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Ice-cold Margot leaves Erich in the lurch: Adrian Bridge in Berlin on the skeletons in the closet of East Germany's former First Lady

Among the arguments put forward by those opposed to Erich Honecker's forcible return to Berlin this week, the most original, undoubtedly, came from Heinz Eggert, Interior Minister of the eastern German state of Saxony.

'Surely the greatest punishment for Honecker was to be cooped up in that embassy in just one room with his wife,' he said.

Perhaps it was. Those who witnessed the couple's eviction from the Chilean embassy in Moscow on Wednesday were struck by Margot Honecker's emotionless demeanour. She did not even give him a goodbye kiss, protested Germany's popular press. Her subsequent decision not to stand by her husband and follow him to Berlin impressed them even less. 'Ice-cold Margot,' declared the Berliner Zeitung. 'She's left him in the lurch.'

After living in such close proximity during their seven-month refuge in the embassy, the two could not now be living further apart. Indeed, even as Erich was up before a magistrate being charged in connection with 49 killings at the Berlin Wall and the former inner-German border, Margot was in an Aeroflot plane bound for Chile, where the pair's daughter, Sonja, lives.

Questioned on board about whether she ever intended to return, the one-time 'First Lady of East Germany', who was known as 'The Witch', replied: 'Nothing pulls me back to Germany. It is not my country any more.' And as for poor old Erich? 'My husband can look after himself.'

It was a hard response, but it did not come as a total surprise. For, despite keeping up appearances of being together, the Honeckers, who married in 1953, were known to have been living separately for many years prior to the collapse of East Germany in 1989. There were even rumours that Margot had had a string of affairs with younger men.

Personal morality aside, many Germans expressed outrage that the woman who served as East Germany's education minister for 26 years, enjoying all the trappings of power, should be allowed to go free while others were brought to book.

'Mrs Honecker also bears responsibility for the illegal acts of the (Communist) regime,' said Detlef Kleinert of the liberal Free Democratic Party. 'Now that Erich Honecker is back in Germany, Berlin's prosecutor's office should step up its investigation against his wife.'

Apart from sharing in the luxurious lifestyle of all East Germany's former Politburo members, Mrs Honecker, now 65, stands accused above all of having orchestrated the iniquitous policy of 'forced adoption' in her capacity as education minister.

According to documents that came to light after the fall of the Wall, more than 200 children were forcibly taken away from parents who had sought to flee to the West or had committed crimes of 'espionage' against the East German state. The children, most of whom were not told the truth about what had happened until they were adults, were then given to card- carrying Communist couples.

Although several individuals have lodged complaints, Berlin's justice authority, which is investigating the allegations, says that the evidence is too thin to be sure of a successful prosecution. 'Our inquiries are still at an early stage,' said Christoph Schaefgen, head of the investigating team. 'So far we have only had indications based on unsubstantiated allegations about Mrs Honecker.'

Whether or not Mrs Honecker can eventually be brought to trial in connection with the forced adoption policy, many eastern Germans accuse her of ruining their careers in the country's former educational establishment on political grounds, and millions blame her for turning their school days into the unhappiest of their lives.

'Whatever subject you were studying, there was a compulsory element of Marxism-Leninism,' complained Ute Alutis, who took a four-year course in journalism in the former East Germany. 'Nobody really believed in what we were being taught - not even some of the teachers.'

East German schoolchildren were also forced to participate in military exercises at the behest of Mrs Honecker, who began her career as a telephone switchboard operator before rising rapidly through the Free German Youth (FDJ) to become an MP at 22 and minister at 36.

'We have to defend Socialism with all means,' Mrs Honecker declared at an East Berlin rally as late as June 1989. 'With words, deeds and, yes, with weapons if necessary. The East German youth understands this fully.'

Four months later, just two days after her husband was forced to step down in disgrace, Mrs Honecker resigned as education minister 'for personal reasons'. The East German youth did not complain.

(Photograph omitted)