Margot Honecker, Widow of East German Ruler, Dies at 89

The New York Times, 06.05.2016
Robert D. McFadden

Margot Honecker, the widow of Erich Honecker, the longtime ruler of Communist East Germany, and a powerful hard-liner in her own right as the minister of education for 26 years until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, died on Friday in exile in Chile. She was 89.

A family friend and member of the Chilean Communist Party confirmed the death, The Associated Press reported. No other details were provided. Mrs. Honecker moved to Santiago, Chile, in 1992; Mr. Honecker died in 1994 after joining her there.

The daughter of a Communist shoemaker brutalized by the Nazis, raised in a maelstrom of swastikas and the subsequent partition of her homeland by the Allied powers after World War II, Mrs. Honecker was an ardent Stalinist whose hatred of fascism and zeal for Marxism in the postwar German Democratic Republic was said to rival her husband’s.

Known as the “purple witch” for her violet hair dye and her fervor for repressive policies, Mrs. Honecker was 26 and the youngest member of the national legislature in 1953 when Mr. Honecker, 15 years older and a rising star of the East German Communist Party, obtained party permission to divorce his first wife and marry her.

With her husband, who succeeded Walter Ulbricht as leader of the G.D.R. in 1971, Mrs. Honecker helped perpetuate one of the most monolithic and authoritarian regimes in Europe’s history, a 40-year dictatorship that, according to Western historians, crushed dissent, spied on a broad spectrum of the population and tried to control its people with heavy-handed propaganda and Orwellian repression.

After the collapse of European Communism and Germany’s reunification in 1990, Mr. Honecker was charged with stealing millions from the state, and with manslaughter for his shoot-to-kill orders that cost hundreds of lives as East Germans tried to flee Communist rule. Too ill to finish a trial, he was never convicted.

Education Ministry files found in 1991 seemed to confirm allegations, never proven, that Mrs. Honecker had forced people who were considered traitors to surrender their children for adoption. Opponents contended that hundreds of parents had been declared unfit to raise their children after trying to flee to the West or being convicted of espionage. The files cited only a half-dozen cases of children taken for adoption by “approved” Communist families.

In one case, the files showed, a couple expelled to the West for political reasons were forced to abandon their three children, who were adopted by a family that refused to allow any contact with the parents.

“It is now clear that the state acted as a kidnapper,” Thomas Kruger, Berlin’s youth minister, said after the files were uncovered.

By then, Mrs. Honecker had fled to Moscow. After emigrating to Chile, she remained there in exile for the rest of her life.

Mrs. Honecker rarely spoke publicly about East Germany, but when interviewed in 2012 she defended it as a good place to have lived, ascribed its downfall to criminal elements, and briefly addressed the allegation of forced adoptions.

“For me, the G.D.R. was my life — it’s a tragedy that that country no longer exists,” she told Eric Friedler for a German television documentary, “The Fall: The End of Honecker.”

She acknowledged that “mistakes were made in history, which one has to regret,” and that “the G.D.R. also had its foes — that’s why we had the Stasi,” the country’s secret police agency. But she called the regime’s opponents “criminals who today make out that they were political victims,” and said that she had never understood why people fled to the West. “There was no need for them to climb over the wall, to pay for this stupidity with their lives,” she said.

Mrs. Honecker dismissed allegations that she had directed a program of forced adoptions. “It didn’t exist,” she said.

She was born Margot Feist on April 17, 1927, in Halle, in what was then the Weimar Republic. After Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, her father was arrested as a Communist and sent to a concentration camp, which he survived.

From 1938 to 1945, Mrs. Honecker belonged to the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the girls’ wing of the Hitler Youth, whose membership was obligatory. She joined the Communist Party after the war and rose quickly in its ranks. In 1950 she was elected to the People’s Chamber, the new East German parliament. She met Mr. Honecker at party meetings; gave birth to their daughter, Sonja, in 1952; and was married a year later.

She became education minister in 1963 and took on a central role in shaping a Communist society with pedagogy. Russian-language classes were already mandatory, but she helped write laws, adopted in 1965, that integrated education policies into the nation’s employment, military, social and political objectives.

Klaus Korn, an author of studies on East German education and development, who was also an aide to Mrs. Honecker, said in an interview that her ideologies were based on “unconditional love for the Soviet Union.” Joseph Stalin had been dead since 1953, but, Mr. Korn said: “She still saw Stalin as her magnetic pole. For her, his mistakes could hardly have been avoided and were of less significance than his merits.”

Under her direction, indoctrination began in nursery schools with red flags and pictures of her husband. Children were expected to recognize him as a national leader. For older students, the curriculum included literature on socialist life and regular class visits to factories, power stations and collective farms. Military studies, including weapons training, began in junior and senior high schools in the 1970s.

The West, especially the United States, was portrayed as decadent and corrupt, while the Soviet Union was hailed as a heroic victor over fascism and a paragon of Communism. Teachers were ordered to report students who deviated from the party line.

The propaganda was largely ineffective. An internal Education Ministry poll in 1983 found that 80 percent of students believed that “in school you can’t say what you think.” Indeed, East Germans who tuned in to Western news and entertainment broadcasts were among the most well-informed people in the Communist world, and were well aware of the stark contrasts between their lives and those in the West.

For all its economic successes, the Honecker regime took a nose dive in 1989. Rigged elections, limited freedoms and widespread repression by the Stasi led to enormous protests demanding democratic reforms. An exodus to the West threatened the economy and shattered images of a worker’s paradise.

Mr. Honecker was ousted on Oct. 18. Mrs. Honecker and others soon followed. Weeks of civil unrest culminated on Nov. 9, when crowds of East Berliners climbed and crossed the Berlin Wall, and guards — outnumbered and unwilling to shoot — let them go. On a euphoric night that was televised worldwide, the outpouring was a death knell for the wall and for East Germany.

The Honeckers fled to Moscow in 1990 and took refuge in the Chilean Embassy when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Mrs. Honecker emigrated to Chile while her husband was returned to Berlin to face charges in the deaths of defectors. But a court found him too ill with cancer to finish a trial, and he was allowed to join his wife in Chile in 1993.

After his death a year later, Mrs. Honecker, who received from Germany a monthly pension of $1,800, lived quietly in Santiago with her daughter, Sonja, who married a Chilean, Leo Yanez Betancourt, and had a son, Roberto, and daughter, Vivian. There was no immediate confirmation on her survivors.

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