Honecker Faces Justice

July 30, 1992

Since unification, the German government of Helmut Kohl has sought Erich Honecker to stand trial for crimes committed as communist ruler of East Germany. Some doubted Bonn really wanted the man it once honored as a head of state to cringe in the dock, and tell all of the tortuous politics of the two Germanys. It did.

Now Mr. Honecker is in Berlin, in custody, nearing 80, defiant. Before his 18 years ruling East Germany, he earned trust from Soviet masters by building The Wall in 1961. It is his monument, and it is gone. He will face trial for manslaughter in the deaths of 350 to 400 East Germans shot while trying to cross it to freedom. Some guards -- small fry -- have already been convicted and given light sentences. This is the man who gave the order. In terms of guilt for government policy, he should be tried if anyone should. He also stands accused of massive embezzlement.

Precedents for such trials are not reassuring. Revolutions frequently hang the tyrants they supplant, sometimes after a fair trial. Mr. Honecker's henchman, Erich Mielke, former head of secret police, languishes at age 84 in a prison hospital while trial creeps along briefly each week. The Bulgarian dictator Todor HD has been on trial by his crypto-Communist successors for a year, charged with exceeding authority. Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania was hastily shot by firing squad in 1989, a secret tribunal having been declared to have occurred. Gustav Husak of Czechoslovakia conveniently died of cancer. Hungary and Poland make do without such exercises.

Beyond doubt these men committed crimes against their countries and compatriots. Equally beyond doubt, these affairs become political trials. This one will do good to the extent that it reveals the German past. It is not just the Nazi era of the 1930s and '40s but the communist era just ended that needs illumination.

No sympathy is due Mr. Honecker, who himself had none. The German government of Mr. Kohl has yet to convince all East Germans that it affords them opportunities equal to those who never suffered Communist rule. A vivid symptom of the unhealed wound was the reaction of Dagmar Hase on German television just after winning the Olympic gold medal for the 400-meter freestyle swim. She furiously denounced West German Olympic officials for bias against East Germans like herself and her friends.

There are many East Germans who deserve a fair shake that triumphant West Germany has yet to prove it grants. Erich Honecker is not among them. He was preparing to kill many more, demonstrating in the street against him, before Mikhail Gorbachev stopped him in October 1989. His crimes are both too enormous and too political for any verdict to be "justice." But if truth be obtained, the proceeding will be justified.

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