Honecker was born in Neunkirchen, in the Saar, as the son of a politically militant coal miner. He joined the youth section (Jugendverband) of the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD) in 1926. In 1929 he joined the KPD and went to Moscow to study at the International Lenin School. He returned to Germany in 1931 and after the Nazis had come to power (Machtübernahme), Honecker was arrested in 1935. In 1937 he was sentenced to ten years for Communist party activities and he remained in captivity until the end of World War II.
At the end of the war, Honecker joined the Communist activists under Walter Ulbricht. In 1946, Honecker was one of the first members of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED), made up of the old KPD and the Social Democrats of eastern Germany. Following a sweeping victory in the October 1946 elections, he took his place amongst the SED leadership in the short-lived parliament. The German Democratic Republic was proclaimed on October 7, 1949 with the adoption of a new constitution. In a political system similar to that of the Soviet Union, he was a candidate member for the secretariat of the Central Committee in 1950 and full member in 1958.
In 1961 Honecker was in charge of the building of the Berlin Wall. In 1971, he initiated a political power struggle that led, with Soviet support, to himself becoming the new leader, replacing Walter Ulbricht. During the 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev began his reforms, he remained a hard-line Communist. But popular protest led to his resignation on October 18, 1989, and he was replaced by his short-lived successor Egon Krenz.
From 1989 until 1993, Honecker avoided prosecution over Cold War crimes, specifically the 192 deaths of those trying to escape over the Berlin Wall. He initially remained in a Soviet military hospital near Berlin before leaving for Moscow. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union he was returned to Germany in 1992. But when he did come to trial in 1993 he was released due to ill-health and moved to Chile. He died of liver cancer on May 29, 1994.