Leipzig marchers look back with anger and pride: Life as 'Germans' has been difficult for the citizens of the eastern city that led the march to change, writes Steve Crawshaw

'OF course I remember,' she said with a broad smile. 'Such times, you can never forget.' Until this week, the first and last time that I had spoken with Marret Feilhauer was for less than a minute at around 1.30am on the night of 9 October 1989, while East German secret policemen stood in the hotel foyer waiting to throw me out of the country. My offence: to have been present for a crucial demonstration, where a bloodbath was narrowly averted.

Marret Feilhauer - whose name I only discovered when we met again this week - was, at that time, a receptionist at the Merkur Hotel in Leipzig. She had asked me why I was suddenly checking out in the middle of the night. I explained that the men over there, who had been questioning me for a couple of hours, wanted rid of all foreign reporters in Leipzig. Her response could easily be heard across the hall: 'It's a Schweinerei - a disgrace.'

Those words were, for me, as important as any I heard in Eastern Europe during that extraordinary year, when Communism gave up the ghost. I felt grateful for the unexpected support. More importantly, the receptionist's words told me what she already knew: that East Germany had passed the point of no return. Even a few days earlier it would have been impossible for her to express such defiance within Stasi earshot without inviting retribution. Now the authorities were on the retreat. This was, in the words of a book focusing on the events of 9 October, 'a day which changed Germany and Europe'. The Leipzig victory, four years ago tonight, made everything else inevitable - including the most obviously dramatic event of all, exactly a month later, when the Berlin Wall fell.

The importance of Leipzig was that ordinary, unpolitical people went on to the streets, knowing that they could be killed - many more than a week earlier, when they 'only' risked being beaten up and arrested. This correlation between lethal threats and popular defiance - the more you frighten us, the more angry we become - forced a last-minute loss of nerve by hardliners, with crucial implications for subsequent violent attempts to stop change elsewhere in Eastern Europe and in Moscow.

The Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski has written of the identifiable moment in every revolution when a people loses its fear - after which neither threats nor concessions can stop what he calls the regime's 'zigzag to the precipice'. In East Germany, that moment was just after 6.30pm on 9 October, as 70,000 demonstrators proceeded from in and around the Nikolaikirche, the church that was the centre of the weekly protests. Everybody had seen the trucks full of armed men and knew that the hospitals had been cleared for casualties; the official warnings of violence were explicit; what was described as 'the Chinese solution' was on the cards.

I felt the knotted fear in my stomach as I moved with the crowds from the Nikolaikirche towards the broad ring-road and waited for the shooting to begin. Then, gradually, as we walked round, I realised that there would be no shooting, nor even violence.

Anette Kiessner, a colleague of Marret Feilhauer who still works at what is now the Leipzig Inter-Continental, says she was more frightened, that night, than she has ever been. Her voice cracks, as she describes the realisation that the authorities had backed down, and the nightmare would not become real. 'I felt as if I could fly. It was the most fantastic day that I have ever known. Now, we knew that there was no going back. 3 October (German unity, a year later) was great. But 9 October - that was the really special day.'

Not for everybody, perhaps. Mr K, one of the few other members of staff who has survived the reductions since 1989, seems angry that I am asking questions about the past. The face and voice seem familiar, and I ask him: was he, perhaps, the member of staff who was present for my Stasi questioning, in that little room over there? 'How can I possibly know?' says Mr K. 'There were so many different conversations that one had, at that time. You must excuse me. I am very busy.'

And what about the receptionist, whose defiant words I had written about, but whose name I arrived in Leipzig not knowing, whose appearance I could scarcely remember and who Mr K irritably assured me would be 'completely impossible' to trace or identify? Marret Feilhauer, now 42, works for a west German travel agency at Leipzig-Halle airport, looking after the booming trade in east German tourist groups flying off to the sun.

Ms Feilhauer looks back with nostalgia to the dramatic days of October 1989. 'We knew that we had won. Finally to feel that we'd got so far - it was almost unreal.' Now, the euphoria is long gone. Balance- sheets are difficult to draw up. As Ms Feilhauer says, 'It's not a good year to ask' whether German unity has been positive or negative for her and her family. Her four brothers and sisters are or have until recently been unemployed; her brother is dangerously ill, after taking to drink when he lost his job. Her daughter, Nicole, failed to find a job in Leipzig and suddenly left for Hamburg, where it is unclear what work she is doing; she has left no address and only has an answering machine. Ms Feilhauer says: 'I'm sick with worry.'

After going through the long and painful catalogue, Ms Feilhauer adds, with wistful defiance: 'There are colleagues who'd like to have the Wall back. They think just of their private peace and quiet. But in my family, there's nobody who would want the past back. Things had to change. It just couldn't go on.'

She is not soft on her fellow east Germans, and what she sees as their reluctance to take responsibility for their actions. 'I say to them: 'You're not living with Mr Honecker now. You must learn to read and to think'.' But, like many in the east, she is enormously bitter that west Germans treat the easterners, or Ossis, as a foolish, expensive nuisance. 'My boss in Frankfurt still calls us 'stupid Ossis'. No, it's not meant as a joke. That's how he thinks. He keeps saying: 'Frau Feilhauer, aren't you glad you've got a job?' What can I say?' When Ms Feilhauer goes on training sessions to headquarters in Frankfurt, she and an east German colleague always find themselves isolated. 'I think they're frightened of what we might say.'

Even now, however, Ms Feilhauer retains a cautious optimism. 'The big problem is that everybody has forgotten, in both west and east. The people in the west have forgotten that they really wanted unity. People in the east have forgotten the fear. In some years, though, I think we really will be one nation. It must come, one day.'

(Photograph omitted)