FOUR and a half months after his forced return from exile in Moscow, former East German leader Erich Honecker went on trial in Berlin yesterday, charged with manslaughter for killings at the East-West border in Germany.
But the proceedings, in a Berlin courtroom stuffed with journalists, spectators, attorneys, and relatives of those killed, lasted only 45 minutes.
The trial was postponed until Monday because one of Mr. Honecker's fellow defendants, former East German Prime Minister Willy Stoph, had health problems and did not show up.
The medical issue may be quite a challenge for the prosecution in this trial, considered the most important criminal case in Germany since the Nuremburg war crimes trials and long-awaited by east Germans who want to see "the big fish" caught.
Defense lawyers for Mr. Honecker and five top ex-Communists, who are also charged with manslaughter, have maintained all along that their clients are too old and ill to stand trial.
Honecker, 80, has been diagnosed as seriously ill and is allowed to be in court for only three hours a day, two days a week. It is not certain he will survive the trial, which at this pace could take two years.
But yesterday, Honecker appeared able, chatting calmly with his lawyer before the trial began. He sat - along with Erich Mielke, former head of the secret police or Stasi; Heinz Kessler, former defense minister; Fritz Streletz, former deputy defense minister; and Hans Albrecht, former Communist Party chief of the Suhl district - facing his accusers, relatives of 13 fugitives killed either by border guards, land mines, or automatic self-firing devices.
All six of the defendants were previously members of the National Defense Council in East Germany.
The prosecution is counting on the minutes taken at a May 3, 1974, meeting of the Defense Council to tag these men directly with the responsibility for the shoot-to-kill order at the border. In the minutes, Honecker is recorded as saying that those fleeing over the border are to be stopped by "all means" available. Acting under the law
The defense argues that the defendants were acting according to East German law. Beyond this, they say, it cannot be maintained that the buck stops with Honecker and company. Ultimately, the Soviet Union was responsible for the wall, the iron curtain, and the oppression in the Warsaw Pact states, they reason.
But the prosecution will be able to strengthen its case by a recent ruling of Germany's highest legal authority, the Federal Court of Justice.
On Nov. 3, the court upheld suspended sentences against two East German border guards who shot and killed a fugitive at the Berlin Wall in 1984. The guards may have been acting under orders; but the court said there was a higher, supra-national law in operation that guarantees human rights, and the shootings were a grave violation of this law.
In the Honecker trial, the prosecution will take this line of argument, pointing out that even the German Democratic Republic (GDR), being a signatory of the Helsinki Accords, recognized the role of human rights.
According to the German polling organization Infas, 59 percent of west Germans and 51 percent of east Germans think it is right that Honecker stand trial.
But his supporters were out in front of the courtroom shouting "Freedom for Erich Honecker."
A frequently heard comment among east Germans is that Honecker should be made to live the life of a poor pensioner in a ramshackle, single-room apartment, sharing a toilet with other families - as so many elderly East Germans lived under his regime. Pros and cons
The Berliner Zeitung, formerly an East German newspaper, displayed pro- and contra-opinions from two East German dissidents on its front page yesterday.
Hermann Kreutzer, who left the GDR in 1956, said it would be unconscionable to let leaders who had "ravaged" the GDR and oppressed its people simply walk away. Gerhard Zwerenz, who left the GDR in 1957, said the trial would turn into a legal battlefield, adding that it was time for Germans to unify, not throw a "victory party."