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Erich Honecker
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R0518-182, Erich Honecker.jpg
General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany
In office
Preceded by Walter Ulbricht
Succeeded by Egon Krenz
Chairman of the Council of State of the German Democratic Republic
In office
Preceded by Willi Stoph
Succeeded by Egon Krenz
Personal details
Born (1912-08-25)25 August 1912
Neunkirchen, Germany
Died 29 May 1994(1994-05-29) (aged 81)
Santiago, Chile
Political party Socialist Unity Party of Germany
Spouses Edith Baumann
Margot Feist (1953-1994)
Profession Politician

Erich Honecker (25 August 1912 – 29 May 1994) was an East German Communist politician who led the German Democratic Republic from 1971 until 1989.

After German re-unification, he went to the Soviet Union but was sent back by the new Russian government to Germany, where he was imprisoned and tried for high treason and crimes committed during the Cold War. However, as he was dying of liver cancer, he was released from prison. He died in exile in Chile about a year and a half later.

Origins and early political career

Honecker was born in Neunkirchen, nowadays Saarland. He had two brothers and three sisters.

He joined the Young Communist League of Germany (KJVD), the youth section of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), in 1926 and joined the KPD itself in 1929. Between 1928 and 1930 he worked as a roofer, but did not finish his apprenticeship. Thereafter he was sent to Moscow to study at the International Lenin School and for the rest of his life remained a full-time politician.

He returned to Germany in 1931 and was arrested in 1935 after the Nazis had come to power (Machtübernahme). In 1937, he was sentenced to ten years for Communist activities and remained in captivity until the end of World War II. At the end of the war, Honecker started working for the communist party again under leader Walter Ulbricht. In 1946, he became one of the first members of the new Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED), made up of the old KPD and the Social Democrats of eastern Germany.

He was a member of the parliament in the Soviet Occupied Zone after the elections of October 1946. The German Democratic Republic was created on 7 October 1949. Its constitution set up a system of government like the Soviet Union's. Honecker became a candidate member of the secretariat of the Central Committee in 1950 and full member in 1958.

Leadership of East Germany

In 1961, Honecker was in charge of the building of the Berlin Wall. In 1971, he started a political power struggle. The Soviet's supported him, so Honecker became the new leader, or General Secretary, of the Socialist Unity Party, replacing Walter Ulbricht. In 1976, he also became Chairman of the Council of State (Staatsratsvorsitzender).

Under Honecker there was a big improvement in living standards, even though the GDR had the highest standard of living in the Eastern bloc countries. More consumer goods were made available and new house-building was speeded up.

Although Honecker was more caring to the people about goods and housing he did not allow criticism of the government. The most obvious way this was shown was the Berlin Wall. About 125 East German citizens were killed during this period while trying to cross the border into West Berlin.

In foreign relations, Honecker would never allow a unified Germany. He was very loyal to the USSR, but accepted détente (that is, becoming friendlier to western countries). Under his government East Germany even became friendlier to West Germany. In September 1987, he became the first East German head of state to visit West Germany.

In the late 1980s Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika, reforms to liberalize communism. Honecker and the East German government, however, refused to implement similar reforms in the DDR. As the reform movement spread across Central and Eastern Europe there were demonstrations against the East German government. The biggest were the 1989 Monday demonstrations in the city of Leipzig. The other leaders of the DDR decided to get rid of Honecker, and forced him to resign on 18 October 1989. Egon Krenz took over instead.


After the German reunification Honecker stayed in a Soviet military hospital near Berlin. Then he fled to Moscow with his wife, to avoid prosecution over charges of Cold War crimes. The German government said he should be prosecuted because 192 East Germans died trying to leave East Germany. After the Soviet Union broke up in December 1991, Honecker went to the Chilean embassy in Moscow, but was sent back by Boris Yeltsin's government in 1992. The trial started in early 1993, but Honecker was released due to ill health and on 13 January of that year moved to Chile to live with his daughter Sonja, her Chilean husband Leo Yáñez, and their son Roberto. He died of liver cancer in Santiago, Chile on 29 May 1994.


Honecker married Edith Baumann in 1950 and divorced her in 1953. They had a daughter, Erika (b. 1950). In 1953 he married Margot Feist and they remained married until his death. They had a daughter, Sonja, born in 1952. Margot Honecker was the Minister for National Education in East Germany.

Famous quotes

  • "The Wall will be standing in 50 and even in 100 years, if the reasons for it are not removed." (Berlin, 19 January 1989)

(German: Die Mauer wird in 50 und auch in 100 Jahren noch bestehen bleiben, wenn die dazu vorhandenen Gründe noch nicht beseitigt sind)

  • "Neither an ox nor a donkey is able to stop the progress of socialism." Berlin, 7 October 1989

(German: Den Sozialismus in seinem Lauf, halten weder Ochs' noch Esel auf)


Honecker's autobiography Aus meinem Leben is translated into English as From my life. New York : Pergamon, 1981. ISBN: 0-08-024532-3

  • Fulbrook, Mary, The people's state : East German society from Hitler to Honecker, Yale University Press, c2005.
Preceded by
Walter Ulbricht
General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany Succeeded by
Egon Krenz
Preceded by
Willi Stoph
Chairman of the Council of State of the German Democratic Republic

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