Overview

Erich Honecker

(1912—1994) East German communist statesman, head of state 1976–89


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(b. 25 Aug. 1912, d. 29 May 1994).

Leader of East Germany 1971–89

Early career

Born in Neunkirchen, Saarland, he joined the Communist Youth League in 1926, and the Communist Party in 1929. Following the Nazi takeover in 1933 he went underground, but was captured in 1935 and sentenced to ten years' imprisonment in 1937. Liberated by the Red Army in 1945, the Soviet commanders of Eastern Germany put him in charge of building up the Communist youth movement, the FDJ (Freie Deutsche Jugend, Free German Youth), whose leader he remained until 1955. A member of the Communist Party's Central Committee since 1945, he joined the Politburo in 1958 and replaced Ulbricht as its First Secretary in 1971.

In office

As leader of East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, GDR) Honecker's political priority was to provide the individual with the wherewithal to realize her or his fulfilment within socialism. This included not just political stability and economic growth, but also an emphasis on consumer goods and leisure activities. Of particular importance to Honecker was the building of new flats. Wages were increased, and the five‐day working week accepted. If these policies were daring when they were envisaged at the start of his time in office, they became completely unrealistic after the oil price shock of 1973. Imports became more expensive, as did the energy deliveries in oil and gas which the GDR was forced to import from the USSR. To maintain the increased standard of living for the population, therefore, the GDR was forced to borrow heavily on the international money markets.

By the early 1980s Honecker's policies had rendered the GDR practically bankrupt. The country was sustained by West German credit payments, notably in 1983 and 1984. However, the election of Gorbachev in 1985 exposed a final Achilles heel for the GDR. An artificial state since its creation which had failed to legitimize itself through its political system, it was sustained by Soviet military support. Honecker was unwilling and unable to follow the policies of glasnost and perestroika. After unprecedented popular demonstrations sparked off by Gorbachev's visit to the country in 1989, which increasingly challenged the nature of the Communist regime itself, Honecker was forced to resign on 18 October 1989. By that time, Honecker had completely lost touch with his citizens and their anger. After German reunification, he stood trial for manipulating elections and for being responsible for those who died at the Berlin Wall, but in 1993 he was released because of ill health.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).


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