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The peaceful protest that brought down East Germany

Mara Bierbach
October 9, 2019

On October 9, 1989, over 70,000 people gathered in Leipzig calling for freedom and democracy — and security forces did not intervene. DW spoke to participants in the demonstration that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Demonstrators making the peace sign in Leipzig, October 2, 1989
'No Violence' was the mantra of the Monday protesters, seen here on October 2, 1989, making the peace signImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Leipzig protests 30 years on

It is just after 6 p.m on October 9, 1989. The door of Leipzig's St. Nicholas Church swings open and worshipers spill out onto the street. Outside and on nearby Karl Marx Square, tens of thousands of protesters have gathered. Among them are teenagers, families, workers and retirees. Between 70,000 and 100,000 citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) from all walks of life have come to central Leipzig today to protest against East Germany's governing communist regime. It is a risky move. There has not been such a huge rally in decades, and anti-regime protests are prohibited by law.   

Many of those who have flocked to central Leipzig on this day are deeply worried about how the regime will respond. Some fear police officers may even open fire on them. Tanks and soldiers with machine guns are on standby, ready to intervene and quell the anti-government protest. Locals fear their protest could be brutally suppressed just like Beijing's deadly Tiananmen Square protests that took place just months earlier, in March 1989.

Remarkably, however, the East German leadership does not order its security forces to take action. The protest goes ahead, with crowds streaming through the center of town and past the regional office of the Stasi, East Germany's notorious secret police. The protesters, many carrying candles, chant "We are the people," "Freedom and free elections" as well as "No violence."

Protesters recall a fateful day

Those who were part of these protests 30 years ago vividly remember the atmosphere at the time. Kathrin Mahler Walther, who was just 18 years old in 1989 and active in the East German civil rights movement at the time, remembers how "there was tension in the air that day." She says people knew that October 9 was the day that would decide everything. Her hometown of Leipzig, the GDR's second-largest city after East Berlin, had become a center of dissent during the 1980s — and its most important meeting point was St Nicholas Church, where each Monday afternoon at 5p.m. a prayer service would be held dedicated to peace. Mahler Walther says when everyone realized East German security forces would not intervene and open fire, "this meant that from now on, there will be dialogue." 

Peaceful protesters in Leipzig, October 16, 1989
Over 100,000 demonstrators peacefully gathered at Leipzig's central Karl-Marx-Platz on October 16, 1989Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Read more: From hope, a movement — Churches and the fall of the GDR 

In 1989, 40 years after the foundation of the GDR, the country found itself amid a severe political and economic crisis. Ever more citizens were trying to emigrate, and the country's civil rights movements was growing by the day. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had undertaken far-reaching reforms in the Soviet Union; Poland and Hungary were gradually growing more liberal. The East German politburo and leader Erich Honecker, however, categorically ruled out reforms in the GDR.

The power of (Western) media

Unsurprisingly, GDR television did not cover Leipzig's anti-regime protests. But word got out anyway, thanks to journalist Siegbert Schefke and another colleague, who snuck up a church bell tower in central Leipzig and secretly filmed the mass protest below. Schefke says that it gave him goosebumps seeing thousands of protesters streaming through the city's streets that day. "Once this footage gets aired in West Germany television it will not only change the GDR and West Germany, but also Europe and the rest of the world," he recalls thinking.  

German journalist Siegbert Schefke
German journalist Siegbert Schefke, seen in 2014 atop the church from where he furtively captured footage of the October 9, 1989 demonstration that was smuggled to the West and seen worldwideImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Woitas

The journalists managed to smuggle the footage to colleagues in West Germany later that night. As many GDR citizens were able to tune into West German television, they soon learned of the mass protest — and that openly opposing their increasingly weak regime was now possible without having to fear for one's life.

West German television coverage, in turn, meant that more and more East Germans dared to publicly express their discontent and join street protests. Dissident rallies in Leipzig and elsewhere became common. Eight days later, GDR leader Erich Honecker was removed from office by the politburo. But it was not enough for the people of East Germany. So on November 4, 1989, half a million GDR citizens gathered on East Berlin's Alexanderplatz, demanding freedom of speech and press freedom. 

Berlin Alexanderplatz demonstration on November 4, 1989
Inspired by the peaceful Monday demonstrations in Leipzig, thousands turned out at East Berlin's Alexanderplatz to peacefully demonstrate on November 4, 1989Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Why everything remained peaceful

Why did East German police officers and soldiers permit thousands of protesters to gather in Leipzig on October 9, 1989, without intervening? Why did they not use violence to suppress the protest movement, as Soviet and East German forces had once done to quell the 1953 uprising? Or as Communist China had done in 1989 on Beijing's Tiananmen Square?   

One explanation might be that East German security forces were overwhelmed by the situation and sheer number of protesters. They had also expected the protest to turn violent — but did not know how to respond to a peaceful rally.

Demonstrators in Leipzig, 1989
As they had done before the Berlin Wall fell, demonstrators continued to peacefully gather and advocate for their future — this father and son in Leipzig hold a lantern reading "No Violence" on November 13, four days after its fallImage: picture-alliance/A. Scheidemann

Historian Sascha Lange, who took part in the rally at age 17, says "here was a consensus among protesters that nobody should use violence against the police because it was clear they were facing a state apparatus armed to its teeth just waiting for protesters to through a stone or attack a police officer." He says their commitment to non-violence left the state powerless because it had no pretext to take action. According to the historian, "the power of the spoken word and the sheer number of people effectively disarmed the GDR leadership and police forces." Recently he and his father, satirist Bernd-Lutz Lange,  jointly published a book in German, "David against Goliath,” on East Germany's peaceful revolution.

Read more: Unification is an 'ongoing process,' says Merkel

Historic spots of the Peaceful Revolution

That the Leipzig mass protest remained nonviolent was also the result of a public appeal by three Leipzig district administrators who were members of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), as well as prominent conductor Kurt Masur, theology lecturer Peter Zimmermann and Bernd-Lutz Lange — collectively known as the "Leipzig Six,” who worked to ensure that nonviolence reigned on October 9. Their letter called on protesters, police officers and soldiers to remain calm and peaceful, and promised to foster open dialogue. It was read out on the radio and heard by the protesters thanks to loudspeakers installed across central Leipzig. The Leipzig district administrators had not, meanwhile, cleared the appeal with their Berlin bosses.

Leipzig protests overshadowed by Berlin

Exactly one month after this fateful protest in Leipzig, the Berlin Wall came down — an event most Germans understand to be of huge significance. But far fewer are aware of Leipzig's mass protests. which helped catalyze the fall of the Wall. Those from the former West and young Germans are especially lacking in awareness about what transpired.

That is something that civil rights activists like Kathrin Mahler Walther finds infuriating. "It is important to realize that East German women and men freed themselves from this dictatorship, that they overcame their fear, that they took to the streets on October 9, as they had long been doing and continued to do." Their courage went down in history, and precipitated Germany's first-ever peaceful revolution.

Leipzig – A City in Transition