The parallels and intersections in Chile and former East Germany’s histories are uniquely fascinating. Both countries’ repressive yet ideologically adversarial dictatorships reached the heights of their power in the 70’s and 80’s and crashed to the ground between 1988 and 1990. Both hosted each others’ political exiles escaping repression in one case and prosecution in the other, and both countries have struggled to reckon with their pasts as they confront the challenges of democracy. The most fascinating part is that both countries’ histories coincidentally interest me in a powerful and personal way.
In summer 2007 as a junior at the University of Florida, I studied abroad in Santiago, Chile. I knew little about the country before the trip except that its people spoke Spanish, which I was learning at the time, and that it was the longest country the world (3000 miles!). A wonderful host family of Jewish-German descent and the snow-capped Andes mountains encircling Santiago made me quickly fall in love with Chile. Let’s not forget the empanadas as well. Little did I know that this trip would spark intense curiosity about Chile’s history during the Cold War and its connections with another country that was simultaneously fascinating me, former Communist East Germany, formally known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR.
When not studying Spanish during the week in Chile, I read about the human rights abuses committed during the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet who took power in a coup that overthrew democratically-elected Marxist President Salvador Allende on September 11th, 1973. Among those tortured and killed were leftist activists like Victor Jara, a Communist teacher and song-writer who supported Allende’s government. Jara’s brutal murder in a stadium made him the face of victims imprisoned, tortured and killed during the coup. Shortly before his execution, he sang Venceremos (We Shall Prevail), a song used by working class supporters during Allende’s 1970 presidential campaign. Pinochet’s military government eventually ended in 1990 after a plebiscite in which the majority of Chileans voted for an end to military rule and a return to democracy.
Upon my return to UF in the fall, I took a course on Eastern European politics in which I learned about Communism and its collapse in the Eastern Bloc. Long interested in Soviet and Eastern European history (since 12 years old, to be exact), the course piqued my interest in the GDR and the Berlin Wall. I was awestruck by the GDR’s 1961 decision to build the wall after millions of East German citizens had fled the country through its porous border with West Berlin since the country’s founding in 1949. To imprison East Germans in their own country, Erich Honecker, the country’s future head of state, oversaw the construction of the wall and the inner German border with West Germany. Leaving for the west became a crime, and Honecker’s shoot-to-kill order to border guards resulted in at least 140 deaths along the Berlin Wall and around 1,100 more along the inner German border. Despite his claim that it would stand for another 50 or 100 years, Honecker’s wall started to crack in 1989 as East Germans fled grinding economic shortages and intense repression to the west through the now open border with Hungary. Flight from the country and internal protests forced Honecker to resign in October 1989 only weeks before the government lifted travel restrictions that resulted in the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Driven by interest, personal research on the Berlin Wall revealed a unique wrinkle to Erich Honecker’s story – he died in Chile in 1994. Noting this coincidence, my curiosity led me to YouTube videos of Erich and his wife Margot Honecker’s exile in Chile in the early 1990’s, one in which Margot uses a hose to chase away a cameraman spying on them over their fence. My curiosity about this wrinkle in Honecker’s life only grew during a return trip to Chile in November 2018 and my first trip to Berlin in September 2019. I thus want to answer two burning questions I have in this post – what connections did Chile and the GDR share prior to the Honeckers’ exile, and why did they end up in what was only a few years before a right wing military dictatorship? While I am not a historian by trade, my unique connection and recent visits to Chile and Germany give me a sense of duty to document the historical connections of two countries I love.
To understand Chile and the GDR’s connections, we must go back to the Chilean presidential election of 1970. During the 1960’s, Chile became increasingly polarized as social programs meant to stave off fears of a Cuba-like Communist revolution increased political polarization. Leading a coalition of Socialists and Communists known as the Unidad Popular (UP or Popular Unity), physician Salvador Allende won a plurality (36.3%) of the vote to become the first ever democratically-elected Marxist president in the world. Although pursuing radical change through legal means, nationalization of the copper and other major industries gave right wing opponents and the U.S. government “proof” of Allende’s “war on private property.” Fidel Castro’s month long visit to Chile did not help. After U.S. President Richard Nixon’s order to “make [Chile’s] economy scream,” the country faced hyperinflation in 1973, leading right wing groups and the military to plot coup attempts. On September 11th, 1973, the military acted.
Trapped with bodyguards and followers inside the La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace, Allende faced military attacks from the ground and the air. He gave one last speech over the radio, proclaiming “I have faith in Chile and in her destiny” (see his speech here with English subtitles). Sending his cohort out to be arrested, Allende went into a private room and with a rifle gifted to him by Fidel Castro took his own life. General Augusto Pinochet, head of the army, was now in control of the country, imposing a curfew and arresting leftist supporters of the Allende government all throughout Chile. The torture and executions began (for more information on the Allende regime and military coup, check out Modern Latin America, pp. 122-138).
More photos of the coup are available from El País here.
Facing imprisonment or worse, leftist Chileans fled to exile around the world. While the Soviet Union and its Communist allies condemned the coup and the Pinochet regime, only one country, the GDR, took in Chilean refugees. On January 8th, 1974, the GDR’s newspaper Neues Deutschland proclaimed that “Over 400 Patriots” had arrived in the country from Chile. The newspaper did not provide names but showed a woman and a dark-haired man holding a child arriving at the airport. Diplomats in East Berlin noted that the desire to win favor of the United Nations in the wake of its acceptance of the two Germanys drove the decision (400 FROM CHILE GET EAST GERMAN HAVEN, New York Times, January 10, 1974). The GDR’s propaganda machine also took advantage of Chilean exiles’ arrival to show solidarity with third-world revolutionary struggles and promote a human side of their regime.
In total, some 5,000 Chileans took refuge in the GDR. Most of the exiles had been government employees during the Allende regime, but others were actors, playwrights, writers and painters. The GDR provided Chilean refugees between 2,500 and 5,000 Ostmarks, interest-free credit as well as housing upon their arrival, the latter creating tension with their German neighbors considering the tight housing situation at the time.
Despite the warm greeting, many Chilean refugees found life challenging in the GDR. Most did not speak German, and to preserve the security of the regime, Chileans were not allowed to take positions worthy of their qualifications. Chilean Communists recommended fellow exiles take jobs in factories to pass through a process of “proletarianization” to understand the reality of socialist workers (Los chilenos de la RDA, Deutsche Welle, November 5, 2019).
Accustomed to the freedom of expression and nonconformism under the Allende regime, Chileans found the “discipline and control” of the GDR’s Communist party burdensome (from Heraldo Muñoz’s book, The Dictator’s Shadow, Life Under Augusto Pinochet, pp. 122-123). Those in the political elite like Carlos Altamirano, who was secretary of Chile’s socialist party, had a chauffeur and went on regime-financed trips, but most exiles faced delay or denial of permits to travel outside the country. In addition, the Stasi, the GDR’s secret police, considered Chilean and other exiles a potential danger to the regime and kept them under close surveillance, maintaining files like they did on regular East German citizens. Hardships like these possibly contributed to some exiles committing suicide. Carlos Cerda, a Chilean Communist who took refuge in the GDR and later wrote Morir en Berlin (To Die in Berlin), a fictional novel depicting the experience of Chilean exiles there, noted that hardships of exiles “caused us a gradual detachment from what we had considered the socialist dream.”
Despite challenges, many Chilean exiles expressed gratitude to the GDR for helping them escape the repression of the Pinochet dictatorship. By 1980, most had returned to Chile, leaving some 300, and by December 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and a return to democracy in Chile, even more returned home (if you speak Spanish, check out La dulce y agraz vida de los chilenos refugiados en la Alemania Oriental, and if you speak German, Zufluchtsort DDR?: Chilenische Flüchtlinge und die Ausländerpolitik der SED and Flüchtlinge als politisches Instrument: chilenische Emigranten in der DDR 1973-1989).
Today’s most high profile Chilean refugee to spend time in the GDR is former president Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010, 2014-2018), now the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights. Bachelet’s father was a general during the Allende regime who died of a heart attack after torture in a military prison. In 1975, Bachelet and her mother along with 40 other Chilean refugees arrived in Potsdam through an agreement between the GDR and the Socialist Party of Chile. Her Potsdam neighbors and friends remember her as a bit of a hippie with strong political convictions. From Potsdam Bachelet moved to East Berlin where she pursued medical studies at Humboldt University. She spoke positively of her years in the GDR, from where she returned to Chile in 1978. “Whether the readers like to hear this or not, the time I spent in Potsdam and Leipzig was a very happy part of my life,” she said. “I was 23 years old when I came here. I could continue my studies. I got married and it is also the place where I had my first child. My experience in Germany was beautiful” (Chile’s Bachelet Returns to Exile Home in Former East Germany, Deutsche Welle, October 18, 2006 and Michelle Bachelet: From torture survivor to UN human rights head, Deutsche Welle, September 1, 2018).
While hosting Chilean refugees, the GDR joined the Soviet Union’s campaign for the release of Luís Corvalán, the head of Chile’s Communist Party and member of Allende’s Popular Unity government imprisoned by the Pinochet regime in 1973. While incarcerated on Dawson Island, a remote location housing one of Pinochet’s most infamous prisons, Corvalán learned his son had been executed. He was exchanged for Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky and sent to exile in the Soviet Union in 1975. In January 1977, Corvalán visited the GDR for five days and was received with pomp and circumstance on par with that of a head of state. Upon Corvalán’s arrival, Erich Honecker remarked, “You have become a symbol for the anti‐fascist resistance struggle of the Chilean people” (Notes on People, New York Times, January 29, 1977). When Honecker sought refuge in Chile in 1993 after being removed from power and evading prosecution, Corvalán greeted him at the Santiago airport. In 2000, Corvalán published a collection of interviews with Honecker’s widow, Margot, in which she defended the GDR as a socialist paradise. I address the book in a later section (Luís Corvalán obituary, The Guardian, August 15, 2010 and Margot Honecker, unrepentant widow of East Germany’s last leader, dies at 89, The Washington Post, May 7, 2016).
In addition to accepting refugees, another prong of the GDR’s mission to promote itself as “an ally to anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggles” around the world was the introduction and promotion of third world revolutionary authors and literature. Anna Seghers, famous German author exiled in Mexico during World War II and leader of the GDR’s writers union from 1952 to 1978, used third world and Latin American themes in her own works and additionally sought to showcase the GDR’s support for revolutionary struggle. She was thus responsible for introducing leftist Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s works to the GDR (Marika Janzen, Writing to Change the World: Anna Seghers, Authorship, and International Solidarity in the Twentieth Century. Also, for German speakers, check out Lateinamerikanische Literatur in der DDR).
Viewing the country as an anti-fascist bulwark, Pablo Neruda felt the GDR was the sprout of a Communist utopia (Neruda y la utopía de la RDA, Deutsche Welle, September 23, 2013). After his first trip to East Berlin in 1951 for the Third World Youth Festival, Neruda expressed his admiration for the GDR and commented on German division in a chapter of poems called “Divided Blood” in his 1954 book Las uvas y el viento (The Grapes and the Wind). The chapter weaves its way through the ruins of Berlin after World War II to the reconstruction of Communist paradise in the GDR, what Neruda calls as he directly addresses the city in the first poem Morning in Berlin “your first victory…cleansing the ashes and lifting your fortress toward all men, taking from your ruins not the dead but common man, new man, that he might build buildings of love and peace and life.”
Neruda maintains his theme of the GDR’s youthful rebirth in a second poem called Young Germans – watch for the praise of a certain Communist dictator since-reviled: “There the land shook with all cruelty and punishment and now youths, reborn from water and land, flowers in their mouths, lifting love above the land, the word Stalin on millions of lips, flourishing.” Neruda’s gaze peers east as he calls the GDR to look to its Soviet brethren: “And I forgot the ruins, the burnt stone’s runes, the fire’s lesson, I forgot the war, I forgot the hate, because I saw life. Oh youth, German youth, your spring’s new guardians, strong frank youth of new Germany, look to the East, look to the vast Union of beloved Republics.”
Neruda’s glowing praise for the GDR is matched only by his vitriolic demonization of West Berlin and what he saw as its decadent capitalism in the third poem Wounded City: “In Berlin the West guarded its unchaste ‘Liberty,’ and here as well the statue with her false beacon, her gross and leprous mask painted with alcohol-ridden carmine lipstick, and in her hand a garrote newly arrived from Chicago. West Berlin, with your market of young whores and drunk invading soldiers, West Berlin, You’ve postered the walls with obscene legs, half-naked vampires all to sell your pitiful goods, and even the cigarettes have the taste of black vice. Pedophiles dance squeezing State Department experts… West Berlin, you are a pustulant sore on Europe’s ancient face, the old Nazi foxes slide on the snot of your filthy bright-lit lanes, and Coca-Cola and anti-Semitism run freely over your shit and ruins.”
A lifelong Communist, Neruda’s faith in leftist politics never wavered despite the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the Prague Spring in 1968. His political leanings and praise of Stalinist dictatorships led to greater recognition of his work in the GDR and other socialist countries but may have delayed his receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature until 1971, coincidentally the same year Willy Brandt, former mayor of West Berlin, received the Nobel Peace Prize. Neruda briefly considered a run for president of Chile before he threw his support to Salvador Allende in the 1970 election. For his loyalty, Neruda became Chile’s ambassador to France under Allende, but soon returned home because of failing health. 1973 brought the military coup and prostate cancer. Searched by the military at his Isla Negra home, Neruda remarked, “Look around – there’s only one thing of danger for you here – poetry.” Mourning his dreams for a socialist Chile, Neruda died of a supposed heart attack on September 23rd, 1973, only 12 days after the coup. To this day, controversy surrounds his death.
Alongside third world literature, the GDR also used music to show solidarity with third world revolutionary struggle. At the Festival des politischen Liedes (Festival of Political Songs), a music festival running from 1970 to 1990 that was started by the Freie Deutsche Jungen (Free German Youth, or FDJ, an East German socialist youth organization) and the Oktoberklub, an East German political music group, Chilean artists and folk bands like Quilapayún, Inti-Illimani, and Illapu made frequent appearances (the link above on the festival includes a complete list of performers and their countires of origin). These musicians made up a movement known as the Nueva Canción Chilena, or New Chilean Song, a renewal of traditional Chilean folk music with a socialist political theme spanning the 1960’s and 1970’s. Originating among the poor, rural and native sectors of society, the movement played a key role during the Allende presidency, spawning the aforementioned song Venceremos sung by Victor Jara and other Chilean musicians. President-elect Allende even took the stage under the banner “You Can’t Have a Revolution Without Songs.”
The 1973 coup was a violent end for the New Song movement in Chile. Seeing colleagues imprisoned, tortured and killed, many in the movement chose to take their politically-themed music into exile. The GDR’s festivals proved an ideal space to express socialist political ideals and frustrations about the political situation back in Chile. In terms of bringing international recognition of Chilean folk music and attention to Chile’s plight, one scholar noted the musicians’ participation in these festivals as “one of the most important diplomatic experiences” they undertook. Beginning even before the coup with performances at festivals in 1971 and 1972, Chilean folk bands generated great interest among East Germans because of growing cultural connections between the two countries and similarities in the movement of political music in the GDR and that of the New Song (The folk as political agent: the New Chilean song and the musical diplomacy 1970-1973).
The 1971 and 1972 festivals brought great success to Quilapayún, who released an album in the GDR called Lieder aus Chile (Songs from Chile) and, alongside Oktoberklub, created a cover of the East German song “Das neue Leben beginnt” (The New Life is Beginning), of which I have included a recording below. For Chilean musicians like Quilapayún, participation in the 1972 festival “not only confirmed the direction of their musical work, but made them international references for political song.”
Inti-Illimani similarly achieved recognition in the GDR during their participation in the World Festival for Youth and Students in 1973, a festival referred to as a “Red Woodstock.” Along with other musicians, the group performed Venceremos, a recording of which I have included below. The performance of Venceremos and other revolutionary songs from Chile like El pueblo unido jamás será vencido (The people united will never be defeated, a song from Quilapayún in 1973) gave Chilean folk music “a force of international projection, a capacity to represent the struggles of any country.”
Because of my Chilean Spanish teacher’s use of the song Vuelvo para vivir (I return to live), a moving song about return to life in Chile after exile, for a language lesson, Illapu holds a special place in my heart. Formed in the northern town of Antofagasta, Chile in 1971, Illapu’s music benefited from the Allende government’s funding of arts and culture activities, but repression under the Pinochet regime forced the band into exile to France and Mexico City in 1981. During exile, Illapu performed their song Toro Mata in East Berlin in 1982.
Whereas the GDR created a safe haven for Chileans seeking solidarity with Chilean refugees in the 1970’s and 80’s, Erich Honecker’s search for a new home in the 1990’s led them to return the favor. In the late 1980’s, internal and international pressures formed cracks in Chile and East Germany’s respective dictatorships resulting in monumental change for both countries. Chile’s 1980 Constitution, implemented by the military, called for a plebiscite on October 5th, 1988 in which the Chilean people would vote to approve a presidential candidate chosen by the military junta, presumably Pinochet, for an eight year term. Voting YES meant Pinochet continued as president with the popular legitimacy he so desperately craved. A victory for NO meant the military would call democratic presidential and legislative elections in 1989, effectively ending the military government.
Pinochet went ahead with the plebiscite in 1988 for a few reasons. In 1982, a drop in copper prices plunged Chile into a severe economic crisis causing GDP to decline 14% and unemployment to skyrocket to almost 24%. Popular protests followed, and key parts of the military withdrew their support for the junta and called for a return to civilian rule. In 1987, Pope John Paul II visited Chile and confronted Pinochet, calling him dictatorial and urging a return to civilian rule. The same year, the military allowed political advertising once again. Interestingly, Mikhail Gorbachev’s democratic reforms known as glasnost (opening) and perestroika (restructuring) in the Soviet Union changed the dynamics of the Cold War, reducing U.S. support for anti-Communist military dictatorships around the world (PART I: From Dictatorship to Democracy – What did the ´88 referendum bring Chile?, Chile Today, October 3, 2018).
With voter turnout of 90%, the final result was 56% for NO and 44% for YES – forced to accept defeat, Pinochet gathered what dignity he had left and remarked misión cumplida (mission accomplished), claiming credit for political and economic stability during his time in power. Pinochet underestimated the durability of long-entrenched partisan politics since before the coup as well as resentment for oppressive rule under his dictatorship. His economic reforms had also failed to provide for the poor. Realizing his government was losing the vote, Pinochet had actually considered suspending the vote count, but lack of support for his unpopular dictatorship among his upper-class, business and military coalition as well as pressure from the United States, who no longer saw him supporting their interests, forced him to relent.
In 1989, Chileans democratically elected Patricio Aylwin president, but Pinochet did not fully exit stage left – he remained commander-in-chief of the army until 1998 and a senator-for-life. He even secured immunity from prosecution in Chile for crimes committed during the dictatorship, but that did not stop attempts to hold him accountable for human rights violations. For atrocities against Spanish citizens, Spain sought his extradition from the United Kingdom in 1998, and Chilean judge Juan Guzmán Tapía used an interpretation of an amnesty law to suggest that, because many of Pinochet’s victims had not been recovered, they could still be considered kidnapped and thus the crime was ongoing. In 2000, Pinochet was officially charged for human rights violations in Chile, and in 2004 was stripped of his immunity and placed under house arrest. Because of poor health, however, the prosecution never successfully advanced, and he died in 2006 (check out PART II: From Dictatorship to Democracy – What did the ´88 referendum bring Chile? and PART III: From Dictatorship to Democracy – What did the ´88 referendum bring Chile? in Chile Today for more information on the plebiscite. For information on attempts to prosecute Augusto Pinochet, check out Ariel Dorfman’s Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of Augusto Pinochet and HBO’s movie Pinochet’s Last Stand).
It was Gorbachev’s reforms in concert with civil unrest that also led to the end of communism and the GDR’s very existence between 1989 and 1990. The GDR had always struggled to gain the legitimacy of its people. Prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, millions fled oppression and lack of opportunity in the GDR for West Berlin and West Germany, and many of those that stayed revolted in a famous uprising in 1953, only to be put down by Soviet forces propping up communism in Eastern Europe. Despite pride in certain successes in the GDR, many of its citizens risked their lives, some in elaborate escape attempts, to the west in subsequent years.
By the 1980’s, despite becoming the tenth largest industrial power in the world, East German citizens remained unconvinced of their supposed prosperity given personal economic struggles and a sense of powerlessness from lack of reform and severe restrictions on travel. When Hungary opened its border with Austria in 1989, thousands of East Germans fled through the opening to West Germany. Opposition groups sprang up demanding a “democratic dialogue” about the state of the country and economy, and public demonstrations, the most notably of which met at the St. Nikolai Church in Leipzig, overshadowed the reform-averse Erich Honecker’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of the GDR’s founding on October 7th. In attendance for the celebration, Mikhail Gorbachev famously told Honecker “life punishes those who come too late” and did not promise Soviet troop support if the regime began to teeter.
As protesters crying “Gorbi, Gorbi” and “We are the People” filled the streets of Leipzig, East Berlin and other cities in the GDR, the Communist government realized the magnitude of the crisis and, to suggest reform, unimaginatively replaced the wooden Honecker with the bureaucratic Egon Krenz. Krenz’s 40 days in power included removal of hardliners and rapprochement with Mikhail Gorbachev, but Krenz could not stem the tide of change, and the events of November 9th only hastened the demise of the GDR.
After surprisingly little debate, the GDR’s politburo approved laxer restrictions for private trips abroad to the west, but in the press conference announcing the changes, the government spokesman erred on the timing when he said permits for travel would be “granted promptly.” At that moment, the Berlin Wall was essentially dissolved. Thousands of East Germans who watched the announcement on television flocked to border checkpoints with the west, only to be met by confused border guards seeking orders from above. As the crowds grew, the border guards’ officers relented to avoid violence, producing famous scenes of East and West Berliners celebrating in the streets of West Berlin and dancing on the wall that evening. Over the course of the following year, the Communist regime in the GDR resigned, and the two Germanys reunited on October 3rd, 1990 (check out Gail Stokes’ The Walls Came Tumbling Down: Collapse and Rebirth in Eastern Europe for more information on the fall of the GDR).
Behind the scenes of these major events, Erich Honecker, the deposed East German leader, needed a new home. Honecker had been a lifelong Communist, having joined the Communist youth organization “Young Spartacus League” at the behest of his father in 1922. Jailed by the Nazi’s Gestapo in 1935 for illegal Communist activity, Honecker was released from prison in 1945 by advancing Soviet troops. He spent his life rising through the Communist party ranks, founding the Free German Youth (FDJ), overseeing the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and eventually becoming general secretary of the GDR’s Socialist Unity Party in 1971 and chairman of the State Council in 1976. Regarding the Berlin Wall, formally known in the GDR as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier,” Honecker famously said only a few years before its fall that it would stand for another 50 or 100 years, as long as it was necessary. History knocked on Honecker’s door earlier than that, and after his removal from power in 1989, he and his wife Margot, known as the “purple witch” for her hair color and uncompromising Communist convictions during her time as Minister of Education in the GDR, took refuge in a Protestant pastor’s home in Brandenburg.
Suffering from kidney disease at that point, Honecker and his wife followed the collapse of the GDR and subsequent reunification on television. Finding themselves in a united Germany and therefore under its laws, the Ministry of Justice issued an arrest warrant on November 30th, 1990 for Honecker’s role in shoot-to-kill orders given at the inner German border during his time in power. Much like his autocratic bedfellow Augusto Pinochet, prosecution of Honecker for human rights violations would prove challenging given protection by allies and his health.
To avoid trial, the Honeckers fled to a Soviet military airstrip from which they flew to exile in the Soviet Union on March 13th, 1991. Having been diagnosed with liver and kidney tumors, Honecker was ostensibly flown to the Soviet Union for medical treatment, a reason the Soviets used to deny extradition when Germany requested it. Just as they had watched the GDR fall, the Honeckers got a front row seat to the end of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Continued pressure on Russia for extradition led the Honeckers to then seek asylum in the embassy of a country to whose refugees they had once offered asylum: Chile. Clodomiro Almeyda, Chile’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, had been one of the many refugees taken in by the GDR, and Almeyda wanted to return the favor. The Honeckers’ daughter Sonja had also married a Chilean man, Leonardo Yáñez Betancourt.
On December 11th, 1991, two weeks before Mikhail Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Union and ceded power to Russian president Boris Yeltsin, the Honeckers sought refuge in the Chilean embassy. Keen to get rid of Honecker, the Yeltsin government eventually granted Germany’s request for extradition, and on July 29nd, 1992, his fist raised in the air in a Communist salute, Honecker exited the Chilean embassy for a flight back to Berlin. Margot, however, fled via a direct flight from Moscow to Santiago, Chile to join her daughter.
When he arrived at Tegel airport in Berlin, Honecker was immediately arrested and jeered by crowds shouting, “Murderer! Murderer!” as authorities transported him to Moabit Prison. Whereas Russian doctors had determined he did not have cancer, which aided the extradition claim, reexamination by German doctors revealed his tumors had metastasized. Despite his condition, Honecker’s and co-defendants Erich Mielke, Willi Stoph, Heinz Kessler, Fritz Streletz and Hans Albrecht were accused of “collective manslaughter” for the deaths of 68 East Germans attempting to cross the inner German border. In his defense, Honecker criticized the German justice system, claiming the Federal Republic was a not a “state of rights” but rather a “right-wing state.” He added he was “without juridical, legal or moral guilt” for construction of the Berlin Wall and inner German border, asserting it helped avoid a third world war.
Hearings in the trial never actually proceeded. Affidavits attesting to Honecker’s likely imminent death, which flew in the face of some accusing him of faking illness, and the removal of the judge after he asked Honecker for his autograph, halted proceedings in early 1993. To force Honecker to stand trial in his condition would be a violation of human rights, the court determined. On January 13th, Honecker boarded a flight for Santiago, Chile to reunite with his wife and daughter (Ex-East Germany leader Erich Honecker’s arrest: 25 years on, Deutsche Welle, July 29, 2017).
A May 12th, 1992 Seattle Times article concisely answers a question I have always pondered myself: Why is Chile, a democratic country that values its hard-fought freedom, sheltering the former boss of the repressive East German Communist Party? The answer: Thousands of Chileans remember Honecker not as a dictator, but as a humanitarian who gave them asylum in East Germany after a 1973 coup brought Chile under the repressive rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Roland Kliesow, minister counsel at the German embassy in Chile, said that Chile had a peculiar view of political asylum: “The Chileans’ thought was: ‘What do you have against that old man? Finally history has punished him.’ We have a different system. Here you could take in . . . any dictator who has committed crimes.”
Upon arrival in Chile, Luís Corvalán and members of the Committee of Solidarity with Erich Honecker (successor of the Committee to Free Erich Honecker) organized a welcoming reception for Honecker before he was sent for medical evaluation. In a prepared statement, Honecker said, “I thought I would never again see my beloved wife and brave comrade. With this, my last personal wish is fulfilled, and I thank the Chilean people and their government. Behind me are very hard years, with my stay in hospitals and more than five months in jail. Soon, after the beginning of this serious situation, I learned of my critical state of health. But the solidarity of Chileans, of friends and of comrades throughout the world helped to fortify me” (Frail Honecker arrives in Santiago, Los Angeles Times, January 15, 1993).
Because of the language barrier and his poor health, Honecker rarely ventured outside his walled home at the foot of the Andes Mountains but for short walks around his neighborhood. Interestingly, his home was only a few blocks from a war college for an army commanded by an ideological adversary, General Augusto Pinochet. Friends brought German magazines, and there was speculation that former members of the Stasi were sending him money in addition to the pension he collected from the German government for work as a roofer earlier in his life. The Chilean government treated the Honeckers as normal German citizens, but barred them from public roles and statements.
I include videos below of German documentaries of Erich and Margot’s life in Chile. My Duolingo German lessons have equipped me with at least enough of the language to draw a few conclusions on the videos (and please, if you speak German and are willing to translate or add English subtitles to the videos, I would be in your debt). Honecker’s withered appearance, his white hair growing long, lies in stark contrast to the man who only a few years before was proudly toasting with friendly world leaders and overseeing a grand parade for the 40th anniversary of the GDR. An all-powerful man whose portrait adorned many walls in the GDR watched the country he ran with an iron first literally evaporate. Three years later he is relegated to giving his final public remarks at his wife’s 66th birthday party before getting in a little red car to drive through streets of a strange foreign city. In a twist of irony given the level of surveillance the Stasi inflicted on East German citizens and the insistence to build walls to prevent travel, Erich and Margot’s consternation at prying reporters peering at them over their walls is quite striking. A garden hose is Margot’s weapon of choice to chase them away (Check out HONECKER, IN EXILE, IS WALLED IN ANEW, Washington Post, June 5, 1993).
His health worsening, Honecker eventually succumbed to liver cancer at the age of 81 on May 29th, 1994. The Chilean Communist Party hosted his funeral, and for one of the last times in history, the flag of the GDR would be used in somewhat official capacity. Salvador Allende’s widow greets Margot Honecker at the ceremony in the video of the funeral below.
Margot Honecker remained in Chile collecting a monthly pension from Germany for 1,500 Euros until her death in 2016. Although withdrawn from political activities, Margot continued to defend the GDR and follow events in Germany. She agreed to be interviewed by Luís Corvalán for his book The Other Germany, the GDR: Conversations with Margot Honecker in 2000, of which I include the Spanish version for download below.
The book touches on a number of themes including her early life and time as Minister of Education, combating fascism in an effort to establish Communist rule in the GDR, the division of the Germany and construction and fall of the Berlin Wall. The interviews reveal an ardent defense of what Margot saw as the triumphs of socialism. “In the GDR, there was no unemployment, no homelessness, no property speculation, and no rent extortion” (p. 37). Her defense further cites what she saw as equality between men and women, advances in culture and art and the transformation of society through education. In reflecting on the latter, Corvalán speculates that Margot’s instillation of socialist values in education in the GDR led East German students to write to him while in prison in Chile, which Margot notes was “a beautiful gesture” (p. 60). The book concludes with Margot and Corvalán highlighting the loss of certain positive elements and difficulties experienced during German reunification as further justification for continued Communist rule.
Margot broke her silence again in the documentary films I included above to continue her uncompromising defense of the system she and her husband helped to build. “It is a tragedy that this land no longer exists,” she tells the interviewer, adding that, while she lives in Chile, her “head is in Germany,” but not the united Germany – the GDR. Regarding those who lost their lives trying to leave the GDR, Margot says, “There was no need for them to climb over the wall, to pay for this stupidity with their lives.” Denying her role in forced adoptions of regime opponents’ children and accusing vocal victims of the regime as being paid, Margot predicted the socialism she and her husband worked to create would eventually prevail in Germany. “We laid a seed in the ground which will one day come to fruition,” she said. “We just didn’t have enough time to realize our plans.”
The documentary’s interviewer Eric Friedler accused Margot, who as education minister in the GDR introduced weapons programs in schools and encouraged teachers to report students displaying rebellion to the Communist system, of living in an alternate reality. “Margot Honecker showed no remorse, or discernment, she expressed no word of regret or apology. She might be in Chile, but she is very well connected to a whole guard of old comrades. She regularly spends hours reading the internet, knows exactly what’s going on in Germany, but says her desire for Germany is restricted to…the GDR” (Margot Honecker defends East German dictatorship, The Guardian, April 2, 2012).
She appeared in a video celebrating the 60th anniversary of the GDR in 2009. I include the video below as well as another in which she is confronted by a German reporter while walking in her neighborhood in Chile. Again, my basic German limits my ability to understand all the content, but I have no doubt her comments are in keeping with her defense of the GDR above.
Suffering from cancer herself, Margot Honecker passed away at the age of 89 on May 6th, 2016. The Communist Party of Chile offered its condolences, its party’s secretary general Juan Andrés Lagos saying, “She was a person that was coherent with her political ideals and then when real socialism fell, she also led many initiatives of solidarity with the people of Latin America and Asia, which fought for their liberation” (East Germany’s ‘Purple Witch’ Margot Honecker dies in Chile aged 89, Reuters, May 6, 2016). Held in Parque del Recuerdo in Santiago, her daughter Sonja, grandson Roberto Yañéz and 50 mourners attended Margot’s funeral, draping her casket in red carnations and, in likely its last somewhat official capacity, the flag of the defunct GDR. The Communist Party of Chile sent a wreath (Funeral for Margot Honecker in Chile, SBS News, May 8, 2016). With Margot Honecker’s death, a historical chapter in which the GDR and Chile hosted its respective political refugees came to an end, but the story does not end there.
Grandson Roberto Yañéz broke his silence on his and his grandparents’ lives in a 2018 book co-authored with German filmmaker Thomas Grimm titled Ich war der letzte Bürger der DDR: Mein Leben als Enkel der Honeckers (in English “I was the last citizen of the GDR: My life as a grandchild of the Honeckers”). I do hope my German is good enough some day to read my personal copy of this book, and I invite my German-speaking friends to share some insights, but I am happy to report that Yáñez and Grimm released a documentary in Spanish in May 2020, which I have posted below the book cover.
Now a poet, painter and singer in Santiago, Yáñez describes the difficulties he suffered with culture shock upon arriving in Chile in 1990 at age 15. After the separation of his parents, he moved in with his grandmother, Margot, who he considered a point of reference in his life as he faced personal struggles while developing a passion for art and music (Realizaron conversatorio sobre documental “Roberto Yáñez, el nieto de Honecker,” El Mostrador, 14 June, 2020). In 2018, Yáñez and his mother publicly disagreed over his desire for the remains of his grandfather to be buried along with those of his grandmother in a cemetery for socialists in Berlin (Nieto de Honecker quiere enterrar al exdictador comunista en Berlín, Radio Televisión Martí, 10 September, 2018). A quote in his book fascinatingly captures his thoughts on the intertwined fates of his family and the GDR: “I grew up in a matriarchy and had to live with the essence of the GDR until 2016. I was the last citizen of the GDR. It took two decades to understand, interpret and resist this sensation. My grandmother’s death was the fall of the wall for me. I left the GDR on May 6th, 2016.” Yáñez continues to live and work in Santiago and Valparaíso, Chile, and I am excited to announce that Thomas Grimm is working on a documentary about the children of the 5,000 Chilean exiles who took refuge in the GDR.
As I close, I am amazed at how extensive the historical connections are between Chile and East Germany, two countries whose respective histories have riveted me for over a decade. Having walked the streets and visited the famous sites in both countries, understanding the stories of Chilean refugees in the GDR and the Honeckers’ lives in Chile only make both places more intriguing. From a personal point of view, I wonder what Chilean refugees thought upon arrival in the GDR – if the military had not overthrown Salvador Allende, would Chilean socialists have been just as disillusioned with socialism as they were in the GDR? What did Erich Honecker, a once all-powerful man whose portrait adorned walls and parade posters in the GDR, think as he looked at his Chilean ID card? Questions that deserve further exploration bounce in my head, giving me good reason to continue my study of two countries where the embers of history are still warm.
For more information on Chile and the GDR, check out these resources:
Museum of Memory and Human Rights – Chile’s museum dedicated to the victims of human rights abuses committed under the Augusto Pinochet regime
Machuca – a 2004 Chilean film about poor children allowed to attend school in pre-coup Chile. The film depicts the clash of poor and rich resulting from policies expanding education for the poor under Allende and the sudden trauma of the coup
Pinochet’s Last Stand – HBO’s movie on the arrest and attempted prosecution of General Augusto Pinochet
Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall – The History Channel’s epic documentary on the rise and fall of the wall
DDR Museum – Berlin’s primary museum on the history of the GDR
The Lives of Others – one of my favorite movies about East Germany and its secret police, the Stasi. Available on Netflix
Radio GDR – a fantastic English-language podcast about the life and times of East Germany
I want to dedicate this post to some special people in my life. First, my mother Judy, who taught me about the power of reading as a child and went with me on my return trip to Chile in November, 2018. She had a wonderful time visiting famous sites like La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace, in the picture below. In Chile, she became fast friends with my host family and was she was struck by the presence of women in useful positions outside of the home.
Next, my Chilean host mother. When I traveled to Chile as a 22-year old college student in 2007, I did not know what I was getting into. Upon arrival at Santiago’s airport, the smiling face and warm hug of Ruth Klaber Zamorano, a woman of Chilean-German heritage, helped me know I made the right decision to come to Chile. Ruth is a wonderful mama postiza, taking me on trips to the Pacific coastal towns of Viña del Mar and Valparaíso and the mountain pass Cajón del Maipo, introducing me to delicious Chilean foods, and making me a part of her wonderful family. I cherish the yarmulke Ruth gave me from her synagogue, and I loved introducing her to my own mother in 2018. Te amo, mamá chilena.
Also, Ruth’s son José Miguel Garnitz Klaber, his wife Mariana García Espinoza and their children Paloma and Benjamín. Thank you for being such wonderful friends to us and for being amazing hosts during our return trip to Santiago in 2018. We loved our Chilean barbecue on our final night, and we’re so grateful for your recommendations on what to visit in Santiago. We can’t wait to see you again, this time in the South of Chile! Los amamos como familia.
Finally, to the people of Chile and Germany, who in 1989 bravely stood up to tyranny to win their freedom. Your stories are awe-inspiring, and your countries are fascinating. Thank you for being amazing hosts in 2018 and 2019. I will always be riveted by my memories of visiting the La Moneda Palace and Human Rights Museum in Santiago and the DDR Museum and Berlin Wall Memorial in Berlin.
“Many small people, who in many small places do many small things, can alter the face of the world.”– East Side Gallery, Berlin, 1990