restrictions, and reported shootings. Honecker could not withstand the fall of communism throughout Eastern Europe, and in October 1989 he resigned. He took refuge on a Soviet military base near Berlin to avoid criminal prosecution for manslaughter and treason. In 1991 he fled to Moscow, where he sought asylum in the Chilean embassy. Honecker was deported to reunified Germany in 1992, but in January 1993 a Berlin court ruled that he was too ill to stand trial, and he was allowed to emigrate to Chile, where members of his family resided.

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▪ German politician
born Aug. 25, 1912, Neunkirchen, Ger.
died May 29, 1994, Chile

      communist official who, as first secretary of East Germany's Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, or SED), was East Germany's leader from 1971 until he fell from power in 1989 in the wake of the democratic reforms sweeping eastern Europe.

      The son of a miner who was an official of the Communist Party, Honecker joined the Communist Youth Movement at the age of 14 and in 1929 became a full party member. By trade he was a slater. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, he organized illegal activities by young communists in various parts of Germany. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1935 and sentenced to 10 years' hard labour for “preparing treason.” He refused to repudiate his communist convictions.

      In 1945 he was freed by the Soviet Red Army as it swept across eastern Germany, and he quickly caught up with those German communists who had been trained in the Soviet Union to set up a communist government in the Soviet-occupied zone. He was one of the founders of the Free German Youth movement (Freie Deutsche Jugend, or FDJ) and was its chairman from 1946 to 1955.

      He was elected a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1946 and was one of the prime movers behind the fusion of the Communist and Social Democratic parties in East Germany into the newly formed SED. In 1961 he was put in charge of building the Berlin Wall. His influence in the SED grew rapidly, and in 1967 he was designated as the successor to the East German leader, Walter Ulbricht. He became leader of the SED in 1971 and chairman of the Council of State in 1976, thus heading both party and government. Under Honecker's rule, East Germany was one of the more repressive but also one of the most prosperous of the Soviet-bloc countries of eastern Europe. He allowed the growth of some trade and travel ties with West Germany in return for West German financial aid. His wife, Margot, was minister of education in the East German government.

      Having lost the support of the reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the aged and inflexible Honecker was forced to resign in October 1989 when confronted with massive prodemocracy demonstrations in East German cities. In the face of growing public agitation, he was then charged with abuses of power and other crimes. In ill health, he was released by the German authorities in 1993 and allowed to go to Chile, where he died.

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Universalium. 2010.

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