Margot Honecker, a much-reviled minister of education who required mandatory courses in socialist ideals and military tactics in the former East Germany, ruled during its final 18 years of existence by her husband, Erich Honecker, died May 6 in Chile, where she had spent the past 24 years in exile. She was 89.
A member of Chile’s Communist Party confirmed her death to the Associated Press. No further details were available.
During her 26 years as the chief architect of East Germany’s educational system, Mrs. Honecker shaped a generation of young minds and, in the process, became one of the most powerful and most feared figures in the repressive communist regime.
She was described as the “Purple Witch,” for the tinted wash she used in her hair, and was called the country’s most hated person, after the head of Stasi, the ruthless East German secret police.
Mrs. Honecker joined the Communist Party as a teenager and was said to be even more doctrinaire than her husband, who was in charge of building the Berlin Wall in 1961. He ruled East Germany as a virtual dictator from 1971 until 1989, the year the wall came down.
Afterward, the Honeckers took refuge in a Soviet hospital in Germany, then fled to Moscow, where they eventually found sanctuary in the Chilean Embassy, thanks to a diplomatic acquaintance.
It was an open secret that the Honeckers had been living apart for years, but in Moscow they occupied a single room at the embassy. When Erich Honecker was sent back to Berlin in 1992 to face charges that he had engineered the deaths of East Germans attempting to flee the country, some observers joked that his trial must have come as a relief.
“Surely the greatest punishment for Honecker was to be cooped up in that embassy in just one room with his wife,’’ one former East German official said at the time.
Mrs. Honecker, who was dubbed “ice-cold Margot” by the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, promptly took up residence in Chile, where her daughter lived.
“My husband can look after himself,” she said.
Erich Honecker’s trial was called off when it was revealed that he had terminal cancer. He then joined his wife in Chile, where he died in 1994.
Mrs. Honecker remained unrepentant until the end, defending East Germany as something of an ideal state, in spite of its lack of basic freedoms.
“It’s a tragedy that this land no longer exists,’’ she said in a rare interview with documentary filmmaker Eric Friedler in 2012.
As minister of education from 1963 to 1989, Mrs. Honecker shaped a program of indoctrination that began in nursery school, where pictures of the country’s leaders — including her husband’s — were displayed. Teachers were expected to inform on rebellious students.
The Russian language was taught in East German schools, and there were compulsory courses extolling socialism. Beginning in the 1970s, students were required to undergo military training.
“We have to defend socialism with all means,’’ Mrs. Honecker said at a rally in East Berlin in June 1989. “With words, deeds and, yes, with weapons if necessary.”
Four months later, amid growing demands for political freedom, she resigned her office for “personal reasons.”
Afterward, documents suggested that Mrs. Honecker may have instigated a nefarious program of forced adoption in which the children of dissidents were forcibly taken from their homes to be raised by party loyalists. In spite of anecdotal evidence, Mrs. Honecker denied knowing of such a program.
Margot Feist was born April 17, 1927, in the eastern German city of Halle. Her father was a factory worker who was imprisoned by Nazi authorities because of his membership in the Communist Party.
Mrs. Honecker was a telephone operator as a young woman and quickly rose to prominence as a member of Germany’s postwar Communist Party. In 1950, she became the youngest member of parliament in the newly formed East Germany.
During the early 1950s, she had an affair with Erich Honecker, a leading Communist Party official who was married at the time. Party leaders asked his wife to grant him a divorce “as a patriotic duty.” Erich and Margot Honecker were married in 1953, one year after their daughter was born.
Later during their marriage, the Honeckers lived separately, and both were reputed to have had numerous extramarital affairs.
In addition to her daughter, Sonja Yanez Betancourt, Mrs. Honecker’s survivors include two grandchildren.
In 2000, Mrs. Honecker gave a series of interviews to Luis Corvalan, a communist political figure in Chile. The conversations, later published as a book, showed that Mrs. Honecker continued to see East Germany as a socialist paradise with “no unemployment, no homelessness, no property speculation, no rent extortion.”
Even though the country had a one-party system that allowed her husband to hold on to power for 18 years, Mrs. Honecker maintained that “the elections were free, secret and equal.”
People attempting to escape to the West, she said, were “criminals who today make out that they were political victims.’’
When they were killed at the border by land mines or by armed guards, Mrs. Honecker showed no remorse.
“There was no need for them to climb over the wall,” she said in 2012, “to pay for this stupidity with their lives.”