Erich Honecker, leader of the German Democratic Republic from 1971 until 1989. The film follows not only his demise as head of state, but the story of what happened next.

A film about the downfall of the East German head of state, Erich Honecker, which includes an astonishing interview with his apparently unrepentant widow, will receive its UK premiere next week.

There is a dramatic epilogue to the story of the GDR, where the two sides of the ideological divide had to come to terms with the fact that they were basically also human contemporaries.

Bernhard Fulda

The Fall: The End Of Honecker, follows the story of the man who led the German Democratic Republic from 1971 until its collapse in 1989, before escaping judicial prosecution for human rights abuses and his alleged involvement in the deaths of 192 East Germans who were trying to escape to a new life in the West.

It will be shown at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge on Monday, 21 May, and will be followed by a discussion with the director, Eric Friedler.

Although Honecker himself died in 1994, the documentary has created a sensation in Germany, because of an interview it features with his widow, Margot. Now 84, the former first lady of the GDR broke a 20-year silence when she consented to an interview with Friedler. What she had to say has stupefied many Germans. Honecker is shown remorselessly defending the regime, idealising the “lost nation” and describing its demise as “a tragedy”.

Of those who were killed trying to reach the West, she comments: “There was no need for them to climb over the wall, to pay for this stupidity with their lives.” As the GDR’s former education minister, she also denies that a forced adoption policy, in which children of political prisoners were taken from their parents and given to Communist families, ever existed.

The Fall combines archival footage with first-hand accounts from many of those who were at the heart of the collapse of both the GDR, and Communism as a whole. Friedler spoke to the former head of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze, his Minister of Foreign Affairs. There are also interviews with the former West German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt; Honecker’s successor, Egon Krenz; and the prominent East German Socialist politican, Gregor Gysi.

Dr Bernhard Fulda, a Cambridge historian who has co-organised the UK premiere, described the film as a landmark of German documentary in the 21st century. “It is the closest we are likely to get to having an insider’s view of the GDR,” he said. “Usually we get the perspective of victims, but here we meet the people who were at its centre.”

“The film is effectively a glimpse of what happens inside a dictatorship. We may look at Syria now, for example, and wonder how the al-Assads cannot be disturbed by what is happening. Here we see that in the GDR, there was a stark contrast between the internal view of the system, and the perceptions of ordinary people at the time.”

That insider’s perspective goes on to reveal the tensions that beset the GDR in its final days. Reformers, such as Gysi, who sympathised with Gorbachev’s attempts to liberalise Communism and wanted to do the same thing in Germany, found themselves at odds with hard-liners like the Honeckers, who advocated ideological separation from the West.

Erich Honecker’s inflexibility on Glasnost-style restructuring was to play a key role in his downfall. When at the end of the 1980s, other parts of the Eastern Bloc started to relax their border controls, he refused to do the same and only reluctantly allowed passage to East Germans who were trying to flee to the West via countries such as Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Protests began to break out in the GDR and a Tiananmen Square-style bloodbath nearly ensued in Leipzig, when paratroopers were called in to deal with demonstrators calling for reform. The order to send them almost certainly came from Honecker and disaster was only averted by party officials. By then, however, other members of the party realised that Honecker could not go on and he was ousted in October, 1989, just a few weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

More than two decades later, little of Margot Honecker’s attitude seems to have softened. She was interviewed in Chile, to where she and her husband emigrated in 1993. She describes victims of the regime’s repression as “criminals, who today make out that they were political victims.” Asked about any lingering sense of guilt, she reflects: “It didn’t touch me at all. I have a thick skin”.

The film is also unusual because, rather than concluding with the fall of the Berlin Wall and German unification, it shows what happened to the Honeckers next. Both effectively became refugees in their own country. Unsurprisingly, there was also a lynch-mob mentality among Germans, who felt that they should stand trial. Erich was already ill with the cancer that would kill him. The state found itself unable to give them a home.

Remarkably, the German Protestant Church, which had been the subject of repression under Honecker’s stewardship of the GDR, stepped in. The couple were housed for two months with a Lutheran Pastor, Uwe Holmer, who appears in the film, while more permanent arrangements could be made. Holmer’s own children had been prevented from going to university because of the anti-Church stance of Honecker’s leadership, yet for weeks, these ideological opponents co-existed.

Fulda believes that the Church may have seen this as a type of “subtle revenge”. “There may have been a desire to demonstrate that actually, they had been persecuted for the wrong reasons,” he said. “By practising the Christian principle of turning the other cheek, they were making a point.”

“For us, this makes the film a more valuable historical document still. The film is striking because it engages with the question of what happens to the dictators after a dictatorship collapses. There is a dramatic epilogue to the story of the GDR, where the two sides of the ideological divide had to come to terms with the fact that they were basically also human contemporaries. That aspect - the what happened next - is an amazing story which has not really been told before.”

The Fall: The End Of Honecker, directed by Eric Friedler, will be shown at the Bateman Auditorium, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, on 21 May at 4.30pm. All are welcome to attend. The film is 90 minutes long and is subtitled in English.

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