Honecker, Margot (1927—)

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Honecker, Margot (1927—)

East German minister of public education whose 26-year tenure reflected the ideology of the GDR's hardline Communist regime. Name variations: Margot Feist. Born Margot Feist in Halle an der Saale, on April 17, 1927; daughter of Gotthard Feist; had one brother; became second wife of Erich Honecker (1912–1994, head of GDR party and state), in 1953; children: daughter, Sonja Honecker Yanez . Erich Honecker's first wife was Edith Baumann (1909–1973); they had a daughter Erika Honecker.

The breaching of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, and the rapid collapse of the Communist regime of the German Democratic Republic (GDR—East Germany), brought forth a multitude of revelations about the failings and abuses of power of four decades of totalitarianism. Among the most reviled individuals during this time of reckoning were the aging and ill Erich Honecker, former head of both party and state, and his wife. Margot Honecker, who served as GDR minister of public education from 1963 until early November 1989, was known to many East Germans simply as "die Hexe" (the witch).

One of the handful of women to rise to a leadership position in the GDR, Margot Honecker was accused in 1992 of having forced political dissidents to surrender their children for adoption. She was also suspected of having authorized the building of prison-like barracks—called by some "Margot's KZ" (Margot's Concentration Camp)—in which several truant minors had been driven to commit suicide. Whatever their validity, these accusations would never be subjected to the scrutiny of a public trial, because Margot Honecker never returned to Germany to face these or any other charges. In July 1992, she fled Moscow for exile in Chile, finding refuge there with her daughter's family.

Like her husband-to-be Erich, who was born into a working-class family in the industrial Saar region in 1912, Margot was born into a proletarian environment in the industrial city of Halle an der Saale in 1927. Her father Gotthard Feist, an often-unemployed shoemaker, was a militant member of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). Her mother contributed to the family's modest income by working in a mattress factory. Margot's political education began in her childhood. In 1933, when the Nazis had been in power only a few months, her father was arrested on charges of high treason against the German Reich. With her father in a concentration camp (he would survive seven years' loss of freedom, including several in Buchenwald), the Feist family struggled to survive. Margot's mother worked and scrimped, and spirits were lifted when the illegal Rote Hilfe (Red Aid) organization was able to provide them with much-needed financial support, an indicator of solidarity from the underground cells that still remained active in Halle.

In addition to her father's absence, Margot, her younger brother and her mother endured unannounced and terrifying visits from the Gestapo. While Gestapo agents searched the tiny Feist apartment for evidence of subversive activities, Margot's emotional resources were strengthened by recurrent displays of coolheadedness. On one such occasion, her mother told her unwelcome visitors, "Do not put your dirty boots there," a reference to their attempts to place their muddy boots on her clean kitchen chairs. By placing copies of the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter on her chairs, she ensured that it, and not her furniture, would be soiled. This spirit of defiance was passed on to Margot, who was proud of her parents' hatred of Nazism and was often told by her mother "to be proud of your father. He wanted to do what was right and there is nothing bad in what he did." When one of Margot's teachers, a Nazi, asked his pupils their names and what their fathers did for a living, rather than say her father was a shoemaker she gave the provocative reply: "My name is Feist, and my father is a Communist." A major incident in Margot's youth took place in November 1938 when she was 11. That month, both she and her brother witnessed the savage Kristallnacht pogrom directed against Halle's small Jewish community. The images of broken shop windows and stormtroopers beating Jews who were then dragged blood-soaked through the streets caused her eight-year-old brother to vomit and made a lifelong impression on both of the Feist children.

Gotthard Feist returned to his family from the Buchenwald concentration camp a physical shadow of his former self, but morally unbroken. Entering her teen years, Margot was truly impressed by her father's fearless return to his illegal KPD activities, despite almost constant surveillance by Gestapo and other Nazi secret agents. She was soon the youngest member of her father's cell, taking risks as a "young comrade" even though she was not formally a member of Halle's tiny but active Communist underground. Her responsibilities included acting as a courier, setting up clandestine meetings, and similar highrisk activities. Tension was always high at the Feist apartment with no guarantee that the next knock on the door would not be the Gestapo announcing that her father was again under arrest. In November 1940, Margot's pregnant mother died at age 33 from a botched abortion. During the next months, Margot became the stabilizing element in the family, often following her father into the streets in the middle of the night when he was so distraught with grief that she feared he would commit suicide. She helped her father and brother come to terms with the tragedy while carrying out domestic chores and remaining active in the anti-Nazi resistance.

Bright and personable, Margot was a good student. One of the ironies of her education was that her best teacher was a member of the Nazi Party. Politically naive to an extreme, he was convinced that because the Nazis called themselves National Socialists, and socialism was for him a positive concept, the Nazi state must somehow be a good thing. Despite his beliefs, he had a lasting impact on Margot with his lectures on German art and literature. Among the books which made a strong impression on her were classic writings by Darwin and Tolstoy as well as contemporary authors like Friedrich Wolf whose work had been burned by the Nazi state. Many of the books she read were part of the forbidden "Rote Bücherei" (Red Library) series, but the Gestapo agents who scrutinized them during one of their visits were much too doof (stupid) to notice. Faced with the decision of whether or not to continue her education, Margot decided not to enter a teacher-training institute despite her desire to one day be a teacher; she did not feel that she could let herself become part of a profession which would require her to indoctrinate students with a racist and chauvinistic ideology. Instead, she took courses in stenography and typing.

Her father was rearrested, but rather than being sent back to a concentration camp he was made part of a "999" military unit, a penal battalion stationed on the Western front, meant as a guarantee that he would not consider defecting to the advancing Soviet Army. Now without a mother or father, Margot took her brother to live with her grandmother in Silesia. The war was going badly for Nazi Germany and the requirements of "total war" brought 17-year-old Margot into the last-gasp exertions of Hitler's Third Reich. Because of her delicate build and youth, she was not chosen for factory work or even for carrying out the chores of a letter carrier. Instead, she became a telephone operator at the local phone exchange. Margot and her brother survived the final chaotic months of the Nazi state, and both of them arrived on foot back in Halle during October 1945. The Feist apartment had been destroyed in the final weeks of the war, and the siblings had to depend on the solidarity of local anti-Nazis for food and shelter. In time, she received word that her father had survived the war having been captured by the Americans (he would be released from captivity two years later).

As one of the small number of Germans who had resisted Nazism, 18-year-old Margot looked forward to the future. She believed that the only appropriate ideological foundation on which to build peace and justice, both for defeated Germany and the world, was Marxism. At the end of 1945, she joined the KPD. Determined to be more than a passive member of the party, Margot was a co-founder of the Anti-Fascist Youth Committee in Halle, while working at the same time as a typist in the Saxony-Anhalt regional headquarters of the Communist-dominated Free German Trade Unions Federation. In 1946, the KPD merged with the Social Democratic Party in a shotgun marriage of the two major working-class political parties in the Soviet Occupation Zone (SBZ), forming a Communist-controlled entity named the Socialist Unity Party (SED). As a KPD member, Margot automatically became a member of the SED, which claimed to have finally created a united proletarian front that would forever banish the danger of a revival of fascism on German soil.

The factors which had kept Margot from pursuing a teaching career five years earlier were no longer in play. But SED leaders in Halle decided that the ambitious, attractive Margot—a young, energetic and militant Communist with a sterling resistance record—was too great a talent to waste in the classroom. By 1947, when she became a member of the secretariat of the Halle district committee of the Free German Youth (FDJ), it became clear that she was being groomed for rapid advancement as a functionary in the ranks of an emerging German Communist elite. Her area of responsibility was the Young Pioneer youth organization, and for the next several years she quickly moved up within the FDJ leadership ranks.

By the middle of 1948, the division of Germany into an eastern sector, dominated by the Soviet Union, and a western state, sponsored by the United States and its Western allies, appeared all but inevitable. For the Soviet Union, a nation which had suffered grievously in World War II, it was imperative that a stable pro-Soviet political system be created in its occupation zone of Germany. German Communists and sympathizers would play a key role in bringing about such a transformation. Young SED functionaries like Margot enjoyed dizzying upward career mobility as the time neared to create an "independent" German government in the SBZ. This took place in October 1949, when the Soviets permitted a German Democratic Republic (GDR) to be proclaimed as the government of the former SBZ. As the legislating body of this new state, which for more than two decades would be diplomatically recognized only by the Soviet Union and its allies, a Volkskammer (Peoples' Chamber) was created. In late 1949, Margot was elected in a Soviet-style election as a Volkskammer delegate. The same year, she became the director of the entire Young Pioneer organization in the GDR, as well as a member of the FDJ central council. By 1950, when she was elected as a candidate member of the SED Central Committee, the 23-year-old had achieved an extraordinary rise to influence within the world of German Communism.

In the summer of 1949, Margot's public career and private life became inextricably intertwined

when she began a passionate affair with Erich Honecker, a man 15 years her senior and, as co-founder and first chair of the Free German Youth, her boss. Honecker was then married to another FDJ functionary, Edith Baumann , and had a daughter, Erika Honecker . Unlike most of the leaders of the GDR and SED, who had spent the years of the Third Reich in exile in the Soviet Union or (in a few instances) Western Europe, Honecker could boast of an enviable anti-fascist pedigree, having been active in the KPD resistance within Nazi Germany until 1935 when he was arrested by the Gestapo. He survived ten years' imprisonment to be liberated in April 1945 from the Brandenburg-Görden penitentiary. He had been active in the prison's resistance organization, somehow surviving the constant terrors of an institution where during his years of incarceration more than 2,000 prisoners were decapitated by an on-site guillotine.

Although Honecker's wife Edith refused to grant him a divorce, he and Margot continued their affair while some SED members gossiped about the relationship. In early 1953, Edith relented, and Erich married Margot as quickly as the divorce papers were finalized. At the time of their marriage, the couple already had a two-year-old daughter named Sonja, who would be their only child. Meanwhile, the GDR found itself mired in crisis. With a government that enjoyed little popularity and was tied to a Stalinist model of politics and economic planning, life in the GDR remained bleak at a time when its West German counterpart, the Federal Republic, was starting to enjoy the first fruits of its economic miracle, the Wirtschaftswunder.

By 1953, Erich Honecker was regarded by many as the boy wonder of the GDR, having carved out for himself a position of influence second only to that of paramount leader Walter Ulbricht. There was, however, little to celebrate. In June 1953, the millions of workers in the GDR—which proclaimed itself as "the first workers' and peasants' state on German soil"—went on strike to protest recently increased production quotas as well as higher food prices, setbacks which were only part of a generally dismal (and declining) standard of living. Quickly losing control of the situation, the GDR government had to call on the Soviet military to crush the disturbances, which were more than strikes but never assumed the form of armed rebellion. Working beside her new husband at FDJ headquarters in East Berlin, Margot Honecker heard him chide some of their fellow functionaries for listening to West Berlin's RIAS radio station for the latest news on the spreading chaos. Laughing, she asked, "Where will we get information? The DDR radio is playing operettas!"

Although cautious reforms were put in place in the GDR after the worker rebellion, the SED regime remained essentially hard-line in its policies and ideals. Many of its leaders, including Erich Honecker, had grown up in a world of class-struggle ideological orthodoxy; because of their own traumatic experiences in the anti-Nazi resistance during the era of the Third Reich, they remained convinced that the non-Marxist world was intent on going to war with the Socialist bloc, relying on nuclear weapons and former Nazis to change the geopolitical balance in the heart of Europe.

Before 1953 had ended, Margot Honecker reluctantly heeded the decision of the SED Central Committee, which decreed that she needed to complete her political education at Moscow's Youth University. Months of study and indoctrination in Moscow meant separation not only from her husband but also from her infant daughter. She submerged her personal needs for the greater good of contributing to the victory of Marxism-Leninism on German soil, and as an emerging member of the GDR's ruling class, went to Moscow.

Upon her return in 1954, she began to prepare for a new, more responsible phase of her career. She shifted her emphasis from the FDJ, a mass organization, to the state apparatus and, in 1955, joined the regime as head of the department of teacher training in the Ministry for Public Instruction, a post she would hold until 1958. In August 1958, Honecker became deputy minister of public education and served in this position until November 1963. Reflecting both her own achievements and her husband Erich's growing influence within the SED as well as the government, in 1963 Margot Honecker moved up in the ruling hierarchy of the GDR in two significant steps. In January, she became a full member of the SED Central Committee and that November took charge of GDR educational affairs by being promoted to minister of public education (Ministerin für Volksbildung). Although she would remain a member of the Central Committee until November 1989, she was never selected for membership in the all-powerful SED Politburo—which led some political analysts to suspect that Erich Honecker possibly feared his wife's ambitions and influence.

By this time, the GDR had entered into a new phase of its history. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, many hundreds of thousands of East Germans fled the GDR through West Berlin, with most of them going on to West Germany and its dramatically higher living standards and greater freedoms. The yearly loss of around 300,000 men and women became in time not only a severe blow to GDR prestige but also a matter of the state's economic survival. On August 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall began to be erected so as to prevent any further escape of GDR citizens to the West. Quickly dubbed "the Anti-Fascist Protective Barrier," the Berlin Wall was in many ways an admission of failure as well as a moral obscenity, but it also served to stabilize the GDR economy, and in time the end of the state's loss of skilled people brought about a significant improvement in living standards. Erich Honecker was the architect of the Berlin Wall, and, when its success became clear, his—and Margot's—star continued its inexorable rise to the top of the GDR ruling elite. In 1971, Erich Honecker became the GDR's leading political figure, assuming leadership of the SED and also becoming head of state.

Margot Honecker's 26-year tenure as GDR minister of public education saw significant changes take place in that harshly authoritarian regime's educational system. From the time she began working in the educational realm in 1955 until the late 1960s, it was state policy to favor previously underprivileged children from the industrial working class as well as those of rural and peasant backgrounds. Those who had been born into elite, bourgeois families found it much more difficult in this period to gain admission to institutions of higher education. The policy of state sponsorship of social mobility began to change in the 1960s, when an emphasis was placed on economic growth based on new and advanced technologies. Increasingly, special schools and curricula emerged which emphasized the scientific and technological knowledge individuals possessed, rather than the purity of their proletarian or peasant-class pedigree. By the 1970s and 1980s, it was clear that attempts to radically revise the GDR's class structure had been abandoned. These were replaced by a pragmatism that resulted in the emergence of a new technological-bureaucratic elite, some of whose material privileges were starting to be passed on to the next generation.

Because the Berlin Wall barred both outside influences and the possibility of its citizens abandoning their homes, the GDR regime soon felt itself less threatened by Western influences, and a cautious introduction of intellectual and artistic liberalization followed. In educational affairs, however, many of these reforms remained rhetoric. As a defender of an ideological and political hard line, Margot Honecker viewed educational policy from orthodox Marxist-Leninist perspectives. Under the aegis of her ministry, much effort went into creating new social attitudes and values. The goal of education in the GDR was the creation of what Honecker defined in a 1968 article as a "universally developed socialist personality" (allseitig entwickelte sozialistische Persönlichkeit). Political education came to be seen as not one component of education among many, but as the most important of all. Proceeding from curricular reforms put in place in the late 1960s, GDR educational goals were fully integrated with political-ideological components. This ideology was grounded in a dichotomous concept of a world of friends and foes, and of universal class antagonisms. Writing in an educational journal in 1968, Margot Honecker claimed: "There is no unpolitical subject and there are no unpolitical methods. There are no questions which are ideologically neutral. One cannot teach any subject matter separately from its political implications. What objectively belongs together cannot be artificially separated."

In practice, the Marxist-Leninist ideas and ideals which the educational system under Honecker promoted were more often than not imposed on the school population of the GDR in a blindly authoritarian fashion. An East German dissident of the 1980s, Freya Klier , whose book Lüg Vaterland (Fatherland of Lies) describes the collapse of educational credibility in the GDR, notes that in that state's schools children and youth were educated in a spirit most closely resembling that of the old Prussian militaristic system. Having been raised in a German society that was based on various forms of discipline and compulsion, Margot Honecker never abandoned her conviction that if it could be defined as being "socialist" in spirit an educational system grounded in a military regimen was in fact a justifiable one.

By the 1980s, glaring contradictions between the rhetoric of state-sponsored ideology and the often shabby reality of the system of "real existing socialism" had become increasingly apparent to GDR citizens, particularly the youth and intellectuals. Margot Honecker, her husband, and the SED ruling class failed to recognize the warning signals that grew with each passing year. In 1988, she declared, "It's nonsense to say we live in a computer age, for all the significance computers and key technology have. We live in an age in which we are still developing and establishing a socialist society, a society in which human beings are the most important factor. We don't want all our children to turn into computer freaks." In the same interview, while arguing that the GDR educational system fostered the growth of "the individual's personality as a whole," she added that while "We don't want our children to be 'obedient' in the Victorian sense…. in our society a high level of discipline is necessary."

A flashpoint for the growing alienation between the SED regime and many of its people was the introduction in September 1978 of compulsory military education in all GDR schools for children aged 15 and 16. The brainchild of Margot Honecker, this new policy of educational militarization created an uproar of opposition in the Christian religious community, with both the Lutheran bishop of Berlin and the head of the Roman Catholic community, Cardinal Frings, speaking out strongly against the regime's efforts to get a stronger ideological grip on young people. Increasingly disillusioned by official ideology, GDR youth were profoundly influenced by West German television and radio broadcasts. By the late 1980s, the regime was losing its grip not only on youth but on the population at large.

The reform program initiated in the Soviet Union under the dynamic new leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev contrasted sharply with a GDR that many saw as a Stalinist mausoleum existing on borrowed time and money. Hobbled by bureaucracy, the economy was now burdened by a technology gap with the West estimated at between five and ten years and growing. Only reliance on illegal imports and the copying of West German software programs kept the economy from total collapse. An ecological nightmare had emerged by this time, and, with little or no provision for environmental protection, the health of much of the GDR population was at grave risk and life expectancy had dropped.

By the spring of 1989, when the aging SED ruling class authorized fraudulent regional elections, the GDR regime had lost the support of a great majority of its citizens. An immense network of informers and spies, the Stasi (Ministry of State Security), began to falter in its attempts to control a society based on official lies and a pervasive lack of trust in its own citizens. During the final years of the GDR, hardliners in the regime including Margot Honecker called for inflexible resistance to any and all attempts at reform, including experiments inspired by the changes taking place in Gorbachev's USSR. In a 1987 speech to Young Pioneer leaders in Dresden, she called for a renewed commitment to "socialist patriotism… without ifs and buts for the GDR fatherland."

By June 1989, when she addressed the Ninth GDR Pedagogical Congress, Honecker was sounding the alarm bell, warning ominously of those "counter-revolutionaries [who] under the motto of pluralism [are] trying to achieve their nefarious goals." Using rhetoric more appropriate to KPD working-class struggles against the Nazis during the 1930s than to the highly educated citizens of a self-proclaimed advanced socialist state, she announced, "We are now in a period of struggle which needs young people who are willing to fight to strengthen socialism… if necessary, with a rifle in their hands."

During the summer of 1989, Erich Honecker became seriously ill. His nation, too, revealed major symptoms of decay, with thousands of GDR citizens fleeing indirectly to the West via Hungary, which had begun a process of major democratization of its politics and society. In October 1989, when the GDR celebrated its 40th anniversary, guest of honor Mikhail Gorbachev warned his host Erich Honecker that little time was left to make major reforms. As anti-regime demonstrations broke out in Leipzig and other cities, and violence was feared, Erich Honecker resigned his party and state posts on October 18, citing health reasons. Sensing that major changes had become inevitable, his wife now called for creating an "open climate," but she chose not to resign her Ministry of Public Education post for 14 more days. She resigned on November 2, 1989, a week before one of the most momentous events of the last decades of the 20th century, the destruction of the Berlin Wall.

The rapid collapse of the SED dictatorship in the last weeks of 1989 led to an eruption of popular fury that resulted in the arrest of Erich Honecker, but it quickly became clear that his health had deteriorated so much that he could not be held in a jail cell. Soon he and Margot, both now homeless, found refuge in the house of the Lutheran pastor of Lobetal, a village near Berlin. Given the widely held belief that their marriage had broken down in the 1960s, and that they were reported to have been divorced in 1970 by the court of Berlin-Lichtenberg, their asylum may have represented the first time they had lived together in over two decades. Charges of treason were raised against Margot's husband in early 1990, and she was accused of having forced political dissidents to surrender their children for adoption, as well as of presiding over that reform school in Torgau known as "Margot's concentration camp" where truant minors were mistreated in dank, dark cells to the point that some committed suicide.

In the spring of 1991, Erich and Margot Honecker fled Germany to find refuge in the Soviet Union, a state and society then in the final stages of dissolution, where they lived at first in a comfortable flat. After the USSR collapsed in December of that year, Erich feared being extradited to Germany by the new Russian government, and both he and Margot sought refuge in the Chilean Embassy in Moscow. The GDR had granted political asylum to a number of Chileans in the 1970s after the overthrow of the Allende government, and the Honeckers' daughter Sonja had married a Chilean, Martinez Yanez, and had moved to Santiago. After spending 232 days as a "guest" in the Chilean embassy, Erich Honecker was handed over to German authorities and flown to Berlin in late July 1992 to stand trial for 49 cases of manslaughter linked to deaths along the Berlin Wall. In Berlin, he was taken to Moabit Prison, where he had been incarcerated by the Nazi regime for a period of time in the 1930s. As his trial began in November 1992, the Berlin newspaper Sonntagspost published excerpts from what it said were letters he had received from his wife in Chile, advising him, "Don't beg for forgiveness. You did a lot for peace in Europe. Stand up to your adversaries. Maintain your dignity."

One day after her husband arrived in Berlin for his arraignment, Margot Honecker flew to Chile to be with her daughter. Commenting on her departure from Russia, one of Germany's leading newspapers, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, noted that many people in the former GDR "would rather see 'the witch Margot' behind bars than Erich Honecker." In the last decades of the GDR, the relatively flamboyant lifestyles of both Honeckers had aroused considerable resentment among citizens. He lived in Wandlitz, a government compound near Berlin where high officials of state and party had access to otherwise unobtainable goods from the West and allowed themselves to be driven around in Volvo automobiles. She, on the other hand, stood out among the members of the GDR cabinet, appearing stylish with her expensive clothes and blue-rinse hair.

In January 1993, Erich Honecker was released from his jail cell in Berlin and permitted to fly to Chile to be with his wife and daughter. United Germany's legal effort to prosecute and convict him ended with his release on grounds of poor health. He was terminally ill with liver cancer at the time he was granted his freedom and died in Chile on May 29, 1994. Although his widow had no desire ever to return to Germany, she retained a hope that the urn with Erich Honecker's ashes might one day be buried in German soil in a "dignified" (würdig) manner.

After her husband's death, Margot Honecker remained in Chile with her daughter. Occasionally she was the subject of news stories, including one in November 1994 which reported that she had expressed a wish to spend the remainder of her life in the last hard-line Communist state, North Korea. In September 1996, she lost a five-year legal struggle to regain her two pensions from the German state, one entitled to her as a widow and the other because she had been an "anti-fascist combatant." Basing her claim on the laws of the now-defunct GDR, she was turned down by the social security court which argued that those laws had expressly banned the "export" of pension payments. In April 1997, Honecker celebrated her 70th birthday with her daughter's family in an upper-middle-class suburb of Santiago de Chile. Her life now centered on her grandchildren. Choosing to shun all publicity, she covered herself with a shawl or headscarf when out in public. An acquaintance of hers noted simply, "She does not want to be recognized."


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