3 May 1971Erich Honecker becomes First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of East Germany, remaining in power until 1989.(Source)

Portrait of Erich Honecker, leader of East Germany (1971-1989) – File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R1220-401, Erich Honecker.jpg, , Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 183-R1220-401 (Source)

Honecker’s political career began in the 1930s when he became an official of the Communist Party of Germany, a position for which he was imprisoned by the Nazis. Following World War II, he was freed by the Soviet army and relaunched his political activities, founding the SED’s youth organization, the Free German Youth, in 1946 and serving as the group’s chairman until 1955. As the Security Secretary of the SED Central Committee, he was the prime organiser of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and, in this function, bore responsibility for the “order to fire” along the Wall and the larger inner German border.

In 1970, Honecker initiated a political power struggle that led, with support of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, to his replacing Walter Ulbricht as General Secretary of the SED and chairman of the National Defense Council. Under his command, the country adopted a programme of “consumer socialism” and moved towards the international community by normalizing relations with West Germany and also becoming a full member of the UN, in what is considered one of his greatest political successes.

As Cold War tensions eased in the late 1980s with the advent of perestroika and glasnost—the liberal reforms introduced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—Honecker refused all but cosmetic changes to the East German political system. He cited the continual hardliner attitudes of Kim Il-sung and Fidel Castro, whose respective regimes of North Korea and Cuba had been critical of reforms. As anticommunist protests grew, Honecker begged Gorbachev to intervene with the Soviet army to suppress the protests to maintain communistic rule in East Germany as Moscow had done with Czechoslovakia in the Prague Spring of 1968 and with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, but Gorbachev refused. Honecker was forced to resign by the SED Politburo in October 1989 in a bid to improve the government’s image in the eyes of the public; the effort was unsuccessful, and the regime would collapse entirely the following month.

Following German reunification in 1990, Honecker sought asylum in the Chilean embassy in Moscow, but was extradited back to Germany in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, to stand trial for his role in the human rights abuses committed by the East German government. However, the proceedings were abandoned, as Honecker was suffering from terminal liver cancer. He was freed from custody to join his family in exile in Chile, where he died in May 1994. (Source)

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