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History

Former Honecker butler: 'He completely changed his life'

GDR chief Erich Honecker was often considered unemotional and humorless. Now, 23 years after East Germany's collapse, his bodyguard and butler Lothar Herzog reveals other sides of him in a memoir and a DW interview.

DW: Mr. Herzog, was Honecker really so heartless and lacking in feeling in private?

Lothar Herzog: Well, I met Honecker in 1962, when he had not yet become party chief - that didn't happen until 1971. When I met him, he was really quite sociable. He would come with some of his colleagues to the clubhouse in Wandlitz and play skat, and would have a brandy or a beer every now and then. That changed abruptly when he was told he would succeed Walter Ulbricht as General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party. From that point onward, he lived a very healthy life. He stopped smoking overnight - despite having been a very heavy smoker - and didn't drink alcohol anymore. In other words, he completely changed his lifestyle.

How would you describe his married life - with long-standing GDR Education Minister Margot Honecker?

I didn't really form my first impressions until 1971, when I was to then start looking after her as well in her free time. They both would leave early - around 8 a.m. - for work in Berlin, she to the Ministry of Education and he to the Central Committee, and then they would come back in the evening. We weren't required to look after them then. There was a maid who would then see to them.

In your book, you say that you had the impression that they were not very friendly or affectionate with one another. Could you say something about that?

My impression was that they were relatively cool towards one another and though they looked after their daughter, she stayed in a social facility from Monday through Friday. She went to school, first in Wandlitz, then in Berlin-Pankow. So, essentially, it was only on the weekends that she had a normal family life. Although, one has to add, Honecker himself often went on hunting trips on the weekend; he spent a lot of his free time alone in Wildfang, his hunting hideaway.

Was he a good hunter?

Very good. I can attest to that because I often had to accompany him. The wild game that he shot would then be contributed to everyday supplies for the general population.

When you say that - "everyday supplies for the general population"- and saw his extravagances when you attended to him privately, did you ever think that he wasn't much of a communist on a personal level? Or did he remain very reserved toward you?

Yes and no, I would say. I had the impression that Honecker felt all the hubbub about him was overwhelming, and that he perhaps wanted to respond to that with, shall we say, distain. For the most part, he treated us like we weren't even there. We knew what his wishes were, so we just saw to them without any discussion, really.

In other words, you just had to look him in the eye to know what he wanted - at least, after a while?

I tried, at any rate.

What was your opinion of Honecker, working with him so closely? Did it change over time? Did you admire him? Like him? Or did you stop liking him after a while?

In the beginning, I respected him a lot. He disbanded with the group of personal security guards that Ulbricht had about him. He wanted to be considered as one among equals. But of course, that meant: in the Politbüro, not as an equal among normal GDR citizens. Over the years, he learned to accept what people made of him as a person.

In 1971, it was decided that he should again have a personal butler and I was chosen. I had to sweeten his vacation by spending three and a half weeks with him and his family on Vilm Island.

In your opinion, what were Honecker's greatest strengths - privately? And what were his greatest weaknesses?

His discipline was probably one of his greatest strengths. When we would return from state visits, which were really all over the world, he would go to his office the following day - regardless of where the journey had taken us, what the time difference had been, the weather. I admired that in him - because we ourselves felt the toll all those trips took, and yet we weren't under as much stress as he was. His self-discipline was a major strength.

His weakness was his emotional coldness. He often wasn't really there, would be quite distant when he was concentrating on something. But sometimes he would get beyond that, on trips sometimes. I experienced how, on particularly important political trips, he, Willi Stoph und Günther Mittag would board the plane, slap the skat cards on the table and play during the journey to distract themselves.

Lothar Herzog worked exclusively for Erich Honecker from 1971 to 1984. His memoir about his job with the GDR official, "Honecker privat" ("Honecker, privately"), just came out this month.

DW.DE