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Peaceful protest

October 9, 2009

Germany on Friday marked the 20th anniversary of a large pro-democracy demonstration in the eastern city of Leipzig on October 9, 1989. It played a key role in toppling the Berlin Wall one month later.

German President Horst Koehler gives a speech in Leipzig
This year crowds in the city's center used candles to commemorate "Leipzig 89"Image: AP

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Horst Koehler were among the high-profile guests at a ceremony held at a concert hall in Leipzig on Friday to mark the demonstrations that took place there 20 years ago.

"On October 9, 1989, 20 years ago, the people of Leipzig showed us what citizens can achieve when they believe in their own strength and take their destiny into their own hands," Koehler said.

Thousands protest in Leipzig on October 9, 1989
A sea of demonstrators took over Leipzig's streets on October 9, 1989Image: AP

On that day, about 70,000 East German citizens openly challenged the communist regime by taking to the streets of Leipzig, demanding freedom and democracy.

The rally in Leipzig was the culmination of weeks of swelling protests throughout East Germany.

Days earlier, people had taken to the streets in Dresden and Plauen to vent their discontent against the leaders of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) who gathered to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the communist state.

Leipzig at the heart of the protests

But Leipzig remained at the center of the mass-organized protests. In the early autumn of 1989, a central Leipzig church, the Nikolaikirche, hosted prayer meetings for democracy and justice every Monday.

These "Monday demonstrations" took place over three months and were attended by political dissidents, would-be emigrants and ordinary East Germans caught up in the growing wave of defiance.

Rainer Eckert, director of the Forum of Contemporary History at Leipzig University, said a series of events including the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing and disillusionment with the SED, East Germany's ruling party, prompted the widespread unrest in East Germany.

But the protests in Leipzig, he said, were sparked by a particular feeling of neglect in light of the economic and social decline of the East German state.

A prayer service on October 23, 1989, in a packed Nikolaikirche
The prayer meetings at the Nikolaikirche were packedImage: AP

"Leipzig was on the decline and was falling further and further behind Berlin," Eckert told Deutsche Welle. "For the proud Leipzigers with their heritage as the trade-fair city and music city this made them furious and brought them finally to the conclusion that this couldn't go on and it was time to take action."

The beginning of the end

But joining in the growing protests wasn't easy or safe. There were widespread fears that the security forces would crush the demonstrations with the same brutality as pro-democracy protestors around Tiananmen Square, Beijing, four months earlier.

"In those October days, everything was on a knife's edge ... people had to expect the worst because there were clear threats," Koehler said in his speech.

The authorities had threatened to use force to break up the protests. But that never happened.

Eckert said the guns remained silent on October 9 in the face of the sheer numbers of demonstrators.

"There too many people to suppress. The police had reckoned on 30,000 - those they could have dealt with. Not 70,000," Eckert told Deutsche Welle.

The historian added that the security forces were also in an ambivalent position considering the spontaneous outpouring of discontent and defiance among the population.

People dance atop the Berlin Wall next to the Brandenburg Gate
The Leipzig protests directly led to the fall of the Berlin WallImage: AP

"Suddenly they found themselves in the situation where they weren't standing against German imperialism or fascism but against their own families and colleagues and children and of course they didn't want to shoot these people," Eckert said.

This restraint by the authorities showed that the political will and ability to suppress public discontent was fading amongst East Germany's ruling elite, especially as the protests continued to grow in size.

Eckert said the October 9 demonstrations also made clear that that the GDR regime was on its last legs.

Protesters at the "Monday demonstrations" in Leipzig in 1989
Protesters held up posters saying "We don't want violence, we want change"Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

"It showed that the dictatorship was at its end. And that whatever happened something was now going to change," he said. "October 9 was the precursor and reason for the fall of the Berlin Wall."

With public confidence buoyed by the success of the peaceful protest, 120,000 people turned up for the next round of the Leipzig "Monday demonstrations." Again, the authorities did not intervene. Before long, there were protesters on the streets of Berlin as well.

New German generation needed

On November 9, 1989, one month after the first major demonstration in Leipzig, the Berlin Wall came down, and German reunification followed in October 1990.

Eckert said that the peaceful revolution in Leipzig had achieved its ideals of democracy, freedom and unity in a reunited Germany. But 20 years on, problems remain between the two former halves of the country, he said.

"You get the feeling that the divide is actually getting stronger, but as a historian I think long term, and I am optimistic that in 10-20 years these differences will have ceased to exist," Eckert said.

"We need a German generation where it is no longer relevant whether you were born in Munich or Leipzig."

Editor: Nancy Isenson