(b. Neunkirchen, Saar, 25 Aug. 1912; d. Santiago, Chile, 29 May 1994)
German; first/general secretary of the SED 1971–89, head of GDR 1976–89 Born the son of a coal miner, Honecker was brought up in a Communist (KPD) household. He went through the various stages of the Communist youth movement and, although apprenticed as a roofer, soon became a full-time KPD official. By 1931 he was Communist youth leader in the Saar. Honecker continued underground activities after the Saar was incorporated into Nazi Germany in 1935. He was arrested in that year and sentenced to ten years' imprisonment in 1937. In 1945 he was liberated from Brandenburg jail by the Red Army and immediately resumed KPD youth work. When the Free German Youth (FDJ) was established in 1946 he was elected chairman and remained in this office until 1955. He was also elected to the Executive Committee (later Central Committee) of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) in 1946, and as a candidate member of the Politburo in 1950. He spent a year on a course in Moscow, 1956–7, a city where he had spent a similar year in 1930. His election to full membership of the Politburo followed in 1958. From 1956 Honecker had been responsible for security matters on behalf of the Politburo, and he is credited with the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
Erich Honecker owed his success to the support of Ulbricht, who at one period looked upon him as his natural successor. However, the relations between the two cooled. Honecker got tired of waiting as the ‘crown prince’. He also felt Ulbricht was verging on revisionism with his economic reforms, his attempts to woo the West German Social Democrats, and his arrogance towards the Soviet Union. He sought, and gained, Soviet blessing for the removal of Ulbricht as SED first secretary in 1971. He was then unanimously elected to that office, which he occupied until October 1989. Honecker sought to dispel his austere image. For a time he allowed more freedom in the arts. In 1976 he also announced a mass of social welfare measures designed to increase the birth rate. He followed the Soviet line on détente with West Germany, which paved the way for mutual recognition by the two German states in 1973, and led to the international recognition of the GDR. Détente, and with it millions of West German visitors, made it increasingly difficult for the SED to maintain its hard-line stance within the GDR. Increasingly, intellectuals, environmentalists influenced by the West German Greens, and active Christians challenged its authority. Western television helped East Germans to get a clearer picture of the world. Consumers were increasingly dissatisfied with the poor range and quality of goods on offer and the restrictions of travel.
Honecker followed Ulbricht in amassing power and pursuing the personality cult. He took over as head of state in 1976 and chairman of the Defence Council of the GDR. After 1985 he found himself at odds with the CPSU by rejecting General Secretary Gorbachev's glasnost reforms. In the summer of 1989 thousands of East German tourists escaped to the West through Hungary, whose Communist rulers had opened their frontier to the West. This, and the fortieth anniversary of the GDR celebrations in October, provoked demonstrations throughout the Republic and calls for free elections. The sickly Honecker was forced out of office in much the same way as Ulbricht. Egon Krenz replaced him for a few weeks before the whole edifice of the SED state collapsed. After being expelled from the party he had helped to found, he took refuge first in a Soviet military base near Berlin and then fled to Moscow. He returned to Germany in 1992 to face criminal charges but in 1993 a court ruled that he was too ill to stand trial, and he was allowed to leave the country. He died in Chile, where he had family connections.