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Former East German Defense Minister Heinz Kessler dies at 97

Associated Press logo Associated Press 4/05/2017
FILE - The April 18, 2002 file photo shows the last defense minister of the GDR Heinz Kessler as he attends the funeral of the wife of GDR founder Walter Ulbricht, Lotte Ulbricht in Berlin. Kessler who was convicted of manslaughter for upholding the shoot-to-kill order at the communist country’s border, has died. He was 97. (AP Photo/Herbert Knosowski, file) © The Associated Press FILE - The April 18, 2002 file photo shows the last defense minister of the GDR Heinz Kessler as he attends the funeral of the wife of GDR founder Walter Ulbricht, Lotte Ulbricht in Berlin. Kessler who was convicted of manslaughter for upholding the shoot-to-kill order at the communist country’s border, has died. He was 97. (AP Photo/Herbert Knosowski, file)

BERLIN — Heinz Kessler, a former East German defense minister who was later convicted of incitement to manslaughter for upholding the shoot-to-kill policy at the communist country's border, has died. He was 97.

The Eulenspiegel Verlag publishing house, which published his book "Without the Wall, There Would Have Been War," said Thursday that Kessler died in Berlin on May 2.

Kessler was defense minister from 1985 until November 1989 and became a member of the communist party's politburo in 1986. His promotion to minister and general followed a long career in the senior ranks of the military and as a deputy defense minister.

In January 1990, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was kicked out of the party along with others from the hardline communist era.

Kessler was arrested in May 1991 after officials in reunited Germany, smarting from longtime East German leader Erich Honecker's escape to Moscow, received a tip that he would try to flee the country wearing a Red Army uniform. Police blocked entrances to a Soviet air base in Sperenberg for several hours but Kessler was eventually arrested in Berlin.

In 1993, he was sentenced to 7 ½ years in prison. The case went as far as the European Court of Human Rights, which in 2001 upheld Kessler's conviction — along with that of East Germany's last hardline leader, Egon Krenz, and other officials.

An estimated 700-800 people died at East Germany's heavily fortified border with the West before it was opened in late 1989.

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