Honecker: the Jailer Escapes Prison

January 16, 1993

Erich Honecker, the Communist boss who built the Berlin Wall, is now in Chile after leaving a reunited Germany that fittingly had become his prison. The operative word is "fittingly" because during his heyday in East Germany he controlled a brutal regime that turned that rump state into a prison for its 17 million inhabitants. Some 350 persons died trying to escape through a border laced with mines, studded with watchtowers, guarded by sharpshooters -- a hellish barrier whose traces still scar the German landscape.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl is reportedly bitter at the decision of a Berlin court to release Mr. Honecker from trial in the deaths of 13 would-be escapees because he is said to be dying of liver cancer. The official line in Bonn is that his release "shows a respect for the rule of law that Honecker did not understand when he was in power."

More on the mark is Berndt Seite, premier of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, one of the liberated eastern states, who said Mr. Honecker's release "was a slap in the face" to all the victims of Communist brutality and repression. He said if Mr. Honecker could not stand trial he should have been put in a prison hospital in Germany rather than be allowed to join his wife and daughter in exile.

Actually, Bonn officials must be relieved to be rid of their embarrassing 80-year-old prisoner. In 1987, the Kohl government accorded him full honors as a head of state when he visited Bonn in an appearance that signified acceptance of Germany's division. Just a little over two years later, the Communist regime crumbled, the Wall came tumbling down and Mr. Honecker fled into the protection of his Moscow mentors. There Bonn would have been content to leave him until Boris Yeltsin turned Mr. Honecker over to the less-than-eager justice system that awaited him in his native land.

A trial of Mr. Honecker would have exposed many of the evils of four decades of Communist rule. But it might also have exposed how a succession of West German governments (and their allies, including the U.S.) were content to prosper on their side of the Iron Curtain while East Germans languished in a country that pointed its guns inward at its own citizens.

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