Heinz Kessler

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Army General
Heinz Kessler
File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1988-0704-410, Heinz Keßler.jpg
Kessler in July 1988
Minister of National Defence
(East Germany)
In office
3 December 1985 – 18 November 1989
President Erich Honecker
Prime Minister Willi Stoph
Hans Modrow
Preceded by Heinz Hoffmann
Succeeded by Theodor Hoffmann
Personal details
Born (1920-01-26)26 January 1920
Lauban, Weimar Germany
(now Lubań, Poland)
Died 2 May 2017(2017-05-02) (aged 97)
Berlin, Germany
Political party German Communist Party (2009–2017)
Other political
Communist Party of Germany (1945–1946)
Socialist Unity Party of Germany (1946–1989)/
Party of Democratic Socialism (1989–1990)
German Communist Party
Spouse(s) Ruth Kessler (born 20 March 1922; died 10 October 2013)[1]
Children Frank [2]
Military service
Allegiance Germany National Socialist Germany (1940–1941)
 Soviet Union (1941–1945)
 East Germany (1950–1989)
Years of service War Ensign of Germany (1938-1945).svg Wehrmacht (1940–1941)
Red Army flag.svg Red Army (1941–1945)
Flag of NVA (East Germany).svg National People's Army (1950–1989)
Rank Armeegeneral
Commands Commander-in-chief of the Kommando LSK/LV
Ministry of National Defence
Battles/wars World War II
Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia
Angolan Civil War
Criminal conviction
Heinz Kessler
Known for Incitement to kill German civilians fleeing East Germany
Criminal penalty 7 1/2 years
Conviction(s) Manslaughter

Heinz Kessler or Heinz Keßler (26 January 1920 – 2 May 2017) was a German communist politician and military officer in East Germany.

His career in the military started when he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of Nazi Germany, in WWII. Due to his communist convictions, he deserted the Wehrmacht and fought for the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. Upon his return to East Germany, he was given the rank of Armeegeneral in the National People's Army (Nationale Volksarmee). Later, he was Minister of Defense of the GDR, a member of the Politbüro of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), and a deputy of the GDR's Volkskammer (parliament).

Convicted for his role in the deaths of defectors along the Berlin wall, he was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison after German reunification, and served his sentence in Hakenfelde Prison. He was released from prison in 1998 after serving only two years.


Early life

Kessler was born into a communist family in Lauban, Lower Silesia and was raised in Chemnitz.[2] He joined the Red Young Pioneers, the youth organization of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), at age 6 and the Young Spartacus League at 10.[3] He later apprenticed as a motor mechanic.

Military career

Drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1940, he deserted and defected to the Soviet Red Army three weeks after the German invasion of the USSR and fought for the Soviet Union until the end of the war.[2] Upon his desertion, he was sentenced to death in absentia by a Military tribunal[3] and his mother was arrested and imprisoned in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.[4] He wouldn't see her again until June 1945, shortly after the end of the war, in a reunion that he considered to be "one of the most eventful and beautiful days" of his life.[5]

Upon returning to Germany in 1945, Kessler joined the KPD in the Soviet occupation zone, which merged with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the Soviet zone in 1946 to form the SED. Also in 1946, Kessler became a member of the SED Central Committee.

He was appointed Chief of the Air Forces and Air Defense (Luftstreitkräfte/Luftverteidigung) of the NVA in 1956, and as deputy minister of defense in 1957. He became Chief of the NVA Main Staff (Hauptstab – General Staff) in 1967, with the rank of Generaloberst (Colonel General). Simultaneously, he also became a member of the Military Council of the United High Command of the Warsaw Pact.

Kessler was promoted from Chief of the Main Political Administration (Chef der Politischen Hauptverwaltung) of the NVA to Defense Minister (with the rank of Armeegeneral) on 3 December 1985 after his predecessor, Armeegeneral Heinz Hoffmann, died of a heart attack.[6]

Conviction and imprisonment

In 1991, after the Unification of Germany, Kessler was arrested after police received information that Kessler would attempt to flee the country disguised as a Soviet officer.[7] German police blockaded the Sperenberg Airfield to prevent Kessler's escape, but later arrested him in Berlin after changing the lock on his home and informing him that he could retrieve his keys at a local police station.[8]

He was tried in a German court for incitement to commit intentional homicide, for his role in the deaths of people who tried to flee the GDR between 1971 and 1989. On 16 September 1993, Kessler was found guilty of manslaughter and was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison.[2]

Kessler filed an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that his actions were in accordance with GDR law and meant to preserve the existence of the GDR. However, his appeal was denied largely on the basis that the GDR's policies violated international human rights.[9]

Kessler served his sentence in Berlin-Hakenfelde prison from November 1996 to October 1998, and was released early.[10]

Kessler was expelled from the Party of Democratic Socialism (SED) in 1990. In 2009, he joined the German Communist Party (DKP). He was an unsuccessful DKP candidate in the 2011 Berlin state election.[2] Kessler died on 2 May 2017 at the age of 97.[11][12]


  1. "Wir nehmen Abschied von Ruth Keßler".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Smale, Alison (2017-05-08). "Heinz Kessler, Who Led East Germany's Military, Dies at 97". New York Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 Hall, Allan (2009-11-09). "Berlin Wall anniversary: former Stasi man 'sickened' by collapse of communism". The Telegraph.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Kellerhoff, Sven Felix (2017-05-04). "Heinz Keßler †: Dieser General war die personifizierte DDR". DIE WELT. Retrieved 2020-09-14.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Kellerhoff, Sven Felix (2017-05-04). "Heinz Keßler †: Dieser General war die personifizierte DDR". DIE WELT. Retrieved 2020-09-14.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Flow, V.B.. "A New Defense Minister for the GDR." December 23, 1985.http://files.osa.ceu.hu/holdings/300/8/3/text/27-2-197.shtml (accessed September 8, 2007).
  7. Maume, Chris (2017-05-07). "Heinz Kessler, obituary: East Germany's last defence minister". The Independent.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Tagliabue, John (1991-05-22). "4 Ex-Officials of East Germany Arrested". New York Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Registry of the European Court of Human Rights. JUDGMENTS IN THE CASES OF STRELETZ, KESSLER AND KRENZ v. GERMANY AND K.-H. W. v. GERMANY. Strasbourg: Registry of the European Court of Human Rights, 22 March 2001.
  10. biography Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (German)
  11. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2017-05-04. Retrieved 2017-05-04.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "Eiserne Ideale bis zum Schluss: DDR-Verteidigungsminister Heinz Keßler ist tot - Nordkurier.de". www.nordkurier.de. 4 May 2017.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>