Honecker awaits arrest, carrying ghosts of past

December 07, 1990|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

BEELITZ, Germany -- Each time prosecutors take another of their periodic stabs at arresting Erich Honecker, the emotionally and morally charged question of responsibility for East Germany's past rumbles through the houses and markets of Beelitz.

Last Friday, Berlin judicial authorities issued a warrant for Mr. Honecker on charges of collective manslaughter, after announcing they had found documents in East German military archives that proved his responsibility in ordering border guards to shoot East Germans trying to escape the country.

With the warrant came the usual armies of TV reporters, forcing people here to cast an uncomfortable look back over the past even as they struggle to adjust to life in the new Germany.

So far, Soviet military officials have refused to hand over Mr. Honecker, saying he was too ill to be arrested.

The decision will be made "at the top" in Moscow.

The presence of the once-mighty Mr. Honecker here since April has shaken this sleepy town of 6,000 outside Berlin.

After 40 years at the helm of the now-vanished East Germany, in one capacity or another, the former leader has inspired little compassion or sympathy among his new neighbors.

Thomas Wardin, 36, the Social Democratic mayor, remembered that Mr. Honecker's arrival caused a stir among residents.

"When he was brought here, people were at first furious. They saw him as most responsible for what happened over the last 40 years," Mr. Wardin said. "They wanted to do all sorts of things that wouldn't have been compatible with the process of democracy."

With time, residents calmed down. But he said that each time Mr. Honecker's name makes the news again and reporters swoop down on Beelitz, the question of his past and future resurges, ripping open old wounds.

Herta Hohm, 66, would not mind seeing Erich Honecker join Erich Mielke, the former Stasi chief, and Harry Tisch, the one-time trade union federation boss, at the Ploetzensee prison in west Berlin. Ironically, prison officials note, Ploetzensee was where the Nazis kept Communists before executing them.

"There were so many young people who died by the Berlin Wall," she said. "What for? There was no war going on."

Then Mrs. Hohm spoke of her nephew, arrested several years ago near the Brandenburg Gate on suspicion that he was trying to flee to the West.

"They kept him in jail 18 months and tortured him," Mrs. Hohm said, blinking back angry tears.

It is unlikely that Mr. Honecker ever lived under the illusion that he was loved by the people he ruled so strictly.

On one side, he penned them in behind the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, knowing that if they had the choice, they would run away. At the same time, he lived behind his own walls at his Wandlitz home, lacking direct, spontaneous contact with ordinary people.

Some here do feel that the hatred of his countrymen must already be a punishment for Mr. Honecker.

"I doubt whether this man really understands what happened last autumn," said Frank Pasternacki, a former member of the Communist Party here. "I don't think it's necessary to imprison him."

Mr. Honecker could not even pretend to the admiration of his fellow socialist leaders and appears now to have probably lived much of his life in fear of judgment.

Last week, West German television revealed the existence of a locked red briefcase that Mr. Mielke, chief of the widely hated secret police in East Germany, kept in a safe at Stasi headquarters.

In the briefcase were documents concerning Mr. Honecker's years from 1935 to 1945 as a prisoner of the Gestapo, reportedly showing that he was able to survive his capture only by turning in fellow Communists to the Nazis.

Mr. Mielke held this over Mr. Honecker's head like the blade of a guillotine that could have fallen at Mr. Mielke's will.

In a town, or a dismantled state, now consigned to grapple with the private questions of guilt and courage, complicity and compromise, Mr. Honecker offers a kind of moral certainty: If we were all guilty, Mayor Wardin suggested the other day, some were more guilty than most.

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