German 'Hero City' Celebrates Fall of Berlin Wall

It wasn't an empty threat. In the summer of 1989, East German politicians praised the Chinese decision to use violence against democracy activists camping in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. In September and early October, East German police had cracked down forcefully on protesters in Dresden, Berlin and Plauen. Protesters marching in Leipzig on Oct. 2 were beaten by police. "People had seen pictures from Beijing," Jens Schoene, a historian and author of "The Peaceful Revolution: Berlin 1989/90 -- The Path to German Unity," says. "It wasn't at all clear it would be peaceful."

On Monday, Oct. 9, Fuehrer, Wonneberger and the others at the Nicolaikirche decided to go ahead with the scheduled protests. All of East Germany, it seemed, was holding its breath. "We were so worried they would come in and shoot everybody," said Dorothee Kern, then a graduate student in the nearby city of Halle. "We had goosebumps the whole day and the day before."

'We Are the People'

Dissidents prepared for the worst. Couples with kids made sure one parent stayed home, in case there was a police crackdown. Rumors flew around the city: Hospitals had been stocked with extra blood and beds; stadiums were readied to hold masses of arrested demonstrators. On his way home from work at the opera house in the middle of town that day, Leipziger Hans Georg Kluge remembers seeing the city filling with soldiers and police. "Everyone had to reckon with the state suppressing any demonstration," he says. "Violently, if necessary."

At 5 p.m., more than 8,000 people crowded into the Nicolaikirche. Four other Leipzig churches opened to accommodate thousands more protesters. After an hour-long service, Fuehrer led worshipers outside. The nearby Augustusplatz was jammed with demonstrators clutching lit candles. Prominent Leipzigers -- including Kurt Masur, the conductor of Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchester -- read an appeal to protesters and police alike, urging them to keep the peace.

Slowly, the crowd began walking around Leipzig's ring road, past the Stasi headquarters and towards the train station. There were so many people on the road traffic and trams were blocked. Drivers left their cars in the middle of the streets and joined the march. Behind the scenes, police and Stasi officials were frantically trying to communicate with higher-ups in Berlin -- to no avail.

As the crowd made its way towards the city's century-old train station -- accompanied by thousands of helmeted riot police -- tension grew. But at the decisive moment, the police stood aside and let the protesters march by. "They didn't attack," Fuehrer says. "They had nothing to attack for." Organizers made sure the crowds gave the police no excuses. They carried nothing but candles and banners reading "We are the people." The Stasi planted plainclothes officers in the crowd to cause trouble, but they were all quickly surrounded and neutralized by protesters chanting "no violence."

The Time for Violence Was Over

Historian Erhard Neubert later called that night East Germany's "October Revolution." At least 70,000 people - perhaps as many as 100,000 -- took to the streets, making Oct. 9, 1989 the largest protest East Germany had ever seen. "People were on the streets and had the courage," Schoene says.

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