Pastors Christian Fuehrer and Christoph Wonneberger had never seen so many people in the Nicolaikirche, an 800-year-old church in downtown Leipzig. It was Oct. 9, 1989, and the two young pastors knew they were on the verge of something huge. "There were 8,000 people inside -- more couldn't fit," Fuehrer said. "When we came out of the church there were so many people expressing themselves and demanding their freedom."
This was no spontaneous flash mob. By the summer of 1989, East German dissidents had been meeting at Leipzig's 800-year-old Nicolaikirche for almost a decade to pray and talk politics. At times there were fewer than a dozen people in the church, but all through the 1980s the meetings happened every Monday without fail. Eventually, they attracted people eager to discuss a wide range of causes, from the environment to the right to travel freely.
By the fall of 1989, the prayer meetings had evolved into a nationwide movement centered in Leipzig. And on Oct. 9, Leipzig hosted the largest protest demonstration in East German history: Between 70,000 and 100,000 peaceful demonstrators braved warnings from the feared Stasi, or secret police, and thousands of armed riot cops to march around the city center. In the end, the police did nothing, setting the stage for a peaceful revolution that swept across East Germany.
On Friday, Leipzig is celebrating its pivotal role in the fall of communism with concerts, exhibitions, light shows and an anniversary march tracing the steps of the Oct. 9 demonstration thatrocked East Germany and helped pave the way for the collapse of the Berlin Wall more than a month later.
The events in Leipzig tend to be overshadowed by the sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall, which was photographed and filmed by hundreds of journalists and broadcast around the world. Leipzig was out of the way. There are just a few grainy tapes of the huge Monday Demonstrations, and outside of Germany they have mostly been forgotten.
But at the time, it helped that Leipzig was out of the spotlight. Although activists in Berlin had better contacts with Western journalists, the capital was under constant scrutiny. "Berlin was the showcase. In Berlin, everyone was minding their Ps and Qs for fear they'd get sent back to Karl Marx Stadt," Peter Claussen, a US diplomat who worked in the American embassy in Berlin in the late 1980s, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "People were more willing to take risks outside of Berlin."
By the late 1980s, fueled in part by East Germans frustrated that they couldn't leave the country, the Monday prayer meetings in Leipzig were attracting hundreds, and then thousands, of people -- the largest regular meetings in Germany. Average citizens began to take notice. So did the Stasi: Dozens were jailed for weeks for their involvement.
Fuehrer and Wonneberger, long the targets of intense secret police surveillance and pressure, were arrested in late September and told to call off the Monday meetings -- or else.