20 Years Later: The Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Legacy of Erich Honecker


Mr. Tremblay is an HNN intern. He may be contacted at: jonathan.tremblay1@gmail.com.

November 9th 2009 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and effectively the end of the Cold war and the reunification of Germany. As historians, bloggers and the mainstream media reconsider all aspects of this highly historical event, one of them, historian Jeffrey A. Engel, an associate professor at the Texas A&M University's Bush School of Government and Public Service, considers what role individuals played in the unfolding drama.

In his upcoming book The Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Revolutionary Legacy of 1989, co-written with eminent specialists on the question, Mr. Engel states:

“Personalities matter in History, even when considering events widely understood to have been the result of mass action rather than individual agency. The story of 1989 is largely a story of crowds. But masses of people only formed because of reformers such as Gorbachev and Deng. Russia and China chose different paths in 1989 largely because of the individual personalities and proclivities of these two men.”

With that in mind, what of Erich Honecker, leader of the Communist Party in East Germany (Deutsche Demokratische Republik or DDR)? What was his historic role in all of this and was he truly an important part of the process as Mr. Engel’s thesis may suggest? We asked Mr. Engel to elaborate on the concept to effectively contextualize Erich Honecker’s role in the 1980s’ progressive democratizing movements, regarding Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform movement, during the immediate events preceding the fated date of November 9th 2009 and finally concerning Mr. Honecker’s historic and historiographic legacy as we consider it twenty years later. Furthermore, to provide a multicultural assessment and contrast to Mr. Engel’s answers, the same queries were asked on the other side of the Atlantic, to Mrs. Gabriele Camphausen, historian, board member at the Berlin Wall Memorial Centre and department director at the former DDR State Intelligence Documentation Centre in Berlin.

Beginning with Poland’s Solidarity movement, the 1980s saw a slow yet steady trend towards democracy throughout Eastern Europe. What do you believe Erich Honecker’s role was in this grand scheme of things and more specifically as policy director for East Germany? What was his direct influence concerning this matter that may have led to the later events of 1989?

Jeffrey A. Engel – I consider Honecker one of modern history’s great recalcitrants.  He famously vowed of his fellow communist apparatchiks that “we took power in order to keep it forever.”  He had little use for reformers, and little interest in substantive calls for reform of an East Germany political, social, and economic system he believed in heart and soul.  Indeed he drew a rhetorical line in the sand at the very start of 1989, just as protests such as those unleashed by Gorbachev, and embodied in home-grown calls for reform such as Poland’s Solidarity, that there would be no similar dramatic shift in East Germany policy.  The Berlin Wall, the very symbol of his state, “would be standing in fifty or one hundred years,” he pledged.  This was the type of rhetoric one might expect of a conservative leader of a reactionary state when pressed by reformist impulses throughout the region.  Most important of all, however, he fully believed his own words.

From America to Germany however, the imagery and assessment of Honecker changes drastically. Mrs. Camphausen was no fan of the brutal East-German director but denies he had an important political and historical role to play in the event that led to 1989. In the early 1980s, as communism’s foundations slowly began to weaken, Mrs. Camphausen calls Honecker a mere obstruction in the whole democratization process. That being said, she concurs with Mr. Engel that Honecker was not a man of the times; “progressive” and “reform” were never part of his vocabulary.

With Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika program allowing for more economic freedoms and national reform, the Communist hold on Eastern Europe continuously weakened. What were Erich Honecker’s views and actions concerning Perestroika and the Soviet Leader? Was this the first step encouraging popular protest of his administration in East Germany?

Jeffrey A. Engel – Honecker was no fan of Gorbachev.  The centrifugal forces the latter unleashed throughout the region—designed, we must not forget, to strengthen the Soviet system not to cause its ultimate collapse—seemed to Honecker too progressive by 1989, and too responsive to public sentiment.  One of the most stirring images of the entire period, not coincidentally, occurred with the two men on the same reviewing platform, witnesses to a celebration of the GDR’s [German Democratic Republic] 40th anniversary.  From the ranks of supposedly loyal party members, chosen to proudly parade the state’s prowess, came calls for change.  “Save us, Gorby,” they shouted.  Save us, that is, from our own leaders, Honecker in particular.  This was the same state visit in which Gorbachev famously told East Germany’s leadership that “life punishes those who come too late.”  Honecker thought otherwise, believing the kinds of change Gorbachev demanded, and had unleashed, not only unnecessary but unhealthy for the long-term viability of the state.  Ironically, history proved both men correct.

Still protesting the very importance of Honecker, Mrs. Camphausen could not deny that the “representative of the old communist faithfuls,” his regime and his staunch opposition to Soviet-initiated reform may have provoked organised protest and resistance in East Germany. These “rebels” would be the downfall of Honecker and his German Communism. 

Finally in 1989, communist governments were toppling left and right as East German protests took to the streets. Meanwhile, Honecker tried to take drastic action to preserve what little power he had. What do you think was Erich Honecker’s motivation, objective and role in the events that directly led to the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago?

Jeffrey A. Engel – Honecker’s decision to fire on crowds of protestors in mid-October led directly to his ousting, not so much by reformers, but rather by a cadre of leaders who recognized, as he could not, that deployment of such violent means to retain power invalidated the regime.  He would have used force.  Others would not.  He was of course out of power by the time the Wall finally came down on November 9.  But it would not have come down without violence had he indeed still retained the means to halt its fall. 

As such, Honecker was promptly forced into retirement following his stubborn rejection of change and the resort to violence. As Checkpoint Charlie finally opened for all, a free flow toward democracy began on the evening of November 9th, 1989. The East German people were confident that they had cast off the chains of communist oppression along with Erich Honecker, the “last obstructing element in the democratization of the former German Democratic Republic” as Mrs. Camphausen puts it.

In the aftermath, Erich Honecker was found guilty of treason and died shortly after in exile. What do you think is his historic and historiographic legacy of Erich Honecker as leader of East Germany in the decade preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall? Was he a simple character in the historic democratization of Eastern Europe or was his role an instrumental and pivotal one.

Jeffrey A. Engel – I go back to my initial response, that I consider Honecker one of history’s great recalcitrants.  He abhorred reform and change.  If revolutionaries require a stationary target to aim their frustrations against, Honecker willingly provided just such a statue of reactionary opposition to change.

As has been established above, Mrs. Camphausen disagrees that Honecker was a crucial actor of Cold War History when it comes to the Berlin Wall. That being said, she could not deny his importance in facing and provoking East German opposition.

These eminent specialists seem to concur that Erich Honecker was both the last obstacle in the democratization of East Germany and also, more importantly, the stubborn symbol of recalcitrance in an Eastern Europe of progressive change. Honecker cannot be dissociated from the Wall; as the secretary responsible for security matters in 1961, he was the architect of its foundations. He oversaw its construction, openly criticized Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik in favor of an East-West German rapprochement and eventually refused German reunification, stating, “The German Federal Republic is a foreign country.” Erich Honecker did everything he could to stop the events of 1989. In the end, he lost out to the popular propensity for freedom. Today, superseding the symbol of staunch communism he was, he has become a symbol of dictatorial intransigence and oppression in the face of unstoppable human ambition.

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    More Comments:

    Jonathan Tremblay - 11/4/2009

    I absolutely concur that if one were to analyze the motivations for Erich Honecker's actions, one would have to study the extensive and rich biography of the man. As such, my point here was to focus on the events of 1989 and specifically what role a single man could play in them. Mr. Engel and I see in there a stubborn man, regardless of why and how he became so.

    Kevin Eric Kennedy - 11/4/2009

    Individuals do matter in history, but individuals remain largely shaped by the times in which they were socialized. Erich Honecker's recalcitrance had historical roots. He spent nearly the entire period of the Third Reich in prison for his opposition to the Nazis in the early 1930's. He sincerely believed communism was the world's best hope against the return of fascism. Unfortunately, his experiences in prison did not give him cause to reflect on the dangers of concentrated state power. He became a post-totalitarian dictator and Germany is a much better place without him. My point is that it isn't enough to explain Honecker's behavior in the late 1980's by simply calling him stubborn. A scholarly analysis of Honecker's political obtuseness requires exmaining its specific social, political and psychological origins, that is, his experience of Nazism in the 1930's and 1940's. Michael Gorbachev, on the other hand, had a different perspective on the world. While he certainly experienced the hardships of growing up in war-time Russia, Gorbachev was nevertheless spared the horrors of the battlefield and German occupation. Thus Gorbachev's biography left room for a pragmatic approach to politics completely alien to Honecker's generation.

    Kevin Kennedy
    Potsdam, Germany

    Kevin Eric Kennedy - 11/4/2009


    Claude Tremblay - 11/1/2009

    Excellent piece of history and lesson to be remember by humanity. Reminescent to the time of the berlin wall fall it brings numerous memories as I was serving in the CF that day practicing are tactics in a combining operations with American and Germans in a mere 30km from the wall. Thanks for the memory Jon.