SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Margot Honecker, the widow of former East German leader Erich Honecker and the most powerful woman in the Communist state until its collapse in 1989, died on Friday in Santiago, Chile, at the age of 89.
She had been living as a recluse in Chile for more than two decades. Honecker had been suffering from cancer, TVN television station said.
The Communist Party of Chile (PCC) said in a statement: “After learning of the death of Margot Honecker, this morning in our country, we send our most sincere condolences to her daughter Sonja, her family and friends.”
Known as the “Purple Witch” in East Germany for her tinted hair and hardline stance, Honecker served alongside her husband as minister for education for almost three decades.
She was hated and feared by many East Germans but defended the cruelties of the system to her death.
In 2012, she called those killed trying to escape over the Berlin Wall “stupid” for wanting to defect, defended the Stasi secret police and said her state pension of 1,500 euros a month was too small.
The PCC’s secretary general, Juan Andres Lagos, told TVN: “She was a person that was coherent with her political ideals and then when real socialism fell, she also led many initiatives of solidarity with the people of Latin America and Asia, which fought for their liberation.”
But Honecker will probably be most remembered for her suspected role in forced adoptions of children whose parents had tried to flee to the West, though she always denied this happened, and for the treatment of “difficult” children in disciplinary institutions.
One of those establishments was a prison-like barracks in Torgau known as “Margot’s Concentration Camp”. Victims and politicians initiated legal proceedings for alleged mistreatment but these were later dropped as the statute of limitations had elapsed or for lack of proof.
“She never critically reflected on what she had done. Up until her death she was a nasty, stubborn woman,” Hubertus Knabe, the director of the memorial of the former Stasi prison told the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung.
Born the daughter of a shoemaker and a factory worker in Halle in 1927, Margot Feist trained as a clerk and started out as a stenotypist before working for the Communist party’s FDJ youth association.
A rising star in the youth movement, she became the youngest member of the East German parliament at the age of 22. Her taste for elegant clothes made her stand out against the drab ranks of the state’s other politicians.
Although she became part of the Socialist Unity Party’s central committee, she never made it into the all-powerful Communist Party Politburo.
In 1949 she met Erich Honecker, then chairman of the FDJ and a married man. They embarked on an affair during which Margot became pregnant and gave birth to their daughter Sonja.
After Sonja’s birth, Erich divorced under pressure from the then-East German ruler Walter Ulbricht and married Margot, who was 15 years his junior.
Known as “Miss Bildung (Education)”, a pun on the German word for deformity, “Missbildung”, she shaped the Socialist curriculum in schools, including the introduction of compulsory military training.
She stepped down from her post in October 1989, two days after her husband resigned. The Berlin Wall fell in November and a month later Margot faced accusations of corruption and misuse of office before an investigative committee, which she denied.
After German reunification, the Honeckers fled to exile in the Soviet Union in 1991 to escape criminal charges over human rights abuses committed by the government.
When Erich was extradited back to Germany, Margot fled to Chile. Her husband later joined her there when his trial collapsed due to his terminal illness. He died in 1994.
Margot lived largely as a recluse in Chile. On the rare occasions that she broke her silence, she showed no remorse.
In her book “Discussions with Margot Honecker about the other Germany”, published in 2000, she spoke of a “fair and humane social system” where there was social security, education for all, free elections, no unemployment, no homelessness and no real estate speculation.
But she also said the government often failed to put decisions into practise and overestimated what it had already achieved.
In 2009 she celebrated the 60th anniversary of East Germany with other Socialists in Chile. In a video of the celebrations, she is seen standing in front of its hammer-and-sickle flag, declaring that despite a propaganda campaign to discredit the state, people were now missing the old days.
Reporting by Michelle Martin, Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Angus MacSwan