Birthday: August 25, 1912
Died At Age: 81
Sun Sign: Virgo
Also Known As: Erich Ernst Paul Honecker
Born Country: Germany
Born in: Neunkirchen, Germany
Famous as: General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany
Spouse/Ex-: Charlotte Schanuel (m. 1946), Edith Baumann, Margot Honecker, Edith Baumann (m. 1947 - div. 1953)
father: Wilhelm Honecker
mother: Caroline Catharina Weidenhof
siblings: Frieda Honecker, Gertrud Honecker, Karl-Robert Honecker, Katharina Honecker, Wilhelm Honecker
children: Erika Honecker, Sonja Honecker
Died on: May 29, 1994
place of death: Santiago, Chile
Cause of Death: Cancer
education: International Lenin School
awards: Order of José Martí
Order of Lenin
Hero of the Soviet Union
Order of the October Revolution
Order of Karl Marx
Order of Augusto César Sandino
Banner of Labor
Order of Klement Gottwald
Erich Ernst Paul Honecker was a German communist leader who served as the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) between 1971 and 1989. As the leader of the party, he was a close collaborator of Soviet Russia. In 1976, he became the country's official head of state as Chairman of the State Council of the German Democratic Republic after Willi Stoph stepped down from the position. His hold on power came to an end in 1989 when widespread democratic reforms were taking place in eastern Europe and the Berlin Wall fell. A native of Rhine Province, Honecker started his career in politics in the 1930s as a member of the Communist Party of Germany and was subsequently arrested by the Nazis. After World War II, the Soviet army set him free, and he restarted his political career. Following the reunification of Germany, Honecker requested asylum in the Chilean embassy in Moscow in 1991. A year later, he was sent back to Germany to be prosecuted for his role in the human rights abuses committed by his East German government. The trial was later dismissed because of his illness.
Childhood & Early Life
Born on August 25th, 1912, in Neunkirchen, Rhine Province, Prussia, German Empire, Honecker was the fourth child of Wilhelm Honecker and Caroline Catharine Weidenhof. His father was a coal miner and political activist. He had five siblings, three older, Katharina, Wilhelm, and Frieda, and two younger, Gertrud and Karl-Robert.
Following his tenth birthday in 1922, Honecker joined the Spartacus League's children's group in Wiebelskirchen. When he was 14 years old, he became a member of the Young Communist League of Germany or the KJVD. From 1931 onwards, he led their branch in Saarland.
After school, he was employed under a farmer for about two years. After coming back to Wiebelskirchen in 1928, he started training to be a roofer with his uncle. Later, he quit that to enrol in the International Lenin School in Moscow and Magnitogorsk and was educated under the moniker "Fritz Malter".
Continue Reading Below
You May Like
Anti-Nazi Activism & Incarceration
The Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933. By then, Honecker had become a member of the leadership of the youth wing of the communist party. In the next two years, he orchestrated a number of rebellious activities against the Nazis in various parts of the country.
In 1935, he was caught by the Gestapo and subsequently given a 10-year sentence with hard labour for “preparing treason”.
On March 6, 1945, while he was housed in the Barnimstraße Women’s Prison in Berlin, the Allied Air Force bombed the city. In the ensuing confusion, he fled from the prison and stayed hidden at the apartment of a female prison guard named Lotte Grund. She eventually convinced him to surrender, and he was confined in a solitary cell for the rest of the war.
He was set free by the Soviet forces on April 27, 1945. His prison-break and the relationships he developed during his incarceration became subjects of controversy afterwards, including within the Socialist Unity Party. There were even allegations that he collaborated with the Gestapo in garnering incriminating evidence against other communists.
Rise Through the Party Ranks
After the war, Honecker brought together German communists who had received training in Soviet Russia to establish a communist government in the Soviet-occupied zone.
He co-organised the Free German Youth movement (Freie Deutsche Jugend, or FDJ) and served as its chairman from 1946 to 1955.
In 1946, he was brought into the Central Committee of the Communist Party and was one of the primary members of the party whose work led to the amalgamation of the Communist and Social Democratic parties of East Germany into the newly formed SED.
In August 1961, under his leadership, the construction of the Berlin Wall commenced. Due to this, he carried the culpability for the "order to fire" along the Inner German border.
The Leader of East Germany
In the early 1960s, Honecker quickly became one of the most powerful leaders of the SED. By 1967, he was being considered as the likely successor of Walter Ulbricht.
Continue Reading Below
In 1970, he set off a political conflict that resulted, with the backing of the Kremlin leader Leonid Brezhnev, in his ascension as First Secretary of the Central Committee and as chairman of the state's National Defense Council.
With him in charge, East Germany introduced a programme of “consumer socialism" and shifted closer towards the international community by normalising relations with West Germany. East Germany also joined the UN as a full member, which has come to be regarded as one of his greatest successes.
By the late 1980s, the Cold War tensions had begun to recede, especially with the emergence of liberal reforms like perestroika and glasnost, which were implemented predominantly by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
However, Honecker did not introduce any but superficial reforms to the economic and political systems of his country. Defending his decisions, he blamed the likes of Kim Il-sung and Fidel Castro, who had voiced their reservations against the reforms.
Anti-communist sentiments were prevalent in the country. There were mass protests. Honecker reached out to Gorbachev, pleading to him to send in the Soviet army to control the protests and keep the communists at the helm of the nation like they had done in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968 and in Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
Following the Russian leader’s refusal to do so, Honecker’s party compelled him to submit his resignation in October 1989. They were hoping that this act might change people’s perception of the government. It did not, and the regime came crashing down in the next few weeks.
The reunification of Germany took place in October 1990. In 1991, he asked for and was denied asylum in the Chilean embassy in Moscow. About a year later, he was deported back to Germany to be tried for his involvement in the human rights violations by his government.
However, he became ill, and the legal proceedings were abandoned. In 1993, he was let go by the German authorities, after he which he settled in Chile.
Family & Personal Life
Honecker exchanged wedding vows with his first wife, prison warden Charlotte Schanuel (née Drost), on December 23, 1946. She passed away after a fight with a brain tumour in June 1947.
Before Charlotte passed away, Honecker had already begun a relationship with the Free German Youth official Edith Baumann. Their daughter, Erica, was born in 1950. Contradictory information is available on whether they were married in 1947 or 1949.
In 1952, he became the father of a daughter named Sonja with the chairperson of the Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organisation, Margot Feist, while he was still married to Baumann.
Sources again differ on when he split from Baumann and wedded Feist. Some state that the events took place in 1953, while others claim that they occurred in 1955. He and Feist remained married until his death in 1994.
Death & Legacy
On May 29, 1994, Honecker passed away due to liver cancer while residing in a terraced house in the La Reina district of Santiago, Chile. He was 81 years old at the time. Organised by the Communist Party of Chile, his funeral took place a day later at central cemetery in Santiago.
Honecker, like his predecessor Walter Ulbricht, did not possess charisma or oratory power. The speeches he gave at party conferences and diplomatic events have been subjected to ridicule and parody by international satirists.
In 1990, Artist Dmitri Vrubel painted a highly popular mural on the Berlin Wall, titled ‘My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love’, which shows a socialist "fraternal kiss" between Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev.