The once powerful and widely despised widow of communist East Germany’s last dictator, herself unrepentant until the end about her regime’s crimes, died last month. Margot Honecker, widow of Erich Honecker, was known as the “Purple Witch” due to tinted hair and her vicious policies across three decades as East German Minister of People’s Education, which included forced adoptions of children of dissidents and a notorious prison for those children called “Margot’s Concentration Camp,” plus compulsory military training for ninth and tenth graders.
Among East Europe’s communist First Ladies, Honecker, who was an unapologetic Stalinist, maybe ranked with Romania’s ironfisted fellow Stalinist Madame Ceausescu in infamy.
Young Margot Honecker, the daughter of communists, was herself a zealous communist from the start, serving in newly Soviet-created East Germany’s parliament, or People’s Chamber, at age 22. She conceived a child in an adulterous affair with fellow communist rising star Erich Honecker, who was ordered by East German founding dictator Walter Ultricht to divorce his wife to marry her. The Honeckers, whose totalitarian romance reputedly commenced while both were on an official delegation to Moscow for Stalin’s birthday, became a Marxist-Leninist power couple of 40 years, although both reportedly indulged in numerous marital infidelities. As Party Security Secretary, Erich helped erect the Berlin Wall in 1961 and bore responsibility for shoot-to-kill orders aimed at fleeing refugees.
He was party chieftain from 1971 until 1989, when the collapsing regime booted both Honeckers as it struggled unsuccessfully to retain power. Ironically, given their atheism and persecution of religion, they briefly gained refuge from a Lutheran minister. The ousted couple, shorn of their police state, and increasingly threatened by an enraged and liberated East Germany, were eventually spirited by the Soviets to Moscow, until Communism fell there too. Erich was extradited to Germany to face justice for his outrages, and she fled to Chile to join her daughter, married to a Chilean leftist, where eventually she was joined by a dying Erich, who escaped imprisonment due to terminal cancer. The Honeckers’ grandchild in Chile is reputedly the biological child of dissidents in East Germany who was seized as a toddler by the secret police, a policy for which Margot is credited.
As a proud Communist widow in Chile Margot was celebrated by Latin American leftist despots like the Castros, Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega, who honored her in Nicaragua in 2008. She defended the notorious East German secret police, denounced persons who had been killed while trying to flee “fair and humane” East Germany as “stupid,” or at least “seduced by Western agents,” and faulted Milhail Gorbachev for unraveling communism. In 2009 she and Chilean Marxists commemorated the 60th anniversary of East Germany’s founding. Upon her death, Chile’s Communist Party chief fondly recalled that “when real socialism fell, she led many initiatives of solidarity with the people of Latin America and Asia, which fought for their liberation.”
In an interview during her later years, Margot faulted the Reagan military build-up for destabilizing the Soviet Union. She regretted that communism was “unable to convince people and make them conscious of the actual social progress we made compared with a capitalist society dependent on exploitation, oppression and war.” Capitalism “carries the seeds of fascism in itself,” she declared. She defended the secret police and Berlin Wall as necessary defenses against Western imperialism. And she blamed East German communism’s fall, which was a “counterrevolution,” on a subversive “opposition, which mainly gathered under the roof of the Church.”
Margot’s defense of East German police state communist dictatorship was almost lyrical:
In this state, each person had a place. All children could attend school free of charge, they received vocational training or studied, and were guaranteed a job after training. Work was more than just a means to earn money. Men and women received equal pay for equal work and performance. Equality for women was not just on paper. Care for children and the elderly was the law. Medical care was free, cultural and leisure activities affordable. Social security was a matter of course. We knew no beggars or homelessness. There was a sense of solidarity. People felt responsible not only for themselves, but worked in various democratic bodies on the basis of common interests.
And Margot was adamant about her Marxist-Leninist convictions:
I am a communist. …Marxism-Leninism is an ideology, a method of investigation to understand the world, the laws according to which it moves, so you can orient yourself in the world. Some believe in a divine will, others in a predetermined fate. We communists are materialists. We follow a scientific outlook, which assumes that the society and everything that arises in it are the work of human beings. Exploitation and oppression are neither divinely ordained, nor are these evils acceptable. We have to fight for a humane, fair, peaceful world, and today that is more urgent than ever.
She warned: If humanity is to have a future, the power of the banks and corporations must be broken. They will not give up their power voluntarily.
Margot’s parents as communists in the 1930s opposed Nazism, as did her husband as a young man. Yet their version of communism, while not as genocidal, was also a “materialist” totalitarian octopus that denied the God-given dignity of every human individual. The Honeckers and their regime were ruthless in their pursuit of power and the destruction of all dissent. Victims of the prison for dissidents’ children, “Margot’s Concentration Camp,” even today struggle to tell their story of years of degradation, which included widespread sexual abuse by “teachers.”
Like many zealous utopian dreamers of a “peaceful world,” Margot Honecker helped perpetuate a tyranny that exploited and imprisoned its victims for 40 years. Thankfully it has been gone for 17 years. But its example, embodied by the defiant “Purple Witch,” who was one of its last defenders, is forever instructive.