Erich Honecker (1912-1994) was a long-serving socialist politician and the ruler of East Germany between 1971 and its collapse in 1989.
The son of a coal miner from the Saar region, as a child Honecker witnessed the mistreatment and exploitation of his father and other miners. He was just 10 years old when he joined communist youth groups.
By the age of 18, Honecker was working as an apprentice roofer, while leading the Communist Youth Party in his hometown. In 1933, he went underground to continue his communist activism during the Nazi era. In 1937 Honecker was arrested by the Nazis and thrown into prison until the end of World War II. After his release, Honecker led Freie Deutsche Jugend (‘Free German Youth’), the youth branch of the pro-Soviet Socialist Unity Party (SED).
Honecker’s ascent through the ranks of the SED began in the early 1950s. By the end of the decade, Honecker was a member of both the Politburo and the Central Committee. In 1961, he oversaw the implementation of new security measures and the construction of the Berlin Wall.
In 1971, Honecker mustered enough support to orchestrate the removal of Walter Ulbricht. While Willi Stoph remained the head of state until 1976, Honecker became the most powerful figure in the East German government. Honecker’s policies sought to improve standards of living in East Germany, though he remained a hardliner, committed to Soviet economic policies. Honecker’s regime also suppressed internal dissent and sought to prevent emigration or escape.
In the late 1980s Honecker refused to embrace or adopt Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist policies, glasnost and perestroika, remaining committed to his own policies. The growing tide of revolution in 1989 forced Honecker to relent, a move that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and, in time, the reunification of Germany.
Honecker himself was forced to resign in October 1989. A movement soon emerged to bring Honecker to trial for human rights abuses committed or sanctioned by his regime. After a period living in Moscow, the former leader was arrested in Berlin in 1992. His age and poor health precluded a trial, however, and Honecker was eventually released. He died in Chile in May 1994.