Monday, May 30, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Erich Honecker, East German Leader, Dies -- Hardliner, 81, Was Unrepentent, Bitter In Exile


SANTIAGO, Chile - Erich Honecker, who built the Berlin Wall and ruled Communist East Germany with an iron fist for 18 years, died yesterday in Chile, unrepentant to the end. He was 81.

Honecker spent his final days in Chile, bitter in self-imposed exile. He suffered from liver cancer, which saved him from a near-certain manslaughter conviction for ordering the shootings of East Germans trying to escape to the West.

In 1987, Honecker said East and West Germany could not be unified because "socialism and capitalism can no more be united than fire and water." Two years later he was ousted from power, and in October 1990 Germany was reunited.

Honecker's lawyer Nicholas Becker, reached by telephone in Berlin, said Honecker had been extremely ill and hadn't left home in four months. Honecker had lived in Chile since early 1993 with his wife, Margot, and their daughter, Sonja.

Blunt statement

A spokesman for Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose aggressive push for unification caused East Germany to disappear a year after Honecker was ousted in October 1989, released a blunt statement.

"The death of Erich Honecker, sick for years, no longer comes as a surprise," Dieter Vogel said.

"Honecker failed in his political goals. His policies brought suffering to countless people in Germany. Out of respect for the dead, it is fitting to say little more about his role in postwar German history."

Alfred Bauer, head of a cultural center in Buenos Aires that promoted cultural relations with the former East Germany, said that in a visit with Honecker last June Honecker described himself as "a fighter for revolution and socialism."

"I struggled for these ideals since I was 16 ... I shall remain loyal to my ideals until my death," Bauer quoted him as saying.

Egon Krenz, who replaced Honecker but lasted only 1 1/2 months in office, described Honecker as a victim of circumstances.

"Work, bread and peace - that was Honecker's service to East Germany," Krenz said in a statement. "Cold War and loyalty set limits on his room to maneuver that he couldn't escape."

Born on Aug. 25, 1912, in Saarland in western Germany, Honecker joined a Communist youth group at age 14 and spent 10 years in a Nazi prison.

After World War II, Honecker rose in the East German party ranks and became a member of the ruling Politburo in 1958. Beginning in August 1961, he supervised the construction of the Berlin Wall to stem the westward exodus of East Germans.

Honecker took over as party leader in 1971. The peak of his political career came in September 1987, when he visited West Germany and received all the protocol honors of a foreign head of state.

Gorbachev issues warning

As communist regimes fell across Eastern Europe, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev visited a protest-wracked East Berlin in October 1989 with a pointed warning about the need for reform.

"Life punishes whoever comes late," Gorbachev told Honecker.

Less than two weeks later, as a peaceful revolution swelled around him, Honecker was ousted by his Politburo colleagues.

Popular pressure soon forced the Communists to open the wall, one of the most momentous events of the late 20th century.

Honecker's successors ordered his arrest, accusing him of high treason, corruption and misuse of office. He was taken into custody Jan. 29, 1990, and released the next day on grounds of poor health.

Two months after Germany reunified in October 1990, Berlin authorities charged Honecker with manslaughter for ordering shootings at the Berlin Wall and inner-German border. Authorities say as many as 350 people were killed along the border between 1961 and 1989.

Honecker and his wife took refuge in a Soviet military hospital outside Berlin. On March 13, 1991, they were spirited to Moscow, deeply embarrassing Kohl's government.

The collapse of the Soviet Union put the couple to flight again, this time to the Chilean Embassy in Moscow. There they had friends who had once found refuge in East Germany during the right-wing dictatorship in Chile.

Honecker left the embassy in July 1992 and returned to Berlin for trial.

During the proceedings, Honecker read an hourlong statement calling the trial a "farce" and a "political spectacle." He insisted the Berlin Wall had prevented a possible World War III.

In January 1993, a Berlin court halted the proceedings because of Honecker's spreading liver cancer.

Honecker left Berlin's Moabit prison and flew to Chile to join his wife and their daughter.

Police Maj. Ivan Munoz in Santiago said Mrs. Honecker said her husband's body would be cremated today following a private service.

Becker, Honecker's lawyer, said Honecker had wanted to be buried in the family plot in Wiebelskirchen, the small west German town where he was born, but the cemetery's administrator objected.

------------------------------- HIGHLIGHTS OF HONECKER'S CAREER -------------------------------

-- Aug. 13, 1961: East German troops start building Berlin Wall.

-- May 3, 1971: Honecker becomes leader of Communist Party. Five years later, he becomes head of state.

-- Oct. 18, 1989: Honecker is deposed by the Politburo.

-- Nov. 9, 1989: Berlin Wall is opened.

-- Nov. 12, 1992: His manslaughter trial starts.

-- Jan. 12, 1993: A Berlin court ends Honecker's trial, saying he is too sick with liver cancer to proceed. Two days later, Honecker flies to Chile, joining his wife Margot and daughter Sonja.

-- May 29, 1994: Honecker dies in Santiago, Chile.

Associated Press

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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