Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Honecker, Erich (1912–1994)

Chairman of the Council of State of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) during 1976–1989. Born in Neunkirchen, Saar, on 25 August 1912, Erich Honecker was exposed to socialist politics at an early age. He joined the youth section of the German Communist Party (DKP) in 1926 and became a full-fledged party member in 1929. He studied in Moscow for two years and returned to Germany in 1931. He was arrested by the Nazi regime in 1935 and held for two years before being tried and convicted of communist activities.

Released in 1945, Honecker immediately resumed his communist political activity. He was one of the initial members of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) of Germany and established a working relationship with Walter Ulbricht, the Moscow-trained leader of the communists in eastern Germany. Honecker had charge of the Freie Deutsche Jugend, the youth section of the SED, and became a candidate member of the party's secretariat in 1950. Elevated to full-member status in 1958, he was charged with the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 and established himself firmly as a rising star of the communist elite.

Honecker traded on his support in hard-line circles to organize the ouster of Ulbricht in 1971. Willi Stoph became the titular leader of the East Germany, but Honecker was the real power behind the scenes. He successfully led a drive to win international diplomatic recognition for the East German state and established East Germany as an Olympics powerhouse. Honecker emerged in 1976 to assume Stoph's title as chairman of the Council of State, which he would hold until October 1989. The East German economy stagnated under Honecker, but he remained committed to hard-line, inflexible communist policies even when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pressed for reforms in the mid-1980s. The withdrawal of Soviet support, however, proved fatal to Honecker's regime. When public protests emerged in East Germany during 1988 and 1989, Honecker was unwilling to suppress them by force without the support of Soviet forces, and he was forced to resign his offices on 18 October 1989. His successors, Egon Krenz and Hans Modrow, were unable to sustain East Germany as a viable independent state.

With German authorities trying to prosecute him for crimes committed during his reign—charges mainly related to the deaths of persons trying to escape over the Berlin Wall—Honecker sought refuge first in a Soviet military hospital and then in Moscow. He returned to Berlin in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and was arrested. Ill health led to his release before he could be tried in 1993, however, and he moved to Chile. Honecker died there on 29 May 1994.

Timothy C. Dowling


Further Reading
Honecker, Erich. From My Life. New York: Pergamon, 1981.; Lorenzen, Jan N. Erich Honecker: Eine biographie. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 2001.; Pötzl, Norbert F. Erich Honecker: Eine deutsche biographie. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2002.
 

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