Germany had more than its fair share of totalitarian leaders during the 20th century. While Adolf Hitler ruled the country for twelve years, for forty years the eastern half was controlled by a communist dictatorship. This regime, while not as brutal as that of the Nazis, maintained a repressive grip on the people of East Germany for the duration of its existence. Erich Honecker, the man who led that regime and failed to stop its downfall, was born on August 25th, 1912.
Erich was born in the industrial Saarland region, on the border with France. Honecker’s father was a coal miner and political activist. In 1922 Honecker joined the Spartacus League, a communist youth league, and four years later he joined the Young Communist League of Germany. In 1928 he left to study in Moscow and in 1930 joined the German Communist Party, or KPD. When the Nazis took power in 1933 they banned all communist activities, but the Saarland Region was still outside of Germany in a League of Nations mandate. Honecker campaigned against the region rejoining Germany, but the 1935 referendum voted overwhelmingly in favor of reuniting with Germany so Honecker was forced to flee to Paris. Later that year he traveled illegally to Berlin to engage in resistance activities. In late 1935 he was detained and remained in prison until he was released by the Soviets in 1945. There is some evidence that, while imprisoned, he offered to betray fellow communist inmates in exchange for release and was willing to join the German Army. During the late 1940s and 1950s he rose quickly through the ranks of the East German Communist Party, becoming a Politburo member in 1958. He formed ties with the Russian leadership and promised to overturn Chairman Walter Ulbricht’s economic reforms. Thus, in 1971 the USSR forced Ulbricht to retire and Honecker assumed power. As chairman, Honecker was able to improve East German living standards by focusing the economy more on consumerism. He normalized relations with West Germany by signing the Basic Treaty in 1972. Further, he improved relations with the West and was able to make East Germany a full member of the UN. However, he continued the repression of the East German people; 125 people were killed attempting to cross the border during his time as leader. While the 1970s went well for East Germany, the early 1980s saw economic stagnation and political unrest. Honecker refused to implement Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalizing economic and political reforms. He became one of the hard-liners who attempted to maintain socialist rule in Eastern Europe. However, unrest grew and the population began to call for his removal. He fell gravely ill in 1989 and so was unable to effectively respond to the protests against his rule. Thousands began to flee across the border into Hungary and then into Austria in order to reach West Germany. Gorbachev refused to send troops in to quell demonstrations, and it became clear that the party could not maintain its grip on power. The Central Committee removed him from power in October of 1989 and two months later communist rule ended.
Although he was not as brutal as earlier German leaders, Erich Honecker was none the less a totalitarian ruler who tried to maintain complete control of East Germany. He did not believe in freedom of speech or even of movement, and was willing to kill those who attempted to leave his country. The reunited German nation did not, however, punish Honecker for his crimes. He was put on trial but released and he died of cancer in 1994. Honecker, I think, is one of the better examples of bureaucratic evil. He did not kill those he believed were racially inferior, but rather those who challenged the ordered system he controlled. He believed that his system was superior, and that the cogs that made it work had little inherent value except in their usefulness in maintaining the system’s functionality.