Most dictators are known for their extravagances. The Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi, for example, was known for eccentric behaviours like carrying a Bedouin shelter with him on all foreign visits.1 And that was one of his more friendly eccentricities. The two men who ruled the communist GDR in its almost forty years of existence were different however. A professor of mine once exclaimed about them that it was a dictatorship of the squares. She told an anecdote about a regime critic meeting the head of state Erich Honecker in an elevator in the 1980’s. There was the man who regarded wearing jeans as a subversive statement, acting and looking like the normal neighbour. Erich Honecker ruled the GDR for eighteen years in a plain suit and the occasional felt hat.
His memoirs appeared on the list of German best-sellers in 2012. The publisher stated: Honecker is always a good seller. The earlier book Notes from Moabit sold 35.000 copies within a week.2 This Notes from Moabit was written in 1994 when Honecker was residing in the so called prison in Western Berlin. It contains the rants of a man who has not learned a single thing from the past.
Soaked with doctrine
In the preface of the book Honecker states that he wants to give a fair account of history. In his view conventional history is producing a smear campaign against socialism. He exclaims that these people are mostly concerned with delaying the necessary downfall of capitalism.3 Words coming from a man who himself was an important cause of the political and financial downfall of the GDR. How can a man become so stubborn?
Well, Honecker was surrounded by communists his entire life. He was born in a family of party members in 1912 and joined the ranks of the party at the age of fourteen. His education consisted of being an apprentice to become a roofer. His only higher education was enjoyed at the International Lenin School in Moscow where he spent the years 1931 and 1932 on the invitation of Soviet Authorities.4 Soaked with communist doctrine he spent the years of the Nazi-dictatorship in a German prison. Released in 1945, he became the head of the communist youth movement of the newly developing communist state in Eastern Germany. He became a typical apparatchik, collecting a variety of functions in the party bureaucracy. In 1971 he replaced the ageing autocrat Walther Ulbricht as head of the party and state of the GDR.
Moving towards bankruptcy
Honecker then created the concept of Unity of Economic and Social Policy, which in plain words meant that the people would have to be provided with just enough luxury and comfort to keep them happy and consoled.5 When the regime did not have the money to provide this due to failed investments (and there were a lot of that in the GDR) money was borrowed from the West. Thereby slowly moving the regime towards bankruptcy. But well, it worked for almost eighteen years. And then comes the year 1989: thousands of GDR citizens are fleeing the country via Hungary, the people who remain flock the streets to demonstrate against the regime and demand free elections. The regime is financially and politically bankrupt.
Honecker in the meanwhile congratulated the Chinese authorities with the violent suppression of the Tiananmen demonstrations.6 A little later he stated in a public speech that only a small minority in his country was being poisoned by Western intrigues and propaganda.7 Three weeks later the communist party of the GDR forced him to step down as their leader. Less than three months later the Berlin Wall was down, Eastern and Western Germany were going to be reunited and Honecker was hiding in the Chilean embassy in Moscow because the German judicial authorities were after him. A television interview of October 1991 shows a frail old man who is still defending his position as a former head of state.8
Exiled from paradise
In 1992 the Chilean authorities gave way to diplomatic pressure from Germany and Honecker is forced to board an aeroplane that will take him to Berlin. On arrival he is immediately arrested. While the German authorities are inquiring in how far Honecker should be held responsible for the people who got killed while trying to flee from the country, the 80 year old man penned down his view on the new situation. Sense of guilt? None.
He still was convinced of the socialist system. He writes: “communists are being repressed again but they still hold the future.”9 “A capitalist and democratic Germany will plunge hundreds of thousands of people into poverty, unemployment and existential fears. Things that are unknown of in a communist regime.”10 And the man to blame for all this, according to Honecker, is Mikhail Gorbachev, with his policy of perestroika and glasnost he reached the West a finger, and in the view of Honecker the West took all that was to be had.11
Honecker had lived communism his entire life. If he would now confess that the system was crooked, he would have to confess that his entire life was crooked. There seemed to be one moment of reflection in his life when even the communist party of the GDR lost trust in him. Honecker’s reaction was a muttering: “the cause of my failing is that I lived a chimera and allowed my environment to produce this chimera.”12 But later he would pen down that there might have been some judgemental errors, but all in all a functioning system of public welfare was handed out to the capitalist enemy.13
Honecker had to face charges but the case was acquitted in 1993. He suffered terminal cancer and continuation of the trial was considered inhuman. Honecker went into exile in Chile. He died there on May 29th of the year 1994. But that is still not the end of the Honecker-era. On YouTube there are recent videos of his widow Margot, still living in Chile, fighting for rehabilitation of her husband and his state. A local salesman says Margot is visiting him regularly to buy rice and honey.14 And these are the square remains of the square man who ruled a socialist “paradise” for 18 years.
But if you want you can relive the years of Honecker with a drink. This drink was created when Honecker visited his birthplace in Western Germany in 1987. The café “Strohalm”, which is rumoured to have been Honecker’s favourite hangout in his days of youth, created the Honny Special for the occasion. Just mix one half of cherry juice with one half of vodka Gorbatschow and you’re ready to go.15
P.S: One of the challenges of the Honecker regime was to mend youth culture and use it for their own purpose. This clip shows how that was tried to be done. I found it especially interesting to see the differences in enthusiastic clapping between the performers and the audience.
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Inside Gaddafi’s tent: http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,2058074_2253594,00.html, last seen September 2nd 2014 ↩
Honecker läuft immer in Der Spiegel 11/2012 ↩
E. Honecker, Moabiter Notizen (Berlin 1994) 13 ↩
Ibidem, biographical dates on front page ↩
A. Malycha and P.J.Winters, Geschichte der SED. Von der Gründung bis zur Linkspartei (Bonn 2009) 214 ↩
J.Miles, The legacy of Tiananmen (Michigan 1996) 45 ↩
Interview with the Western-German public channel ARD October 10th 1991, can be found on YouTube ↩
E. Honecker, Moabiter Notizen, 41 ↩
Ibidem, 82 ↩
E. Honecker, Moabiter Notizen, 17-28 ↩
N.F. Pötzel, Erich Honecker. Eine Deutsche Biographie (Stuttgart 2002) ↩
E.Honecker, Moabiter Notizen, 28-41 ↩