His death was announced by Frank Schumann of the eastern division of Eulenspiegel Verlag, the publisher of Without the Wall, There Would Have Been War, a 2011 memoir Kessler wrote with his former deputy, Fritz Streletz.
Kessler was one of the few surviving senior officials of the former GDR and one of the very few leading communists sentenced and jailed for alleged ‘crimes’ committed before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the GDR was absorbed by the Federal Republic to its west in 1990.
Kessler was found guilty in 1993 of inciting border guards to kill people fleeing west across the wall or the heavily fortified border between east and west Germany.
He strongly denied that there were orders to kill, and to the end defended the wall as an “anti-fascist protection” that had preserved peace and prevented broader east-west conflict.
Kessler’s life was formed by communism and the turbulence of 20th-century Europe. Born on 20 January 1920, in Lauban, in what was then German Silesia, he grew up in the town of Chemnitz, later known as Karl-Marx-Stadt in the GDR.
He imbibed communist ideas as a child from his working-class parents, who yearned for a revolution in their homeland. As a boy, Heinz joined the Young Pioneers, the youth organisation of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).
Heinz’s childhood was blighted by the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. As a teenager, he trained to become a motor mechanic and risked his life by agitating against the Nazis. It was to no avail. In 1940, he was drafted to fight for the regime he hated.
During Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Kessler was taken as a prisoner of war. With other German communists he pledged his allegiance to the Red Army. In Germany, a Nazi tribunal sentenced him to death in his absence. He fought alongside the Red Army for the rest of the war.
Kessler returned to Germany in 1945 expecting to hear that his parents had been killed by the Nazis. In the Soviet occupation zone he was overjoyed to find his mother, emaciated but alive after spending most of the war in a Nazi concentration camp. It was a rare moment of catharsis for a man who spent most of his life holding his emotions in, partly because of the terrible things he had seen in the war.
Together with Erich Honecker, who went on to become the top leader of the GDR, Kessler founded the Free German Youth (FDJ), an organisation for training youth in the science of Marxism-Leninism and as builders of socialism.
He joined the KPD in the Soviet zone and resolved “to build a fairer state on the ruins of nazism”. He rose quickly in the GDR’s Volksarmee (People’s Army) because he was marked out as an ardent communist who could be relied on to meet the exacting demands of his position. He was still a young man when he was appointed chief of the air forces and air defence of the army in 1956.
Kessler’s wartime service in the Soviet Red Army had given him mastery of the Russian language and impeccable credentials with the Soviet leadership. In 1985, Honecker appointed him as armeegeneral of the army and minister of defence. A year later, Kessler joined the politburo of the Socialist Unity Party (SED).
After their conviction on trumped-up charges by a revanchist German state that in many respects has failed to settle accounts with fascism, Kessler and Streletz, his former deputy, were both sentenced to terms in prison, Kessler for seven and a half years and Streletz for five and a half. They served only part of those terms in prison, but Kessler remained the rare senior official from a former European socialist country incarcerated for his actions while in office.
He spent two years in Berlin-Hakenfelde prison and was under house arrest for a further three years. His internment was singularly unsuccessful in provoking any remorse. Not even being kicked out of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany — later renamed the Party of Democratic Socialism, after renouncing Marxism-Leninism, and subsequently absorbed into the Left Party – could turn his beliefs. He appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which upheld his conviction in 2001. He maintained that there had “never, never been an order to shoot” escapers.
He claimed that reunited Germany was “callous and unjust. On some matters I cannot change my position. I refuse to sacrifice my communist beliefs to the fashion of the day. I am and remain a believer in democratic centralism and a revolutionary socialist party.” He met fellow communists from the Volksarmee for get-togethers in Berlin cafes to reminisce about the halcyon days when they were protected by the wall. They would wear their old uniforms and take part in flag ceremonies.
Kessler was defiantly unapologetic – proud, even – about the wall. He regretted that it had ever been breached: “Millions of people in eastern Europe are now free from employment, free from safe streets, free from healthcare, free from social security. While the wall was standing, there was peace. Today, there’s hardly a place that isn’t in flames. Were you ever in east Germany? It was a wonderful country.”
Shortly after his release from prison, he was visited by our chairman, Harpal Brar. During their two-hour conversation, General Kessler covered a number of topics that have a crucial bearing on the history, as well as the development, of the working-class movement.
Most notably, he had huge regard for the leadership of Josef Stalin and refuted the slanders hurled at him by the bourgeoisie and its agents in the working class – social democrats, revisionists and Trotskyites.
Equally, he was scathing about the policies and conduct of Khrushchevite revisionists – policies that eventually brought down the Soviet Union and the other socialist states of Europe. Says Harpal Brar: “He was truly engaging, highly intelligent, an ardent communist, a fearless defender of socialism and an uncompromising fighter against imperialism. He was a charming personality and it was a rare privilege for me to have met him and discussed important questions with him.
“His wife Ruth, who was present throughout my meeting with General Kessler, was equally caring and charming.”
Comrade Kessler’s passing away shall be mourned by millions of people around the world. Equally, his conviction in the communist future of humanity will be shared by communists and progressive humanity at large.
With these words we bid farewell to this wonderful son of the German people and friend of the proletariat and oppressed peoples of the world.
A red salute to Comrade Heinz Kessler!
Heinz Kessler, who led east Germany’s military, dies at 97 by Alison Smale, New York Times, 8 May 2017
Obituary: Heinz Kessler, The Times, 10 May 2017