Dictator's wife defiant over forced adoptions

Margot Honecker, a Communist-era minister now living in exile in Chile, left a cruel legacy of separated families

More than 2,000 Germans are still searching for family members lost as a result of the forced adoption policies instigated by Margot Honecker. The widow of Erich Honecker, the East German dictator who ordered the building of the Berlin Wall, lives in exile in South America on a German state pension. And 20 years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain she remains unrepentant. In a rare interview recently the 82-year-old insisted that people "lived good lives" under the regime headed by her husband.

The families torn apart by Mrs Honecker's children's policy would not agree. Under the policy, the children of dissidents and East Germans who attempted to flee to the West were forcibly and permanently separated from their parents. Many were placed in foster homes or state adoption institutions, or with the families of childless Communist party activists.

Many affected children and parents never saw each other again, but a search pool has been set up and is attempting to bring families back together. It has identified more than 2,000 individuals still suffering a family loss thanks to Mrs Honecker's legacy.

Eva Siebernherz, director of the programme, told The Independent: "This was one of the gravest human rights abuses perpetrated by East Germany's Communist regime. The state simply took away people's children. Parents and the children themselves are still suffering from the consequences 20 years after the fall of the Wall," she added.

Petra Hoffman lost two children to the "Youth Welfare" department. In 1971, as a 17-year-old government canteen worker, she had her first child, Mandy. The baby's father was a dissident, so Petra was forced to give up the child for adoption. "I tried to fight them but I was young. And all that happened was that they put me in jail as an enemy of the state," she told Bild newspaper. The judge at her trial called her "a rat gnawing away at the magnificent pillars of Socialism". A son she bore in 1974 was also taken from her and adopted without her consent. "They came to the door at night, pushed me aside, and stole him from his bed," she said. Petra and Mandy were reunited last month. She has still not traced her son.

Mrs Honecker was East Germany's People's Education Minister and was even more hardline about Communism than her husband. As well as forced adoptions, she introduced military and weapons training in schools. She fled to Chile in 1993 after the government in Santiago decided to reciprocate the sanctuary provided to its members by East Germany when they had fled the Pinochet regime. Her husband, in power between 1971 and 1989, joined her the same year, but died of cancer in 1994. He had initially fled to the Soviet Union, but was extradited back to Germany and tried for treason. His wife was investigated for her role in the child adoptions scandal, but never stood trial.

"I have had enough of the persecution that is inflicted on former citizens of the German Democratic Republic [GDR]," Mrs Honecker said in the interview. "In today's Germany ... there is hardly a television talk show, film or news programme that does not defame the GDR. But they haven't succeeded. Fifty per cent of East Germans say we are worse off under capitalism. We lived good lives in our GDR. You can say what you like, but the facts can't be ignored; more and more people are reminding themselves nowadays of what they had in the GDR. We can be sure that things are going to get worse in Germany, not for industry but for the working classes. But socialism will return – even in Germany."

At her home in Santiago, Mrs Honecker, once mocked for her blue rinsed hair, lives a life shielded from the press and rarely gives interviews. She is still celebrated however by left-wing South American activists. Last year she was lauded as a "Heroine of Socialism" in Nicaragua and decorated by President Daniel Ortega for her contributions to the cause of Revolutionary Socialism. She raised a clenched fist to show her appreciation.

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