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Last GDR defense minister dies in hospital

May 4, 2017

General Heinz Kessler was responsible for the former East German shoot-to-kill policy aimed at stopping people from escaping to the West. A GDR devotee until the end, he has died aged 97 in Berlin.

DDR Erich Honecker & Heinz Keßler
Heinz Kessler, right, and Erich HoneckerImage: Imago/Sven Simon

The "Eulenspiegel Verlag" publishing house said on Thursday that Kessler had died on Tuesday.

A committed believer in the East German (GDR) state, Kessler had attended Communist Party events up until a few years ago. He joined the German Communist Party (DKP) in 2009 and stood as a party candidate in the Berlin state elections in 2011.

Kessler had deserted the Wehrmacht during its advance into the Soviet Union in July 1941 and switched sides to join the Red Army, his publishers said. He returned to the Soviet occupation zone in Germany in 1945 and was appointed Chief of the Air Forces and Air Defense of the East German armed forces in 1956.

In the following years, Kessler rose to become a government minister and a member of the communist Politburo as well as a friend of East German leader Erich Honecker.

Defending the Berlin Wall

Kessler was the GDR's last defense minister, in office from 1985 until 1989. He was responsible for the shoot-to-kill policy aimed at preventing people leaving the communist East for democratic West Germany.

Eulenspiegel Verlagsgruppe published Kessler's book "Without the Wall There Would Have Been War." Kessler argued that the people killed at the border had inflicted danger upon themselves. Hundreds of people are believed to have died at the East German border with estimates varying greatly from 139 to 750 over the 28 years of its existence from 1961 until it was dismantled.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Kessler was arrested in Berlin in 1991 following speculation he was going to flee the country. Honecker escaped to the Chilean Embassy in Moscow the same year.

In 1993, Kessler was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for incitement to manslaughter for his role in the deaths of people who tried to flee the GDR. He was released after five years in prison.

jm/sms (AP, Reuters)