East Germans feared the worst as they watched China's pro-democracy crackdown on West German TV 20 years ago. But their revolution turned out to be peaceful, thanks to Glasnost and the role of Protestant churches.
Image of Tiananmen protester beamed from West Germany
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, the now defunct East Germany, officially known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR), had one of the most repressive regimes in the former Soviet bloc.
But the regime of aging Communist party stalwarts led by Erich Honecker was unable to block the reception of West German television, except in the easternmost pockets of the GDR bordering on Poland.
This meant that millions of East German households could watch the stirrings of a democratic student movement unfolding half a world away in China during the spring of 1989.
Access to West German TV
On June 4 at Beijing's Tiananmen Square, East German dissidents' hopes had turned to horror when they witnessed a watershed event live on their television screens.
Chinese pro-democracy demonstrators were waging a losing battle against government tanks that ended in bloodshed. Ironically Tiananmen, the site of political rallies and mass protests since the People's Republic was founded in 1949, means the "Gate of Heavenly Peace" in Chinese.
The military crackdown that cost at least a few hundred and possibly a few thousand lives - the number is still unknown today - carried a special resonance for East Germans. It was a chilling reminder that what happened in Beijing could easily occur on their home turf.
Fear of a "Chinese solution"
Prayers for peace were open to all at Leipzig's Nikolaikirche
"We too feared the possibility of a 'Chinese solution,'" said Pastor Christian Fuehrer of Leipzig's Church of St. Nicholas ( Nikolaikirche). Fuehrer, 66, had been a key organizer of the peace vigils in Leipzig in the 1980s that eventually led to the collapse of the Honecker regime.
Memories of uprisings that were crushed in the Warsaw Pact countries were still fresh in the minds of an older generation -- Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1968 and even the GDR's own failed resistance against Soviet military might in 1953 -- recalled Fuehrer.
In the few days following the Tiananmen crackdown, the GDR newspaper Neues Deutschland openly supported the military actions of the Chinese leadership. On June 8, the GDR People's Congress officially declared the bloodbath in Beijing "a defeat for counter-revolutionary forces." In East Berlin, 16 civil rights advocates were arrested for demonstrating against the massacre of unarmed Chinese civilians and in Leipzig, a city known for its classical music tradition as well as for its political activism, the police broke up a street music festival.
The GDR's dreaded Stasi police had even considered the possibility of military retaliation in response to mass protest movements that had been gaining momentum by the month in 1989, but in the end, they exercised restraint, according to documents in the now open archives.
Impact of Glasnost
The tide of change in the former East Germany was unstoppable. Unlike China, dissent in the GDR was part of a broader opening of the Iron Curtain unleashed by Mikhail Gorbachev's Glasnost and Perestroika reforms in the 1980s that led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
"China was not part of the Soviet orbit in the way that the GDR was," said Gudrun Wacker, a China specialist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, who explained that Gorbachev did not have the same clout with China as he did in Eastern Europe.
East Germans fled to the West once the borders opened up
His visit to Beijing in May 1989 to normalize Sino-Soviet relations after decades of animosity between the two Communist superpowers had even proved to be a humiliation for the Chinese leaders, who had ushered Gorbachev through the back door instead of the planned route through Tiananmen that had been blocked by protesters, said Wacker.
"The demonstrators feted Gorbachev as a big reformer of socialism, he was a hero to them," she said. More reason to keep Gorbachev out of sight from the Chinese people, she added.
Role of Protestant churches in GDR
Petra-Ute Knauft, 59, a Leipzig architect who was active in the weekly Monday prayer for peace meetings spearheaded by the Nikolaikirche , said that as bad as the Honecker regime was, the Chinese hardliners had been far worse.
"What happened in China was criminal," said Knauft, who had followed the news on West Germany's public TV station ARD, adding that it did not even enter her mind that the Chinese solution could repeat itself in East Germany.
"The GDR was different. We were led by a bunch of out of touch, aging old men. And Gorbachev proved to be too powerful and too liberal for them," she said.
The Protestant churches had also become an organized force for political change in the GDR.
Although political meetings were forbidden under the Honecker regime, the churches had an understanding with the state that allowed them to freely practice their faith. In the mid-1980s, the Nikolaikirche had become the focal point for masses of Christians and non-Christians, who sought greater political freedoms in the GDR.
When the border between Hungary and neutral Austria opened in the summer of 1989, thousands of East German citizens voted with their feet. Then the Czech-Austrian border opened up and thousands more fled to the West. By the time the GDR approached its 40th anniversary on October 6, the desperate regime tried to stem a population outflow that was spiraling out of control.
Decisive prayer meeting on October 9
Tiananmen means "Gate of Heavenly Peace"
The next Monday prayer meeting was held at Nikolaikirche on October 9, a day that Pastor Fuehrer says was "most decisive."
Thousands of adherents had come from all over the GDR to Leipzig. Local dignitaries, such as the Gewandhaus Orchestra's Kurt Masur urgently pleaded for non-violence as both the numbers of demonstrators and the state police swelled to over 70,000 people.
"We didn't know whether we were going to face a Chinese solution on that day," said Pastor Fuehrer in retrospect.
"October 9 was the turning point for us," he said, adding that the day was overshadowed by the fall of the Wall exactly one month later, setting off a chain of events that snowballed and led to German reunification.
"This was a one-time event unique in history," said Fuehrer.
Erich Honecker was deposed on October 18. Then at the first freely held elections of the 11th Peoples Congress in June 1990, official backing for the military intervention at Tiananmen Square was withdrawn and the Congress threw their support behind the Chinese victims instead.
Author: Diana Fong
Editor: Trinity Hartman