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.