Leipzig marks 30 years since Cold War uprising
Leipzig, East Germany’s second city, held a candle-lit memorial on October 9 when approximately 70,000 residents marched past the headquarters of the Stasi. “We are the people” (Wir sind das Volk), they chanted.
About 6,000 armed police and Stasi operatives were watching but they did not intervene.
The official grip on people’s behaviour had been broken and the Berlin Wall fell a month later.
Citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) secretly and illegally watched West German television and saw their affluence in contrast to their grey and restricted lives, hampered by constant shortages.
East German hardline leader Erich Honecker resisted reforms, while Poland and Hungary were passing democratic reforms.
In September 1989, East Germans crossed into Czechoslovakia, the only country to which they could travel visa-free, and sought refuge at the West German embassy.
On September 30, West German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher spoke from the embassy balcony and told the East Germans that they were free – a famous sentence drowned out by cheers.
“No one in Germany will ever forget this moment, this speech,” current German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said during a recent visit to Prague.
Soviet Union’s leader Mikhail Gorbachev promoted a policy of “glasnost” (openness) policy and “Gorbi, Gorbi!” became a slogan for East Germans demanding similar reforms.
Gorbachev visited East Berlin on October 7 and asked Honecker to consider reforms. “Life punishes those who come too late,” the Soviet leader said.
For several years Pastor Christoph Wonneberger led “peace prayers” on Monday at the Protestant Nikolaikirche (St Nicholas Church). And Honecker allowed the small GDR peace movement’s opposition to Soviet nuclear missile deployments within East German.
“The Nikolaikirche was known in Leipzig as a free place. We knew the Stasi was in the church, but our activities couldn’t be forbidden, because they were called peace prayers, not a protest,” said Katrin Hattenhauer, who was 20 at the time, one of the organisers of this month’s anniversary demonstrations in Leipzig.
“Group solidarity was getting stronger and the summer of fleeing [through Hungary into Austria] helped us a lot. Many people joined as they were desperate, having lost family members. So people were looking for a place to share their stories, to decide how life now should go on,” she said.
Leipzig’s international fair on September 4, 1989, allowed western journalists into the city.
Hattenhauer said: “We had to lead people out of the church, to become visible, to give the movement a face.”
The authorities arrested them but it was filmed by the West German media.
Leipzig in 1989. Picture credit: Wikimedia