Heinz Kessler, obituary: East Germany’s last defence minister

First, there would be a shout: “Stop, stand still or I will shoot.” Then a warning shot. Finally a shot for real, preferably at the legs – though often not.

Figures vary, but many hundreds of people died fleeing East Germany under the regime’s shoot-to-kill policy before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and Heinz Kessler, who has died aged 97, was one of the men primarily responsible for enforcing it.

Kessler was born into a communist family in Lower Silesia, and joined the Communist Party’s youth wing, the Young Pioneers, when he was six. He was an apprentice car mechanic, and was conscripted into the Wehrmacht when the Second World War broke out. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union, he deserted to join the Red Army, and was sentenced to death in absentia.

When the war ended he worked for the party in the Soviet Occupied Zone. “We vowed,” he said, “to build a fairer state on the ruins of Nazism.” 

Along with his friend from the youth-wing days, Erich Honecker, he rose smoothly through the echelons of political and military power, and in 1961, when the wall went up, he supervised its construction and enforced the shoot-to-kill policy, or Schiessbefehl – “order to fire”.

Kessler (left) with Erich Honecker (right) at a demonstration by the FDJ (free German youth) in Pankow, Berlin. Kessler would serve under Honecker when the latter led East Germany (Bundesarchiv)

In 1985 Honecker – the country’s leader from 1971 until just before the fall of the Wall – appointed him defence minister, and he became a member of the Politburo. But when the wall came down and Germany reunified, the authorities pursued those who had enforced the Communist regime’s brutally repressive policies. 

​Kessler was arrested in 1991 after officials received a tip-off that he was about to flee to Moscow disguised as a Red Army officer. They staked out a Soviet airfield, though they eventually arrested him in Berlin. Two years later he…

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