Former East German first lady Margot Honecker dies in Chile

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Posted: May 06, 2016 5:55 PM
Former East German first lady Margot Honecker dies in Chile

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Former East German first lady Margot Honecker, who defended the now-vanished Communist country to the end, died Friday in Chile at age 89, a family friend confirmed.

Honecker had lived since 1992 in Chile, three years after the toppling of the Berlin Wall signaled the impending collapse of the socialist government. Her husband, Erich Honecker, died in 1994 after joining her in Chile.

A family friend and member of Chile's Communist Party confirmed the death.

Honecker, who remained unrepentant about the country's record of repression, had been education minister and dictated what children in rigidly orthodox East Germany learned for 26 years.

She said youngsters must defend socialism "if necessary with a weapon in the hand," and one of her pet projects was field trips by kindergarten children to military bases.

Born Margot Feist in the eastern city of Halle on April 17, 1927, Honecker grew up in a poor family. She trained as a saleswoman before taking a job as a telephone operator.

She became a member of the Communist Party in 1945, and then rose through the ranks of the communist youth organization, the Free German Youth.

In 1950, at age 22, she became the youngest lawmaker in the fledgling East German parliament. She married Erich Honecker in 1953.

She started work at the Education Ministry in 1955 and rose to become minister in 1963 under then-leader Walter Ulbricht. Erich Honecker, who supervised the 1961 construction of the Berlin Wall, succeeded Ulbricht in 1971.

Margot Honecker resigned shortly before the Wall fell in November 1989, with the communist system in crisis and her husband already ousted as East German leader.

Two months after Germany reunified in October 1990, Berlin authorities charged Erich Honecker with manslaughter for ordering shootings along the heavily fortified east-west border.

The couple took refuge in a Soviet military hospital outside Berlin, and on March 13, 1991, they were spirited to Moscow — an embarrassment to the German government.

In a joint television interview two months later, Margot Honecker complained of a "witch hunt" against the couple and said their names had been "dragged through the mud."

The Soviet Union's collapse sent the couple fleeing again, to the Chilean Embassy in Moscow. The couple had friends in the South American country who had found refuge in East Germany during Chile's right-wing dictatorship.

Erich Honecker left the embassy in July 1992 and returned to Berlin for trial. Margot Honecker traveled to Chile, where their daughter, Sonja, lived. In early 1993 a court halted the proceedings against Erich Honecker because of his spreading liver cancer.

Some Germans demanded that charges be filed against Margot Honecker for allegedly ordering forced adoptions of children from families considered enemies of the state in her time as education minister. But no such charges were filed.

She defended her defunct communist state strongly in 2000 in a series of interviews with Chilean communist Luis Corvalan, published as "The Other Germany."

"For the first time in history, a just and humane order of society was set up in Germany," she said. In East Germany, she said, "there was no unemployment, no homelessness, no property speculation, no rent extortion."

"Proper apartments, fair rents, health, culture, education for all, kindergarten for the young, pensions for the old: all that was reality," she added. "The elections were free, secret and equal."

She was similarly unrepentant in a 2012 interview with Germany's ARD television, in which she appeared to pin the blame for deaths at the highly fortified Berlin Wall on the victims themselves.

She said that, when a young person died at the border, "it didn't have to be — he didn't have to climb over the Wall."

Her words drew criticism from across the political spectrum.

"The comments once again confirm the anger we felt toward Margot Honecker in East German times," said deputy Parliament speaker Wolfgang Thierse, a former East German.

"All students in Germany should see the film, because it shows what dictatorship means and what a treasure democracy is," said Reiner Haseloff, the governor of the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt.

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Geir Moulson reported from Berlin.