Heinz Kessler, Who Led East Germany’s Military, Dies at 97


He strongly denied that there were orders to kill, and to the end defended the wall as an “anti-fascist protection” that had prevented broader East-West conflict.

Mr. Kessler’s life was formed by Communism and the turbulence of 20th-century Europe. Born on Jan. 20, 1920, in what was then Polish Silesia, he grew up in the town of Chemnitz (later known as Karl-Marx-Stadt in East Germany) and had become a member of a Communist youth group, the Young Spartacus League, by age 10.

He trained as a machine operator but was conscripted into Hitler’s Wehrmacht in 1940 and dispatched to the Soviet Union as part of the Nazi invasion in the summer of 1941. He defected to the Red Army just three weeks later, in July, and fought alongside the Soviets throughout World War II.

Unlike hundreds of other German Communists who made their way to the Soviet Union during the war, Mr. Kessler survived Stalin’s various purges and returned to Berlin immediately afterward. Together with Erich Honecker, who went on to become the supreme leader of East Germany, Mr. Kessler founded the country’s youth movement, a breeding ground for the ruling elite.

Photo

Mr. Kessler, right, in 1996.

Credit
Jan Bauer/Associated Press

He attended a Soviet military academy in the 1950s and embarked on a long climb through the military ranks. He became defense minister in December 1985 and did not resign until Nov. 17, 1989, eight days after the Berlin Wall fell.

He was convicted in 1993 of incitement to manslaughter in seven cases related to the killing of hundreds of people trying to flee East Germany. Mr. Kessler and Mr. Streletz, his former deputy, were both sentenced to prison, Mr. Kessler for seven and a half years and Mr. Streletz for five and a half. They served only part of those terms in prison, but Mr. Kessler remained the rare senior Soviet bloc official incarcerated for his actions while in power.

Mr. Honecker, the former secret police chief Erich Mielke and the former prime minister Willi Stoph were all deemed unfit to stand trial for health reasons and thus escaped sentencing.

Neither his sentence nor jail altered Mr. Kessler’s views. In 2011, the year he and Mr. Streletz published their book, he addressed a gathering in a park cafe of about 100 former officers of the East German Army, some of whom appeared in their Communist-era uniforms.

That year, Mr. Kessler also ran for office — unsuccessfully — in a local Berlin election as the candidate of an orthodox Communist party, according to the local public service broadcaster RBB.

In an interview with Stephen Kinzer of The New York Times in 1996, Mr. Kessler was, according to the article’s headline, “red and unrepentant.”

Mr. Kessler said he was enraged that millions of Eastern Europeans had lost their social security and welfare after the fall of Communism, and he called the chaos in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s a “catastrophe.”

The weekly newspaper Die Zeit, in a short obituary for Mr. Kessler, noted that in a 1988 interview, when he was still defense minister, he had appeared open to some of the overtures then voiced by the Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, whose reforms generally ran counter to hard-liners like Mr. Kessler and Mr. Honecker, then still the East German leader.

Mr. Kessler insisted, however, that “there has never — never! — been an order to shoot” escapees. Die Zeit noted that this contradicted the official East German history, which recorded that the country’s National Security Council, at a session on May 3, 1974, decided that efforts to cross the border required “making use of weapons without consideration” for broader consequences.

Mr. Kessler, whose wife, Ruth, died in 2013, lived his last years in a Roman Catholic home in Karlshorst, the eastern Berlin district where the Nazis signed their final surrender to the Allies in May 1945. He is survived by a son, Frank. Mr. Schumann of Eulenspiegel Verlag said there was no word of other survivors.

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