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Erich Honecker, Mastermind of Berlin Wall, Dies

May 30, 1994|TYLER MARSHALL and WILLIAM R. LONG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTIAGO, Chile — Erich Honecker, the former East German Communist leader who built the Cold War's most chilling monument, the infamous Berlin Wall, died of liver cancer Sunday at his home in exile here. He was 81.

Honecker, who ruled for 18 years before the collapse of communism, had lived in Chile with his wife and his daughter's family since January, 1993, when Berlin judges ruled he was too ill to stand trial in connection with shootings at the Berlin Wall.

He lived his final days in sickness and bitterness, according to Chilean friends, still a committed Communist who fretted about the "social deterioration" of a unified Germany.

Although Honecker led the Communist East German state between 1971 and 1989, he will be remembered most for what he did long before--building the Wall.

In many ways, the structure served as a metaphor for the uncompromising, neo-Stalinist views Honecker held throughout his rule.

His regime fostered the most pervasive secret police organization in Communist Europe, penned in its people and shot those who tried to flee to the West.

Honecker's successor as head of the East German state, Egon Krenz, pleaded Sunday for "a fair judgment" of Honecker's life, saying, "He wanted to realize the dream of humanism."

But a spokesman for German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said that Honecker had failed in his political goals.

"His policies brought harm to countless people," government spokesman Dieter Vogel said. "Erich Honecker failed. Perhaps he didn't recognize it, but history gave proof of his failure."

On Sunday, news of Honecker's death drew shrugs of indifference in his homeland.

"At this point, I couldn't care less about Honecker, and I'm sure the same goes for most east Germans," said Klaus Sternberg, a teacher in Schwerin.

"He's in heaven now, and he can sit down with Marx, Engels and Lenin and think over what went wrong," said Lutz Wagner, a salesman in eastern Berlin.

In the early part of his years in power, Honecker enjoyed success. But later, poor health, advanced age and political isolation left him increasingly vulnerable to the winds of change sweeping the region.

An unbending hard-liner, he disliked the Soviet Union's reform-minded leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and was deeply suspicious of the liberalization under way in other parts of Moscow's empire.

In the end, Honecker was toppled by massive anti-government street demonstrations that marked the decisive phase of the 1989 East German revolution.

His control over the East German state had been so complete, and his fall so sudden, that Politburo colleagues who witnessed his political demise said Honecker was incapable of grasping what had happened.

Krenz has said that when he informed the ousted leader of his expulsion from the Communist Party, Honecker "had not understood at all" the contents of the message.

In his 1980 memoirs, "About My Life," Honecker described proudly how, as the Politburo member responsible for state security, he organized the operation that in a matter of a few pre-dawn hours on Aug. 13, 1961, cut one of Europe's largest cities in two, closed the last remaining hole in the Iron Curtain and stunned the West.

"At midnight the alarm was sounded and the action began," he wrote. "With it began an operation that . . . would make the world take notice. Later we determined with satisfaction that we had forgotten nothing essential (in the preparations)."

The 100-mile-long, heavily fortified wall through and around West Berlin endured for 28 years as the most compelling symbol of an ideologically divided world.

It was almost 10 years after supervising the Wall's construction that Honecker succeeded Walter Ulbricht as Communist Party boss and de facto East German leader.

Honecker was driven from power three weeks before the Wall's collapse in November, 1989, in a series of events that heralded the fall of Soviet Bloc communism itself.

The concrete barrier that he and other members of the East German hierarchy called the "anti-fascist protection wall" had effectively halted the westward flight of skilled manpower that threatened to bleed the Communist state to economic death.

For all its horror, Western economic and political analysts subsequently admitted that the Wall enabled East Germany to survive as a poorer neighbor of a highly successful West German state.

Born Aug. 25, 1912, in the western town of Neunkirchen as the third of six children of a coal miner, Honecker began his political career at age 10 by joining a Communist youth group. At 18, he became a full party member, quickly taking on responsibility in the Saarland region for stirring the party's youth into street actions during the tumultuous final days of Germany's Weimar Republic.

Spotted by the party's leadership as a future talent, Honecker was sent to Moscow's Communist Youth International School for a year and returned to become youth propaganda chief for his home region at age 19.

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