Europe's Revolution: The pastor who brought down the Berlin Wall

As Leipzig froze in fear at Communist threats to crush the 1989 revolution, one man gave his compatriots the courage to fight on

Tony Paterson
Friday 09 October 2009 00:00 BST

It is said that the key to the door in the Iron Curtain was cut in Leipzig. It was to become the key that opened Berlin's infamous Wall and ultimately brought about its collapse, not to mention that of the Soviet empire. But 20 years ago to the day, in the second city of what was communist East Germany, no one had any notion of what was to come. Instead, the shabby, heavily polluted town of nearly half a million people was gripped by an all-pervasive fear.

Newspapers controlled by the Communist Party had done their best to whip up panic, full of dire warnings about the state's readiness to crush "the counter revolution" by force. The order had been given by none other than Erich Mielke, the regime's despised and feared Stasi chief. There were rumours about hundreds of Kalashnikov rifles and machine guns being broken out of store rooms at secret police headquarters in preparation for a bloody showdown with the growing numbers of demonstrators who were taking to Leipzig's streets to protest against the Communist regime.

"We were terrified that the state would enforce a Chinese solution," recalled Christian Führer, a pastor who was one of the demonstration leaders. "You have to remember that our protests against the regime were happening only weeks after the massacre at Tiananmen Square."

Führer is one of the big heroes of East Germany's peaceful revolution. He looks more like a lorry driver than a pastor and is rarely seen without his sleveless jean jacket. At age 66, he could easily be mistaken for someone 10 years younger. In 1989, the East German regime were using 28 Stasi officers to watch him night and day; his spiky grey hair earned him the secret police codename "hedgehog".

Führer was born into a family used to opposing dictatorial regimes – his father was a Protestant pastor during the Nazi years. The son started opposing East Germany's regime well before October 1989 and has only recently retired from full-time pastor work. He has spent the two decades since Germany's reunification organising church-backed demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq, neo-Nazis and campaigning for better benefits for the poor. "The revolution must go on," he says.

But his fame derives from what he did 20 years ago. In the summer of 1989, more than 30,000 East Germans had managed to flee the country when Hungary temporarily opened its borders with the West. Several thousand more had sought refuge in West German embassies in other Warsaw pact countries.

But in East Germany itself, the country's hardline regime showed no sign of wavering. Erich Honecker, the ageing leader of the "First Worker and Peasant State on German soil" had insisted that the Berlin Wall would remain up for another 100 years and the country's heavily fortified borders remained manned by an army of guards with orders to shoot would-be escapees on sight. In Leipzig, people's fears were compounded by news that hospitals had been put on alert, and supplied with extra blood and plasma. Surgeons and staff had been told they could expect to treat patients with gunshot wounds. But instead of the anticipated bloodbath that night of 9 October, 1989, came what Führer calls a "miracle of biblical proportions".

The events that unfolded on the city's streets effectively brought the East German regime to its knees, without a drop of blood being shed, earning Leipzig the accolade "Heroes' City".

Walking through the streets of 21st century Leipzig, it is impossible to imagine what it was like in the 1980s. The city's wealth of medieval and late 19th century buildings have been painstakingly restored and street upon street of 100-year-old facades gleam in subtle shades of freshly painted cream and yellow.

But in the Leipzig of 1989, it seemed as if the Second World War had only just ended. The entire inner city was a mass of crumbling buildings still pockmarked with bullet holes from when the town was first liberated by US troops in 1945, only to be handed to the Russians a few weeks later. The air stank of burning lignite, the soft brown coal used to heat the city's homes, and the pungent whiff of two-stroke Trabant car exhaust fumes.

Leipzig also felt like a pressure cooker on full heat with the steam vents clamped shut. Western journalists were allowed in to report on the city's annual trade fair, so I visited, lodging in one of those decaying apartment blocks. It was full of distraught families sitting with their belongings already packed. They had all been waiting for months to be granted permission by the authorities to emigrate to the West. All of them saw the reforms that were happening in the Soviet Union and could not understand why nothing similar was happening in East Germany. The woman who gave me a bed and breakfast could scarcely contain her loathing for the regime.

It was these "psychologically destroyed" people, as Pastor Führer now describes them, who started coming to the Nikolai church every Monday for the "prayers for peace" meetings. While West Germany's massive peace movement had made headlines with their vigorous and vocal opposition to America's stationing of cruise missiles in their country, the tiny and heavily suppressed peace movement in the Communist East had gone virtually unnoticed.

"At first I thought I should not do anything for people because I thought we should be trying to stay and reform the country from within," Pastor Führer explained. "The last thing I wanted was for people to not leave. But in the end I felt I had to offer them help – they were at their wits' end."

The Monday meetings just kept growing and growing: from about 600 in late 1988 to 4,000 in September 1989. By this time, they had become a serious threat to the regime. On Monday, 4 September, members of the congregation unfolded a banner outside the church, demanding "An open country and free people." The event was filmed by a crew from West German television and seen by millions of Germans in East and West that evening.

The regime responded with violence. "There were these terrible beatings," recalled Führer. Truncheon-wielding police moved in and members of the congregation were savagely beaten. "Then they started rounding people up and locking them in makeshift prison camps." But the protesters refused to back down and by Monday, 9 October, the stage seemed set for a ghastly and violent confrontation with East Germany's forces of law and order.

On a visit to China, East Germany's deputy leader, Egon Krenz, had voiced approval for Beijing's bloody military crackdown on Tiananmen Square. At the beginning of that October, police had broken up popular protests in the East German city of Dresden with baton charges and mass arrests. And only two days before, Gorbachev had attended celebrations in East Berlin marking the 40th anniversary of the founding of East Germany which had ended in more anti-government demonstrations and mass arrests. That Monday began ominously. "I entered the Nikolai church and found it had been occupied by more than 600 Communist officials," Führer recalled. "They were all sitting there with their thermos flasks and reading the Communist Party newspapers".

Humour, which Führer describes as "Christian belief's wonderful brother", rescued him.

"I said I was surprised to see them because the working proletariat usually turned up at four. I asked them whether they would mind if a few Christians and workers joined them, and they actually smiled. They stayed for the sermon and seemed utterly shocked. They had expected stone-throwing counter-revolutionaries and found people praying and singing hymns. Two of them even thanked me afterwards."

Despite police attempts to block the approach roads, the crowds descended on Leipzig throughout the day in numbers never seen before. There were 6,000 people in and around the Nikolai church; on the streets beyond were a further 65,000. It was the biggest anti-Communist demonstration the country had ever witnessed. When the sermon ended, the vast crowd started to move off along the neon-lit, six-lane ring-road. Führer and the other protest leaders had expected armed police to have opened fire by the time the head of the massive procession had reached the railway station. Those in the crowd linked arms, held a sea of candles aloft and even the odd banner demanding freedom. Führer and his friends held their breath inside the church.

"There was an awful silence and we just waited for the sound of shots," he recalled. "But after about 45 minutes, we realised that a miracle must have happened."

Not a shot was fired and the crowd of 70,000 had been allowed to march round the city's perimeter unhindered, chanting the popular anti-regime slogan "We are the people".

It later transpired that an anxious Leipzig police chief had called East Berlin that night and asked whether he should enforce the order to crush the protest with force. Egon Krenz, who was then in charge of security, simply didn't return the call.

"There were two feelings," Führer said, "One was tremendous relief that there was no Chinese solution. The other was that if 70,000 could go their own way and achieve what they wanted, then East Germany was no longer the same country it had been that morning.

"The regime had been expecting everything. The only thing they weren't prepared for was candles and prayers. What is more, we got reunification and all the demands for a free press, freedom of travel and a free society have since been fulfilled."

Fifteen days after that tense October morning, more than 300,000 East Germans turned out on the streets of Leipzig. The city's protests had become the focus of all opposition to the Soviet satellite and soon would inspire a nation. Another 11 days passed, and then a million people turned out on the streets of East Berlin. Five days after that came the scenes of Berliners swinging hammers at the concrete that had kept them hemmed in for so long.

It is not without reason that Führer insists that the anniversary of Germany's peaceful revolution should be 9 October, and not 9 November, the date that the Wall actually fell.

Three months that changed the world

9 Oct More than 70,000 East Germans march through Leipzig in the country's biggest anti-Communist demonstration. The regime threatens a military crackdown but backs down when faced with the large number of protesters. By month-end, 300,000 people are calling for an end to the regime.

9 Nov The Berlin Wall falls. East Berliners flood through to West Berlin after a senior communist official says on television that the regime plans to allow free travel to the West and mistakenly says that it is effective immediately. Reunification comes 11 months later.

10 Nov Bulgaria's Communist leader Todor Zhivkov is ousted by his own politburo in a bloodless coup approved by Moscow. This came after mounting opposition to the regime and demands from the streets for political reforms.

17 Nov Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution" begins after riot police suppress a peaceful student demonstration in Prague. Three days later, the number of peaceful protesters assembled in the city's streets swells to 500,000.

27 Nov Millions of Czechs stage a two-hour general strike as the Communist regime teeters on the brink.

16 Dec Serious rioting breaks out in the Romanian city of Timisoara in protest against the arrest of a religious minister accused of delivering sermons that are critical of dictator Nicolai Ceausescu's hardline communist government. Riots last five days. Anti-Ceausescu demonstrations spread throughout the country and police and army obey orders to shoot protesters.

22 Dec The Romanian military changes sides. Army tanks and crowds storm Communist Party headquarters in Bucharest in an attempt to detain Ceausescu and his wife. They escape via a helicopter waiting for them on the roof of the building.

25 Dec The army arrests Ceausescu and his wife. On Christmas Day, television shows the couple facing a hasty trial before being taken out of the court into a yard where they are shot dead in a summary execution. An interim national salvation council assumes power. Romania's first free elections are scheduled for the following May.

29 Dec Vaclav Havel, the dissident Czech playwright who is acclaimed in the West but held under house arrest by the former communist regime is made Czechoslavkia's first post-communist President.

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