Extract SIGHTGEIST / Category: History

The Peaceful Revolution

Birth of a reunited German nation

Those present will probably never forget the insistent, tumultuous but by no means ominous noise that engulfed the city of Leipzig on the evening of 9 October 1989. It was the sound of 70,000 people demonstrating peacefully. First tentatively, then more determinedly, until finally they linked arms and marched along Leipzig’s inner city ring road past several of the main government buildings, blocking the entire road. With their courage and commitment, the people of Leipzig paved the way for democratic change.

Now, a quarter of a century after the event, demonstrations have become something we take for granted and accept as an expression of the people’s will. But what is today considered a normal occurrence was an unheard of act of courage in 1989 in former East Germany. The people of Leipzig, who had long been suppressed by an overbearing and arrogant regime, and who now collectively recognised their rights as citizens, vented their dissatisfaction spontaneously in a wave of protests. They demonstrated their free will for all the world to see. In doing so, they were well aware of the risks they were taking. They marched against an armed power that had indicated in the preceding days with cryptic statements in the local press that they were prepared to use force against their own people if necessary. How courageous and how desperate the protesters must have been to take to the streets in the face of such intimidation!

It would fill a minute-by-minute report of the events of 9 October 1989 to fully capture the explosive atmosphere, the risks taken by the protagonists and the hasty efforts of cool-headed peacemakers to deescalate the situation. An appeal drawn up jointly by six prominent figures from Leipzig on the afternoon of that day and read over local radio by Kurt Masur, the widely respected conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, urging the people to keep the peace, brought some relief. It sent the right signals, but it was not yet clear what turn events would take. There was some hope of resolving the deadlock and a noncommittal offer of talks with the discontented demonstrators, but nothing more.

The situation was highly volatile, with events transpiring in the space of just a few minutes. The armed forces had already fired up the engines of their personnel carriers when the vast crowds taking part in the regular Monday prayers surged out of St. Nicholas’ Church in Leipzig, holding candles in their hands, to form a spontaneous protest march. The people were prepared for the worst, but at the decisive moment, the engines of the armoured vehicles fell silent. Not a single shot was fired, not one windowpane broken. There was no stopping or holding back the crowds of protesters. Leipzig was experiencing the dawn of a peaceful revolution. The Central Committee of the governing Socialist Unity Party in Berlin, which just hours before had been bombarded with calls for advice on how to restore order from local officials who did not know what to do, remained silent in cowering confusion. Instead, Leipzig acted. Power changed hands and was taken up by the peaceful demonstrators on the city’s streets.

At this point the clamour became audible, an electrifying sound, not of chanted slogans at first, but of the calm determination of protesters who were no longer prepared to tolerate the circumstances under which they were forced live. They demanded change. And then, for the first time, a cry rang out that was both an expression of self-assurance by the allegedly powerless people and a warning to the apparently powerful rulers, encapsulated in the briefest, proudest and most insistent conviction: “Wir sind das Volk!” – We are the people.

That evening in Leipzig went down in history. It triggered an avalanche of events, culminating in the reunification of Germany and the end of the confrontation between the hostile blocs at the heart of Europe. (excerpt)

Dr. Helge-Heinz Heinker

Photo: Punctum/Bertram Kober


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