Sunday 18 March 2018

Obituary: Margot Honecker

Wife of the former East German leader reviled as the 'Purple Witch' for her hard-line fanaticism

Unapologetic: Margot Honecker with her husband Erich in 1987. Photo: Ullstein bild/Getty
Unapologetic: Margot Honecker with her husband Erich in 1987. Photo: Ullstein bild/Getty newsdesk

Margot Honecker, the widow of the former communist leader Erich Honecker, who has died aged 89, was reviled by her fellow East Germans as the 'Purple Witch', for her startling tinted hair-dos and for her 26-year reign as People's Education Minister in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Although Margot Honecker was good-looking and elegantly dressed, she was more than just a trophy wife for the president of the Kafka-esque communist state, where one in three inhabitants was a secret police informer. Driven by her own ambitions and ideological convictions, she continually sought out positions of influence. While her husband was the arch-bureaucrat, she was seen as the hard-line fanatic.

As minister of education from 1963 to 1989, she used her role to politicise the GDR's state education system, saturating the curriculum with Marxist-Leninist propaganda and introducing military and weapons training in schools for an expected future confrontation with the West.

According to historians, Margot Honecker was also behind much of the harshness of the repression meted out to dissidents and was active in organising a policy under which the children of "enemies of the state" - dissidents and people who attempted to flee to the West - were forcibly and permanently separated from their parents. Many were placed in foster homes or state adoption institutions, or with the families of childless Communist Party activists.

In 1993, after the end of communism, she fled to Chile. Her husband, in power between 1971 and 1989, joined her later the same year, but died of cancer in 1994.

She remained unrepentant about her role in building one of the most repressive regimes in the communist bloc, protesting that no one could seriously expect her to "sacrifice my world view and my convictions on the altar of contemporary history".

"I have had enough of the persecution that is inflicted on former citizens of the German Democratic Republic," she said in 2009. "We lived good lives in our GDR. You can say what you like, but the facts can't be ignored."

At the time more than 2,000 German families were reported to be still searching for family members lost as a result of the forced adoption policies she had instigated.

She was born Margot Feist on April 17, 1927 in the city of Halle. Her father, an unemployed shoemaker and communist, was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1934 and later conscripted into the Wehrmacht, while her mother died, leaving Margot and her younger brother to fend for themselves during the World War II.

She was 18 when the war ended and the Soviet Union gained control of eastern Germany. Trained as a clerk and a telephone operator, she soon became involved in the communist Free German Youth (FDJ). In 1949, at the age of 22, she became the youngest member of East Germany's parliament, the Volkskammer.

Margot met her future husband at meetings of the FDJ, of which Honecker was then director. He was 15 years older than her - and married. When Margot became pregnant and gave birth to their daughter Sonja in 1952, Erich divorced his wife and he and Margot married the following year. In 1955, she began working at the Ministry of Education, rising to the top position there in 1963.

The Honeckers' romance soon cooled and from the 1970s they lived largely separate lives, with both reportedly having numerous affairs. Yet they maintained a powerful political alliance, particularly after Honecker became head of the Politburo in 1971.

In the late 1980s, Margot Honecker was in the forefront of resistance to the politics of glasnost and perestroika introduced by the Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. When Gorbachev visited East Berlin in 1989 to mark the 40th anniversary of the GDR, she conspicuously sat down after one of his speeches to discourage applause.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Honeckers took refuge in a Soviet hospital in Germany, then fled to Moscow, where they eventually found refuge in the Chilean Embassy. The news that the pair were sharing the same room caused great amusement in the GDR and some joked that Honecker's subsequent extradition must have come as a relief.

Meanwhile, Margot Honecker moved to Chile, where her daughter was living, observing that her husband could "look after himself". Honecker was released by the German authorities in 1993 owing to poor health and joined his wife in Chile.

In 2012, in an interview with a German television channel, Margot Honecker described her homesickness for a "lost nation" and called the GDR's demise a tragedy. She dismissed victims of the regime as "criminals who today make out that they were political victims" while, of those who risked (and in many cases lost) their lives trying to escape East Germany, she claimed that there had been "no need for them to climb over the wall, to pay for this stupidity with their lives". Much to the annoyance of German taxpayers, she also complained about her €1,500 state pension, which she received every month from Germany, calling it "derisory".

Asked whether she had any feelings of guilt, she replied: "It didn't touch me at all. I have a thick skin".

Margot Honecker, who died on May 6, is survived by her daughter.

© Telegraph

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