Chapter Two

Marginal to Massive

THE RULERS IN EAST BERLIN did not realize at first that developments on the border between Austria and Hungary in the spring and summer of 1989 would pose a massive challenge to their own authority. Hungary was a fellow member of the Warsaw Pact, and the SED trusted it enough to allow East Germans to travel there with relatively little paperwork. As a result, large numbers of GDR residents did so, particularly during holiday periods. Of course, there was always a potential risk from the point of view of the Politburo in East Berlin: given that Hungary had a direct border to Austria, residents of the GDR could try to escape while on vacation. To prevent this, the East German ruling regime had signed a treaty with Budapest in 1969, obliging Hungary to stop East Germans from leaving for Austria without permission, should any try to do so. East Berlin could take comfort from the fact that Budapest had fulfilled the treaty’s terms for two decades. Hungarian leaders had not only prevented escapes but also, in many cases, identified the would-be escapees and handed them over to the Stasi, in violation of international norms for the treatment of refugees.1

Cooperation among Soviet bloc members began to break down, however, after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, since the leaders of the various countries disagreed about how to respond to the reforms in Moscow.2 In East Berlin, Erich Honecker personally took a number of steps to show his disapproval of such reforms. On Honecker’s orders, the GDR postal service started forbidding distribution of a German-language Soviet magazine called Sputnik in November 1988. The SED’s top man did not like the tone of the articles appearing in it.3 Honecker also made clear at a party plenary session in December 1988 that there would be no Soviet-style glasnost (openness) or perestroika (restructuring) in East Germany of the kind that Gorbachev had promised to institute in the USSR. Nor was East Berlin’s displeasure limited to public gestures. When a senior KGB officer, Leonid Shebarshin, visited East Berlin in April 1989, he had to endure an uninterrupted hour-long tirade by Erich Mielke. The East German complained about insufficient decisiveness in response to “attacks by the enemy,” by which he apparently meant the party leaders in Hungary and Poland who were showing sympathy with Gorbachev. Mielke also expressed astonishment that criticism of Joseph Stalin based on archival documents had recently appeared. The head of the Stasi demanded to know why such documents, along with the people who knew about them, had not been “liquidated.” When finally allowed to respond, Shebarshin remarked that Mielke was speaking to him as if Shebarshin were “an accused man.”4 Mielke would not be mollified, and his confrontational Cold War mind-set remained firmly in place throughout 1989. This worldview was apparent, for example, in the fact that as late as May 5, 1989, his ministry was still working on a plan under which contingents of the East German People’s Army, with the support of the Stasi, would march into and then occupy West Berlin.5

Mielke’s strategy of holding on to a hard-line approach, thereby following the instructions of his political master, Honecker, was a risky one in the changing climate of the late 1980s. One person who saw the risks of this strategy was Helmut Kohl, who said as much to Gorbachev when the latter visited Bonn in June 1989. During a one-on-one conversation, the West German chancellor complained that, while Honecker might suppress calls for change for a time, in the end his hard-line stance would make matters worse. According to the Russian summary of the conversation, Kohl told Gorbachev that “Honecker is not trying any reforms, and, because of this, he is destabilizing the situation.”6

In contrast to East Berlin’s chilly response, in both Warsaw and Budapest Gorbachev’s actions provoked real change. In Poland, the independent Solidarity labor movement seized upon the new era of openness to convince the Polish ruling party to meet for roundtable talks and to discuss possibilities for gradual democratization.7 The talks began on February 6, 1989, the very same morning that East German border guards carried away the lifeless body of Chris Gueffroy after killing him during his escape attempt the night before. The attitude of the ruling regime in Poland could not have been more different from the brutality of the SED, however: Polish party leaders agreed to hold a semi-free, two-round election in June 1989.8

When the first votes from that election were counted, the magnitude of Solidarity’s victory caught nearly everyone by surprise. Poles had given Solidarity all but one of the seats in the lower house of parliament that it had been allowed to contest, and ninety-two out of a hundred in the upper house. By the end of the second round, Solidarity had won all but one of the upper house seats as well. The victory was so great that observers both in Poland and abroad, most notably in Washington, worried that the humiliation might cause either the Polish or Soviet party leaders to annul the results of the elections, but they did not. Although the Polish party leader, Wojciech Jaruzelski, was able to remain as president after the elections, a Solidarity leader, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, became his prime minister.9

Following the Polish example, Hungarian roundtable sessions between the ruling party and members of the opposition began in June 1989.10 Budapest and Moscow also began working out a plan for Soviet occupation troops to leave Hungary.11 A ceremonial reburial of Imre Nagy, leader of the Hungarian uprising of 1956 that had, like the East German revolt of 1953, been put down by Soviet forces, took place on June 16 as well. An activist group called the Committee for Historical Justice had organized this dramatic event, but Hungarian party leaders tolerated it, and some even took part personally. The ceremony drew an estimated two hundred thousand people and represented a major snub to the Soviet Union.12

The Hungarian prime minister, Miklós Németh, who was also a party leader, told Gorbachev that he hoped to see a real multiparty system develop. Németh also explained to Gorbachev that he and his colleagues had decided “to remove completely the electronic and technological protection from the western and southern borders of Hungary.” Hungarian enforcement of restrictions on crossing the border—at least as applied to Hungarians—had long been erratic, and now Németh was making clear to Gorbachev that he and his colleagues had decided their country had “outlived the need for” such border fortifications. The armed border, as he put it, “now serves only for catching citizens of Romania and the GDR who try to escape illegally to the West through Hungary”—in other words, the citizens of the countries that took the hardest line about restricting unapproved emigration. Németh promised Gorbachev that, of course, he would “talk to the comrades from the GDR” about this step, and had Hungarian Interior Ministry officials advise the Stasi of what was going on. These officials reassured the secret police in East Berlin that, despite the upcoming changes, Hungarian security forces would still ensure that East Germans would not get out. They would intensify policing to compensate for the dismantling of the barriers at the border. The Stasi, taking these promises at face value, seems to have let its guard down and did not take any dramatic action to intervene or to prevent this breach in the border of the Soviet bloc from arising.13

Initial demolition of Hungarian fortifications on the border to Austria began in the spring with relatively little fanfare, but gained increasing public attention after a symbolic event on June 27 at which both the Hungarian and Austrian foreign ministers, Gyula Horn and Alois Mock, wielded wire cutters for reporters’ cameras. As promised, Budapest continued to prevent East Germans from leaving despite the demolition. A worrisome development from the viewpoint of East Berlin, however, was new Hungarian interest in fulfilling the terms of the UN Convention on Refugees. If fully implemented, this development could mean that Hungary would no longer force individuals classified as refugees back to their country of origin. The open question was whether Budapest would start classifying East Germans as refugees and cease returning them.14

Hoping that the days of being stopped by Hungarian border guards were over, large numbers of East Germans took advantage of their ability to travel to Hungary in the summer of 1989 to head for the Austro-Hungarian border. The Stasi prepared a surprisingly honest internal summary of the reasons behind what soon became a mass exodus to Hungary. The East German Ministry for State Security concluded that the main motivations were a lack of consumer goods and services in the GDR, the poor state of medical care, the limited possibilities for travel, the sorry workplace conditions, the bureaucratic attitude of the state, and the lack of a free media.15

From their partners in Hungary, Stasi officials urgently sought clarification of what Budapest’s new interest in UN commitments meant for the citizens of the GDR. They soon got their answer. By July, Budapest began diverging more and more from its long-standing practice. Hungarian border officials were still hindering escape attempts by East Germans—including with firearms, as happened in August 1989—but, as the Stasi noted, the number of such people returned to the East German security forces, or even simply identified by name to East Berlin as having made an escape attempt, was dwindling.16 The decreasing cooperation between the Stasi and the Hungarian security forces paralleled a decrease in cooperation between the Stasi and its Polish equivalent.17

Would-be escapees to the West became increasingly caught in limbo. Unable to cross into Austria, but not forcibly turned over to East German security forces as in previous years and unwilling to go home, they were stuck in Hungary. Many ended up seeking asylum on the grounds of the West German embassy in Budapest. Some would-be refugees even decided to abandon the escape attempt across the border altogether and simply headed directly for that embassy—and, increasingly, for the embassies in Prague and Warsaw as well.18

The West German Foreign Ministry in Bonn had to scramble to provide for such people. Normally it was the chancellery, under Kohl, that took the lead on questions of relations between the two Germanys. Since the would-be escapees were not only in third countries but also on embassy grounds, however, the Foreign Ministry had to be involved. Heading the Foreign Ministry was Hans-Dietrich Genscher of the Liberal Party, or FDP. It was only due to a coalition with this party that Kohl—the leader of the Christian Democratic Union, or CDU—could serve as chancellor, so Kohl had to tolerate a certain amount of independence on the part of his “kingmaker,” Genscher.19 In contrast to Kohl, a Catholic who had been born in 1930 in the western town of Ludwigshafen, Genscher had been born in 1927 in a town that became part of East Germany and so had a personal interest in the GDR above and beyond his official duties.

Kohl and Genscher carried out a two-track response to the refugee crisis in the summer and fall of 1989. The chancellery handled East Berlin, and Kohl wrote to Honecker to ask for his assistance.20 The Foreign Ministry handled Budapest, and Genscher reached out to the Hungarian foreign minister, Horn.21 Meanwhile, Bonn’s pseudo-embassy in East Berlin, the “permanent representation,” closed, partly due to overcrowding by more would-be escapees within its walls and partly to forestall a rift over the fate of those escapees while the leaders of West Germany sought to find a solution with Honecker.22

Honecker’s ability to respond to these events in the summer of 1989 became limited, however, because he began feeling seriously unwell. Learning of his infirmity, Gorbachev and his chief foreign policy advisor, Anatoly Chernyaev, expressed hope that the seventy-seven-year-old Honecker—whom Gorbachev reportedly called an “asshole” in private—would use his illness as a reason to step down.23 Honecker had no such intent. Instead, he underwent an aggressive series of tests, treatments, and surgery in an effort to get back to work as soon as possible. Such was Honecker’s desire to resume control that when his physicians discovered that he had cancer, they decided not to inform him of the real cause of his pain, fearing his anger.24

Honecker was thus sidelined in summer 1989. Since ultimately he had to decide on all matters of consequence, without him the Politburo was frozen with indecision in the face of the mounting refugee crisis in Hungary. Honecker even made matters worse through his own insecurity, effectively rendering the Politburo lame during his unexpected three-month absence by appointing the lethargic sixty-two-year-old Günter Mittag as his temporary replacement. Usually in Honecker’s absence that job went to Honecker’s “crown prince,” the ambitious fifty-two-year-old Egon Krenz, but Honecker did not want Krenz taking advantage of the sick leave, and so sent him on an involuntary “vacation.”25 Krenz, who could only seethe as the Politburo failed to take decisive action in response to the developing crisis in Hungary in summer 1989, began plotting to oust Honecker.

By August 14, the Hungarian foreign minister estimated the number of East Germans at large in Hungary to be over two hundred thousand.26 Despite this daunting figure, Hungary still hesitated to break its treaty obligations to East Germany entirely. Foreign Minister Horn kept resisting pressure by the West Germans to recognize the East Germans as refugees and to call in either the UN High Commission on Refugees or the International Red Cross to deal with them. Facing a litany of requests from a subordinate of Genscher’s along these lines, Horn threw up his hands. “Hungary is in a precarious situation,” he admitted, and “relations with the GDR are bad.” But turning the matter over to the Red Cross or UN was still too dramatic a step for Horn at that point.27

It would take the personal intervention of Kohl to convince the Hungarian prime minister, Németh, to break with the East German ruling regime altogether. Joining forces, Kohl and Genscher invited Németh and Horn to visit the FRG. The West Germans organized a secret meeting at lovely Gymnich Palace, a restored castle near Bonn used as a guesthouse by the FRG’s government. In a two-and-a-half-hour meeting followed by a luncheon on August 25, Kohl and Genscher convinced their Hungarian counterparts that the most sensible way forward was cooperation with the West on the issue of East German refugees. Németh’s main concern was not to endanger “the success of Gorbachev’s policies.” But Hungary was facing a severe economic crisis, and Németh agreed that he would need the help of the West to master it. Doing as Bonn wanted with regard to the East Germans would, Németh seems to have hoped, encourage not only Bonn but also Washington to offer financial support and to develop fuller trade relations with Hungary.28 For his part, Kohl said he would speak to West German bankers who could provide assistance to Budapest. By the end of the visit, Németh had made a decision: Hungary would fully open its borders to the West for the citizens of East Germany.29

Budapest informed Moscow of its decision. Horn also told Oskar Fischer, the East German foreign minister, of the plan on August 31, 1989, explaining that Budapest had decided to open its borders fully on September 11.30 The choice of this date was partly to give East Berlin advance notice and partly to have the dramatic opening happen during a convention of the West German CDU, Kohl’s party. Kohl apparently wanted to use the sensation to fend off a possible leadership challenge that was likely to emerge at that convention.31 The gambit would work for Kohl, but members of the East German Politburo, still essentially leaderless, were flabbergasted and unsure how to respond. Panicky SED appeals to Moscow to put pressure on Budapest proved unavailing.32 As the clock ran out, East German party leaders could do little other than express their outrage.

Just after midnight on September 11, the Hungarian borders opened for East Germans as promised. Scenes of massive hordes crossing into Austria appeared on television screens worldwide. Kohl sent Németh a telegram the next day, thanking him for “this generous act of humanity.”33According to a Hungarian estimate, after September 11 a total of six hundred thousand East Germans used Hungary’s borders to head west in the autumn of 1989.34 Back in the GDR, it seemed as if everyone knew someone who had headed to the West from Hungary.35 Privately, the Hungarian ambassador to West Germany, István Horváth, communicated to the chancellery in Bonn that Budapest was shocked by the sheer size of the wave of East Germans flowing across its borders. Hungarian leaders were also amazed by the extent of global media interest in the event.36

THE REFUGEE CRISIS was not over, however. On September 18, a week after the Hungarian border opening, Western journalists reported that GDR security forces had started physically preventing East Germans from crossing into Hungary in the first place.37 The SED regime would soon end travel to Hungary altogether. Since it was still possible to exit the GDR for Czechoslovakia, however—the ruling regime in Prague disapproved of Gorbachev as well, so East Berlin still felt that it could trust its Czech comrades—would-be refugees now concentrated on the West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw instead of the Austro-Hungarian border.

At the end of September 1989, there were thousands of East Germans living in miserable conditions on the grounds of the FRG embassy in Prague in particular—and those numbers kept rising. Genscher, in New York City to attend the UN General Assembly, took advantage of the presence of multiple other foreign ministers to have conversations not only with his East German opposite number, Fischer, but also with his Soviet counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze. Genscher’s description of the plight of East German children stuck living outdoors appears to have struck a chord with Shevardnadze. As a result of Genscher’s pleas, the Soviet foreign minister urged East Berlin to “do something.”38

By that point, Honecker had recovered enough to return from his extended sick leave. Back on the job in late September, he offered Bonn a one-off deal, presumably under Soviet pressure: he would “expel” the embassy-squatters from East Germany. In other words, it would be Honecker who would decide that their leaving the GDR was a necessity. The embassy-squatters had already left, of course, but not on Honecker’s terms. Such was Honecker’s mania for control that he would have sealed trains—a mode of transport with tragic historical significance, given their previous use to transport the targets of Nazi persecution to internment and death—bring the embassy-squatters back through the GDR. Once the squatters’ identities were recorded, thereby enabling the GDR to confiscate their property, the individuals were then to be “expelled” directly to West Germany, still on the same trains. Honecker had the Politburo approve a resolution to this effect on September 29, and Bonn agreed to it.39

Genscher departed from New York in order to manage implementation of this plan, but not without first sending Shevardnadze a note thanking him.40 After a stop in Bonn, Genscher, together with Rudolf Seiters of the chancellery and a number of his and Seiters’s aides, headed for Prague. Other diplomats departed on a similar mission for the FRG’s Warsaw embassy.41 They had all initially received East Berlin’s permission to ride on the sealed trains along with the refugees, but Honecker had second thoughts about the wisdom of letting senior West German officials appear to lead East Germans out of their dire situation. By the time Genscher and Seiters landed in Prague, the terms of the deal had changed. Their less-famous aides could ride on the trains, but the two prominent politicians would not.42

This late change did not stop the overall plan from taking effect, however. On the evening of September 30, Genscher, with Seiters at his side, dramatically announced the deal from a balcony of the Prague embassy to the well over four thousand East Germans there. After tense delays, lower-level West German officials rode with the squatters on six trains out of Prague on the night of September 30–October 1. There were similar arrangements in Warsaw as well, where about eight hundred people had taken refuge in the FRG’s embassy.43 The West Germans on board the trains worked to prevent any unfortunate incidents during the unnerving journey back through the GDR. Particularly frightening moments ensued when the trains stopped in East Germany and security officials boarded to record the identities of those leaving, but these moments passed without confrontations and the trains were allowed to roll onward.44 Seiters later estimated that about fifty-five hundred East Germans made it to West Germany by this means.45

Instead of ending the crisis, however, matters went from bad to worse when Honecker made another fateful decision on October 3. Effective that day, he sealed East Germany entirely—and even before the public announcement of the sealing, GDR security officials on the Czech border turned back fourteen hundred would-be travelers.46 Honecker’s unprecedented act had far-reaching consequences. For the first time, crossing any border at all required both a passport, which only a minority of residents of the GDR had, and specific approval for each trip—even for a visit to another Warsaw Pact state. In the tense days of October 1989, such approvals seemed unlikely.47

To make matters even worse, a fall holiday period had just started, and thousands of people had already booked trips either to or through Czechoslovakia. Angry East Germans, many of them now stuck at the GDR-Czech border in the southeastern region of divided Germany historically known as Saxony, made their rage about their cancelled trips known.48 In the wake of the border sealing, the number of demonstrations in Saxony would become the largest of any region of the GDR.49 The growing Saxon crisis was a sign of a dangerous development: by closing all escape vents, Honecker had increased the pressure inside the GDR to dangerous levels. According to one analysis of dictatorships, people living under dictators have essentially three choices: to remain loyal, to find some means of exit, or to voice their discontent.50 Denied the possibility of exiting the GDR, the citizens of East Germany found their choices limited to expressing loyalty or voicing discontent, and an increasing number chose the latter in October 1989.

Honecker faced another problem as well. In the brief interval between when the first set of trains full of embassy-squatters from Prague left on October 1 and the closing of the border on October 3, more East Germans had managed to get into the Prague embassy. Another set of sealed trains out of Czechoslovakia and through East Germany was organized as a result.51 This time, however, the Prague trains would cross through the GDR after it had ceased allowing any other possibilities for exit. As a result, not only those stuck in Saxony but thousands of other East Germans as well rushed to train tracks and stations when what became known as “the last trains to freedom” approached.

Chaotic and violent scenes occurred in various locations in Saxony, particularly in the city of Dresden, where the trains were scheduled to pass through the GDR en route to the West.52 The East German secret police estimated that, by the evening of October 4, as a second set of eight trains departed Prague, more than twenty-five hundred people were blocking Dresden’s main train station itself and another twenty thousand people were mobbing the streets outside the station. The KGB outpost in Dresden presumably observed developments closely as well, and given that Vladimir Putin was on the staff of that outpost at the time, he may have witnessed the chaos with his own eyes. The blockage forced the trains from Prague to sit for hours on the tracks south of Dresden. Panicked, the GDR leaders contacted their Czech comrades to see if they would take the trains back, but the Czechs refused, so East German security forces fought to clear the Dresden train station. It took until the early morning hours of October 5 to get at least three of the trains through. The rest were rerouted through other cities.53

According to an internal report, forty-five policemen were injured in the course of that evening (the number of injuries among protestors was not noted) and at least one police car was turned over and set on fire. There was widespread destruction of the main train station building both inside and out.54 Western journalists managed to report on some of the turmoil; Gorbachev’s advisor, Chernyaev, noted in his diary that there were “terrible scenes” broadcasting everywhere.55

Stasi photo of cars abandoned by their owners in Czechoslovakia, October 1989. East German refugees left behind their vehicles (which they had often waited years to purchase) in large numbers during the mass exodus to the West in autumn 1989. The Stasi collected them at sites such as this one before bringing them back to East Germany. (MfS, from collection of RHG, Fo HAB 24051)

Upheaval in Saxony continued even after the last “trains to freedom” passed. On October 5, more than four hundred People’s Army soldiers, armed with machine guns, were sent to Dresden to stand in reserve under the leadership of the People’s Police.56Protestors would later recount multiple incidents of police abusing protestors and detainees throughout the first week of October, both on the streets and at hastily organized detention centers.57 What Karin Gueffroy had called the brutal quarter was clearly giving vent to its worst instincts in Saxony. East Germany, the state on the front line of the Cold War division of Europe, seemed to be on the verge of a descent into violent chaos.

THE VIOLENCE IN Saxony and the massive and chaotic wave of emigration out of East Germany that had preceded it were traumatic events for the residents of the GDR remaining behind. Acres of abandoned autos belonging to émigrés stood in rows after having been towed away to depots. Sales of furniture from abandoned apartments started taking place. Televised Western images of the emotional scenes of thousands upon thousands of East Germans who had left everything behind to get to the West made those still in the GDR reconsider the costs of remaining in their own country. Nearly everyone knew a colleague, a neighbor, or even a child who had departed, or who had tried to flee. The exodus was impossible to ignore, and so demanded reactions from the many millions left behind.58

Expressing discontent about the running of the GDR was one obvious way to react. The question was whether that expression of discontent would continue to take the violent form that it had assumed in Dresden. In an effort to prevent that from happening, a group of twenty protestors convinced Dresden party and state authorities to begin a dialogue with them on October 8, after days of chaotic street scenes, but the threat of mass violence remained.

It was in the neighboring Saxon city of Leipzig, however, that the threat of violence would become most dangerous. The people who would ultimately face this threat and take on the ruling regime in Leipzig were, at first, a marginal crowd. They were an embattled set of dissidents, mainly active within that city’s centrally located Nikolai Church, particularly at the Nikolai peace prayers held every Monday at 5:00 p.m.

Activist groups used this regular prayer service as a chance to gather at the Nikolai’s central location, but they faced an uneven response from church leaders. Some Leipzig church elders supported their use of the prayer session, while others were hostile. The activists also faced external pressures in the form of constant Stasi surveillance and infiltration by undercover agents. At times the Stasi considered driving the group members out of the Nikolai Church altogether, thus denying them their only reliable gathering point other than their own apartments. The secret police refrained from doing so, however, reportedly on the advice of Matthias Berger, a Protestant minister in Leipzig who was also an undercover Stasi operative. Berger argued convincingly that it made surveillance easier if all of the activists were mostly gathered in one location. The Stasi continued to tolerate the dissidents’ activities at the Nikolai.59

Foreign observers did not think, before the autumn of 1989, that such activist groups posed much of a threat to the regime in any event. The West German equivalent of an ambassador to East Germany, Franz Bertele—called the “permanent representative,” to emphasize Bonn’s view that East Germany was not a foreign country and therefore did not need an ambassador—explicitly bet on the Stasi. In a report to his superiors in Bonn, Bertele announced in September 1989 that the “state security service will continue to ensure that the atmosphere of upheaval does not develop into actual upheaval.”60 In his view, “the regime is threatened neither by the criticism of the church nor by that of the opposition groups” because the church “does not understand its role as being primarily a political one.” Instead, the church saw its role as being merely “pastoral, that is, helping people who are unable to come to terms with the condition of the state and society.”61 At times, it seemed as if Bertele might be right. The activists affiliated with the Nikolai Church struggled to survive.62

Despite the odds against them, these church activists transformed themselves in the late 1980s from a marginal movement into a massive one. To understand how they succeeded, it is essential to understand their distinctive context: the Saxon city of Leipzig. Saxony as a whole had a storied religious history, since it had been the home of Martin Luther and at the forefront of the Protestant Reformation. Within Saxony, Leipzig had long been an important center of learning. By 1989, the theology department of the University of Leipzig had been in existence for six centuries.63 In the war-torn twentieth century, however, Leipzig’s tracts of once-handsome buildings had suffered both damage and extended neglect. Nearby chemical and industrial plants spewed toxic waste into the region’s air and water, blackening not only the buildings but also the skin and lungs of area residents. The village of Mölbis, on the southern outskirts of Leipzig, was by some accounts the dirtiest city in Europe. Visibility could be so miserable that residents had trouble seeing their own hands at times.64 Leipzigers complained that their problems were routinely forgotten and ignored by the party leaders in East Berlin.65

Yet Leipzigers found ways to rise above the grime. When the ruling regime inflicted more architectural damage on the already wounded city by tearing down its historic University Church in 1968, there were protests rather than silent acquiescence.66 Leipzigers also took pride in their impressive musical heritage. Their city was both the former home of Johann Sebastian Bach and the current home of the internationally acclaimed conductor Kurt Masur, who had presided over the city’s renowned Gewandhaus Orchestra since 1970.67 The Nikolai activists drew on this musical heritage in their efforts, organizing an unapproved street music festival in the summer of 1989. Although it was broken up by security forces, the would-be festival generated a great deal of public sympathy for the activists involved.68

Leipzig was also a provincial city unusually familiar to foreigners because it had long held major trade fairs every spring and fall. They continued into the 1980s, and the media attention that they generated would come to play a significant role in the peaceful revolution of 1989. The fairs brought visiting business figures, journalists, and politicians not only to the city but also into the homes of Leipzigers on a regular and predictable basis, since Leipzig residents were given permission to rent out rooms to them. These brief visits by foreigners opened up direct connections between Leipzigers’ living rooms and the wider world.69 In short, Leipzig was an unusual city, at once provincial and cosmopolitan—and remote enough from the power center in Berlin for its residents to run a few risks.

A small group of dedicated activists had been running those risks for years, using the peace prayers as their base. The use of a church was not unusual; a Stasi overview of opposition activity countrywide in May 1989 concluded that protestors were “almost exclusively active in the structures of the Protestant churches of the GDR.”70 But the Nikolai peace prayers were unusual in that they had a particularly long history, having taken place regularly since 1982 and irregularly even before that.71 One of their early sources of momentum was opposition to the so-called dual-track decision of 1979, the key result of which was the modernization of NATO’s nuclear missiles in the West in the early 1980s.72 Since the East German regime approved of criticism of NATO, it initially tolerated these prayers—only to regret it later when participants also criticized Soviet missile emplacements as well. It was acceptable to oppose the enemy’s missiles, but not the ones inside East Germany.

There was no hiding the fact, however, that residents on both sides of the Iron Curtain worried that the two superpowers would fight in Europe, rather than for Europe—meaning that Europeans would be the ones to suffer the consequences of any conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.73 On one day in October 1983 alone, disarmament rallies in various West German cities had attracted a total of a million protestors. That same year, the issue had also helped the Green Party to win seats in the parliament in Bonn for the first time.74 East Germans, in contrast, lacking free elections, instead used the shelter of the church to raise their voices on this issue, and the Nikolai peace prayers became the most important venue in the GDR for doing so. Before long, critics of more than just NATO began attending and using this venue to air various grievances. Politics gradually came to edge out prayers altogether, leading to a conflict between those Nikolai Church staff anxious about preserving the measure of apolitical autonomy that their church enjoyed in the face of state pressure and those who wanted to encourage political protest by all means.75

One religious leader comfortable with the politicization of the prayers was the Reverend Christoph Wonneberger, who had moved to Leipzig in 1985 to work in a run-down church on the eastern side of the city. A native Saxon, born in 1944, he had been in the West when the Wall went up but had chosen to return to East Germany, and had even worked briefly for the Stasi in the late 1960s. He had soon transformed himself into one of the Stasi’s biggest enemies, however. Over the course of the 1970s, he had become an outspoken critic of not only the East German government but also other Warsaw Pact regimes, taking part in protests in Prague and making contacts in the Polish opposition movement as well. At home in the GDR, he had called for the creation of real alternatives to mandatory military service for East Germans who wanted to be conscientious objectors. By 1989, the Stasi considered Wonneberger to have developed into one of the country’s most dangerous dissidents.76

In Leipzig, the senior administrator responsible for the Nikolai Church, Superintendent Friedrich Magirius, invited Wonneberger to coordinate the Nikolai’s peace prayers, even though Wonneberger worked at another church and not the Nikolai. Wonneberger had experience in organizing similar events, however, so Magirius thought that his help might be useful.77 Once the outsider began organizing the peace prayers, Nikolai activists such as Katrin Hattenhauer and Uwe Schwabe quickly saw that they had gained a crucial new ally in their fight against the state.78

Hattenhauer, nineteen years old in 1989, had come to the attention of the Stasi at a young age due to her habit “of asking provocative questions.”79 Denied the opportunity to go to a university, she had started studying at the theological seminary in Leipzig, one of the few educational opportunities open to those who had fallen out of favor. She found herself drawn into the protest movement and persecuted even more by the Stasi. Under pressure from the state, she was forced in 1989 to leave her seminary program, and so she threw herself into oppositional activities.80

She worked closely with Schwabe, a twenty-seven-year-old former soldier who had become a dissident after his application to join the merchant marine had been denied. The relevant office had informed Schwabe that he was politically unreliable and therefore “not suitable for border-crossing traffic.” Instead, he was given various kinds of work, including as a caregiver in a nursing home. Thanks to a like-minded friend from his time in the military, he gradually became involved with the Nikolai community. Even though he himself was not religious, it meant a great deal to Schwabe to discover a place in the GDR where people seemed to say what they actually thought. He became an outspoken leader of the Nikolai-based opposition movement, focusing on civil rights and environmental issues.81 When the Stasi produced a ranked list of the most dangerous dissidents in Leipzig in 1989 as part of a plan for a wave of arrests, Schwabe topped that list as the number-one enemy of the state.82

Luckily for Schwabe, he was also recognized in more positive ways beyond his state’s borders. When he was detained in January 1989, friends and supporters in the Solidarity movement got word to the office of the US secretary of state, George Shultz, who was then involved in the final days of CSCE negotiations in Vienna. After ten days in detention, Schwabe was suddenly set free. He later heard that Shultz had pressured the ever status-conscious East German leaders at the Vienna talks into releasing him.83

Though Hattenhauer and Schwabe had admirers and powerful friends abroad, the overall size of their movement at home was tiny. The Stasi estimated that there were, at most, only a few hundred opposition activists in all of Leipzig before the autumn of 1989.84Wonneberger, together with a fellow minister, Michael Turek, decided to help this small circle of activists by all means, whether by letting them use the Nikolai peace prayers to plan protests or by providing space and supplies for underground publications. Hattenhauer, Schwabe, and their friends began to organize events such as the illicit street music festival, even though Stasi agents kept close tabs on them and regularly detained and interrogated them. Undeterred, Wonneberger would take part openly in such events, at times as the only minister involved.85 He became, as a result of his cooperation with Hattenhauer, Schwabe, and others, an even higher priority for the Stasi. As a senior Stasi officer in Department XX, the counterterrorism unit, tersely summarized the anti-Wonneberger mission in March 1989: “Wonneberger: discredit him, grind him down, instruct church to discipline him. Goal: away from Leipzig.”86

One of Wonneberger’s “crimes” in the eyes of the Stasi was his display of sympathy for East Germans who wanted to flee to the West, a burning issue in 1989.87 Even among dissidents and those who sympathized with them, emigration inspired mixed feelings. Some understood the desire, but others condemned those who sought to emigrate, arguing that they should stay and work to improve the GDR instead.88 The senior minister of the Nikolai Church and sometime opponent of Wonneberger, Christian Führer, would say that the thought of émigrés was painful to him and that he admired instead the people who decided, “We are not going to leave our land in the lurch.”89

Führer’s attitude toward those not sufficiently loyal to their country (in his view) reflected a larger conflict between church leaders and activists. Popular sayings from the late 1980s captured this tension. Later, after the peace prayers had given rise to a massive movement, the most famous sayings would become “We are the people” and “We are one people,” the latter a call for the rapid reunification of Germany.90 But there was also a saying that is less remembered. Outside of the Nikolai Church stood—and still stands—a sign reading “Open to all.” As late as the beginning of 1989, activists would complain that there was an unwritten second half to that saying: But not open to everything. In other words, the church was open to people like Wonneberger, but not open to all that he wanted to do, such as helping émigrés.91

For their part, the leaders of the Nikolai Church worried that a crackdown could ensue if Wonneberger allowed the activists to go too far. The cautious Führer wanted the peace prayers to contain more religion and less politics, in part because of his own personal religious fervor and in part to preclude attacks by the state. Führer also dismissively assumed that, in the unlikely event of the Stasi withdrawing all of the agents that it had infiltrated into the ranks of the activist groups, those groups would no longer be able to function, since their membership would practically vanish.92 But Führer’s overall attitude was ambivalent, and he did not take steps to end the peace prayers even when it would not have been difficult for him to do so. At one peace prayer session in which he personally took part, a woman asked Führer whether he was going to let the prayers die out, since there were only six people attending. Führer, initially uncertain how to respond, did what any minister would be expected to do in such a situation: he turned to the Bible for guidance. He responded to the woman by explaining that wherever two or three people were gathered in Jesus’s name, Jesus was present; since they were twice as many, they should clearly go on.93

TO UNDERSTAND THE tensions between the activists and the church leadership over the politicization of the peace prayers, it is necessary to go back a year, to 1988, when matters came to a head at a prayer session in June. The immediate cause was a wish expressed by the activists to make a gesture of support for a young man who had spray-painted quotations from Gorbachev on a Leipzig wall. The young man was being punished, and the activists took up a collection to help pay the fines being imposed on him by the ruling regime. This was the tipping point for Führer, who saw the collection as too direct an attack on the state.94 He sent Wonneberger a letter saying that in light of the “numerous expressions of dissatisfaction that we have received”—without mentioning from whom they had been received—church leaders wanted to reassess the conduct of the peace prayers when they resumed in late August 1988 after their traditional summer break.95 On August 25, however, Führer saw himself unexpectedly upstaged by Superintendent Magirius, who had come to regret asking Wonneberger to coordinate the peace prayers in the first place. The superintendent felt that “the church is not an underground organization, not even a helper of such organizations,” and so should not be condoning the activists’ plans. Magirius believed that the position of the church in the GDR was too precarious to run the kind of risks in which Wonneberger was indulging, and so he removed Wonneberger from the job of coordinating the peace prayers altogether, giving him written notice that “you have been relieved of your duty.”96

This sequence of events produced a fiasco at the first prayer session of the fall. Unwisely, Magirius decided to make himself one of the speakers. He used his time in front of the microphone to criticize the would-be émigrés who saw the church as the one place they could turn for support. Since those who wanted to emigrate “had taken their leave, whether internally or physically, from their part in our living together,” they had, in Magirius’s opinion, little claim to any kind of aid from the church. He declared that the church would not make special efforts to accommodate them. While they would not be locked out of the building, which would remain open to all, the church would give them only limited leeway in the future—it would not be open to everything.97

Magirius’s criticism did not go down well. Moreover, the activists present thought that they had received a promise from Magirius to make public at the prayers some of the paperwork associated with the “firing” of Wonneberger. When Magirius failed to do so, a dissident with a resounding voice, Jochen Lässig, seized the microphone and started reading some of these papers, which presumably had been given to him by Wonneberger. Magirius signaled that the microphone should be turned off. It was, but Lässig’s strong voice still carried. Undeterred, Magirius had the organist start playing. The organist did, but someone suddenly turned off the organ’s motor, silencing it and allowing Lässig to be heard clearly once again.98

At this point, Führer could bear no more. He was ostensibly the senior religious figure in the Nikolai Church, yet Magirius had removed Wonneberger without his knowledge; Führer had heard about it as a fait accompli. A Stasi agent attending that day noted in his report that there was obviously some kind of power struggle unfolding between Führer and Magirius.99 Führer climbed up on a pew and issued something between a command and a plea: “Dear listeners, if you stay, it will mean that the peace prayer will not go forward. . . . If you stay here, we will just be playing into the hands of the state. . . . If you do not leave the church now, there will assuredly be consequences.”100 He indicated that the activists should leave the church.

The prayer session thus came to an abrupt end. Activists exited into the courtyard in front of the Nikolai. They were both livid and afraid. They were being driven out of their safe haven and had no idea what future awaited them outside. Two hundred activists signed a letter of protest immediately afterward.101 Many appeared at the next peace prayer anyway, but with their mouths symbolically bound shut.102 A dissident organization in East Berlin that circulated an intermittent, semi-tolerated newsletter ran an article entitled “Leipzig Peace Prayers Choked Off.”103 Activists complained that the Nikolai Church’s leaders, who enjoyed a certain amount of de facto immunity from state persecution, should be willing to shelter those more marginalized, instead of driving them out.104

It was hard to see much of a future for the Nikolai activists after this miserable event in the autumn of 1988. Yet their expulsion from the church gradually revealed itself as a blessing in disguise. As Schwabe later remarked: “It was the best thing that could have happened to us. Today I am grateful to the church for it.”105 Because Führer told the activists to take their anger outside, they did just that. Denied the space inside, they decided to continue congregating on the space outside for a regular forum on Monday evenings, despite the presence of secret police and the lack of church shelter. “We were forced to break out,” Schwabe recalled. The result of their move outside, Schwabe came to realize, was a new “symbiosis between the critical people from inside the church and the critical people outside of the church.” Over the course of late 1988 and 1989, “it turned out to be a wonderful thing: people were interested!”106 Partly, he came to realize, this was because of the examples set by Gorbachev and Solidarity abroad. Then the emigration crisis of 1989 swelled their ranks even more. Schwabe concluded that the “most important reason” he and his friends had come to enjoy massive support by the autumn of 1989 was “the mass emigration and the trains from the embassies, where thousands of people tried to jump on,” and the violence in nearby Dresden. These events had been so traumatic that they drove many people in the GDR to political engagement, often for the first time.107 The activists, by having the courage to stage events outside of the Nikolai in late 1988 and early 1989 after their expulsion rather than simply giving in to fear of the Stasi and giving up, started offering a venue for civil engagement at just the right time in a society critically short of such opportunities.108

Truncated prayer sessions continued inside the church every Monday, but the main event had moved outside. Members of the public who were too timid to enter the Nikolai, since religious activity was frowned on in the GDR, could stay safely outside but still hear what was going on. Hattenhauer and her friend Gesine Oltmanns would, for example, stand on a pile of construction materials outside the Nikolai Church and use it as a stage to address the crowds with radical calls for change.109 It was only a matter of time before the outdoor events became mobile as well and began including short protest marches by small groups into the side streets surrounding the church.110

Attendance grew from week to week. The predictability of the event combined with the new outdoor venue meant that interested parties could turn up at the right time and place, but also pretend to be innocent passersby, heading for the nearby shops of the city’s center. As Pastor Turek explained to Mike Leary, an American journalist visiting Leipzig at the time, “The regular rhythm of these services, the fact that you could come every Monday at 5:00 p.m. and find people who shared your concerns and gather strength from them,” helped to ensure that large numbers participated in the new outdoor forum.111 The ruling regime understood this dynamic too, and pressured church administrators to change the time and location of the event, but the administrators would not.112

The blessing in disguise of the expulsion had yet another benefit: it brought Führer more firmly over to the activists’ side. He worked to forge a compromise whereby the dissidents could come back into the church if they wished. Part of the reason that Führer had felt uncomfortable with the activists was that they attracted media coverage, which, he had long worried, could have unfortunate consequences. As he put it, “How long would Honecker listen to such coverage before he has tanks plow into our church?”113 So Führer had long been opposed to letting Western journalists, both German and foreign, cover events inside the Nikolai itself. But now that the activists were outside of the church, he had little control over the coverage of their actions. Führer was also deeply unhappy at the ongoing conflict within the church community to which he had devoted his life.114 With the help of a Catholic priest acting as a moderator, Führer and dissident leaders agreed that the activists could resume their participation in the peace prayers inside the church again under new guidelines ensuring a certain religious component to the proceedings.115

The ruling regime did not, of course, ignore these dramatic developments inside and outside the Nikolai. Senior city officials, who were also senior party leaders, pressured Johannes Hempel, the bishop of the Evangelical and Lutheran Churches of Saxony, to rein in the activists and to block them from resuming leadership of the peace prayers. Hempel had mixed feelings but resisted the interference.116 A showdown gradually became more likely, because if the party and state could not shut down the Nikolai protests with words, it would have to find some other way to do so.

By the late spring of 1989, the Nikolai dissidents were once again organizing the peace prayers inside the church while still coordinating events outside. That year, the May 1 holiday—Labor Day in much of the world and a particularly important holiday in Communist countries—fell on a Monday. After the peace prayers on May 1, about a hundred people subsequently held a small, unofficial May Day march as well. A West German television station was able to broadcast images of it.117

Incensed by the dissidents’ usurpation of a prominent holiday, East German officials continued to pressure church authorities to stop them. Efforts by the Leipzig city mayor to halt the prayers altogether were unsuccessful, though party leaders did achieve one change.118 They insisted that the name “peace prayers” was an insult. Given that the GDR defined itself as the peaceful half of Germany—in contrast to the past fascism of the Nazis and the present fascism of the West Germans—the name was unacceptable. Why should residents of a peaceful state have to pray for peace? The church gave in on this minor point and switched the name to “Monday prayers.”119 But church leaders also, unusually, issued a protest of their own. Bishop Hempel wrote to the city authorities on May 31 to complain about the massive police presence that had grown up around the Nikolai Church on a more or less permanent basis after the unexpected May Day march.120 The activists were winning over not only the public but also church officials.

BY THE AUTUMN of 1989, the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig had become a serious worry for Mielke, the Stasi minister in East Berlin. He asked his subordinates if “another June 17 is going to break out,” by which he was referring to the dramatic events of 1953 when Soviet tanks had put down an uprising. In response, his subordinates reassured him that “it will not happen, that is what we are here for.”121 The head of the Stasi district in Leipzig, Manfred Hummitzsch, was not as optimistic as the group around Mielke in Berlin, however. At the beginning of September, Hummitzsch told his men at a briefing that “the situation has hardened and will not change.” Even worse, “every condition for further provocations is in place.” He concluded that events “cannot be allowed to get out of our control.”122

The consequences for activists such as Hattenhauer were grim. For the Monday night event on September 4, 1989—the Monday of the fall trade fair, when large numbers of foreign journalists were in the city—Hattenhauer and her friend Oltmanns displayed a large banner reading “For an open country with free people.”123 Security forces tore the banner out of their hands immediately but did not arrest Hattenhauer or Oltmanns right away because of the presence of the foreign journalists. After the end of the fair, however, they came for Hattenhauer and a large number of other activists. She was pulled down suddenly by her long hair from behind so hard that she passed out, and she awoke to find herself in the hands of the Stasi. It was the start of a month of imprisonment, most of which she would spend in a cell alone. She was subjected to repeated interrogations and threats that she would be shot. She even had to endure a simulated execution: the teenager was forced to stand facing a wall with her hands raised, awaiting shots that never came.124

Despite all of this, Stasi protocols of her interrogations show that she refused to be rattled and even criticized her interrogators. Her self-confidence arose in part from the fact that by the fall of 1989 she already had extensive experience with such interrogations. Surviving Stasi records show that she resisted efforts to force her to betray her friends. “Who else took part?” interrogators demanded to know about one event she had planned. “Ask your colleagues about that,” Hattenhauer responded. Then they asked how she had gotten to the site of the event. Wasn’t finding out how she’d gotten there, Hattenhauer replied, “your job and not mine?”125

Hattenhauer and many of her fellow dissidents had been arrested, but the number of people attending both the Monday prayers themselves and the protests outdoors kept rising. By September 18 it was in the thousands. Heavy-handed police responses again caused Führer to complain to the city authorities.126 One September prayer session even included suggestions from activists to the assembled on how to behave in case of arrest. Protestors who were grabbed should “shout your own name loudly” as they were being taken away so that bystanders could note it and get word to the protestors’ next of kin, since the names of those detained were not always known or released to family. If forced into a vehicle, demonstrators should “shout the number of other people in the truck with you” so passersby could also note how many other people were being taken away. If they were interrogated, they should provide only their name and address and not sign anything. These suggestions were transcribed, presumably by a Stasi agent in attendance, and sent to Honecker personally.127

Still the attendance at the Monday demonstrations grew. Führer began reaching out to other churches in Leipzig to see if they would hold Monday prayer sessions as well, since the Nikolai Church was becoming overwhelmed. Some of his colleagues, such as Hans-Jürgen Sievers of the Reformed Church, agreed to hold prayers at the same time as the ones at the Nikolai. But Hans-Wilhelm Ebeling, a minister at the Thomas Church, where Bach had worked centuries earlier, was unwilling to provoke the state, and so he demurred. Members of the Thomas Church’s congregation would later bitterly recall that as people were being beaten in the streets in autumn 1989, the doors of the Thomas Church stayed locked to prevent protestors from fleeing inside.128

As Leipzig simmered with tension, the GDR state media ensured that the entire country knew that Krenz was spending the end of September and beginning of October in Beijing. The Chinese regime’s deployment of the People’s Liberation Army against unarmed students and other protestors in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, had appalled nearly all foreign observers—except the East German Politburo. East Berlin had earned the gratitude of Beijing by praising the Chinese for their decisive action. The Politburo had also instructed the East German parliament, the Volkskammer, to issue a resolution in support of the Chinese Communist Party’s actions.129 This “approval” from the legislature stood in stark contrast to the reaction of average East Germans, however, many of whom sent letters to their leaders expressing horror at the regime’s support for such violence. Some people even protested in front of the Chinese embassy in East Berlin. The Stasi kept detailed records on all of them.130 Undeterred, in September 1989 Honecker sent Krenz to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the PRC and to meet with the Chinese leaders responsible for the massacre. The extensive coverage of Krenz’s visit and continuing praise for the Beijing leaders in the media of the GDR were clearly meant to send a message for domestic consumption.131

Building on the Chinese example, Honecker wrote on September 22 to all of his party’s first secretaries, the leaders of the party’s local organizations throughout the GDR. He informed the secretaries that the time had come to “choke off” the “hostile actions” taking place in the GDR.132This decisive attitude was put to the test in Leipzig on Monday, September 25. On that day, protestors began for the first time to march on the modern, multilane ring road circling the old medieval core of Leipzig; the busy ring became the march route by default, after police had blocked earlier attempts to protest in the side streets around the Nikolai.133

The use of Leipzig’s ring road represented a fateful development. A contest emerged in which the marchers would seek to get farther and farther around the circular route and the security forces would seek to block them. The loyalist in charge of the regime’s side in the developing fight for the ring was Helmut Hackenberg, a sixty-three-year-old second secretary in the Leipzig party organization. Known as a hard-liner, he had fought in the Second World War and spent time as a Soviet prisoner of war. He was standing in for his boss, the first secretary of the district, sixty-five-year-old Horst Schumann. Schumann was ailing, had repeatedly taken extended sick leave, and had even asked to be relieved of his duties entirely, but the seventy-seven-year-old Honecker would hear nothing of it. Thinking of himself, Honecker did not want to set any kind of precedent whereby a party leader could be dismissed because he was elderly and sick.134 Schumann stayed in office as a result, but with frequent absences at a critical time, absences that contributed to the inability of the local party leaders to quash the Nikolai protests effectively.135

Schumann’s illness was not the only hindrance that Hackenberg and other Leipzig loyalists faced. On October 7, 1989, the GDR would celebrate the fortieth anniversary of its own founding. Ever eager to seize an opportunity to trumpet the GDR on the world stage, Honecker had invited many foreign dignitaries and journalists to East Germany to attend a series of parades, meals, and speeches. The upcoming anniversary placed security forces around the country in a tricky position, however. On the one hand, East Berlin pressured Hackenberg to keep a lid on the protests before the anniversary on October 7. On the other hand, too large a crackdown might cause invited dignitaries to cancel their trips and visiting journalists to report on the violence instead of the anniversary. As one member of the Politburo later explained, “We hesitated to take any steps, because we didn’t want any clashes on the fortieth anniversary, which wouldn’t have been a very good thing internationally.”136

Security deployment in East Berlin on the evening of October 7, 1989, the fortieth anniversary of the founding of East Germany. Political leaders were attending anniversary celebrations inside the large building at the left. Later that night, security forces and demonstrators clashed violently not only in East Berlin but also in numerous other locations around the country. (RHG Fo Ni Be 009 15; photo by Nikolaus Becker)

On Monday, October 2, roughly ten thousand marchers set out to claim the ring, and Hackenberg had to figure out a way to disperse them without endangering the anniversary celebrations scheduled for five days later. He deployed the security forces under his command, equipping them with clubs, dogs, helmets, and shields, but did not use more drastic measures. The Politburo later received word that this level of intimidation had worked; Hackenberg had halted the progress of the October 2 march around the ring.137His limited escalation still had a cost, however. Members of a party paramilitary unit who had been called up for this effort on October 2 refused to appear for duty.138

To motivate the men and to intimidate the protestors in the future, on October 6 the party had the local paper, the Leipziger Volkszeitung, print a “letter to the editor,” ostensibly from a commander of one of the party’s paramilitary organizations. This letter, bearing the headline “No More Tolerance for Hostility Toward the State,” announced that security forces were ready to defend socialism in the GDR “with weapons in our hands.”139 For the October 7 anniversary itself, Honecker ordered an “exactingly organized and coordinated cooperation as well as a reliably functioning provision of information between the protective and security organs with their other partners.”140 These instructions translated into violence in multiple cities across not only Saxony but also all of the GDR, resulting in many severely injured protestors; in one case in East Berlin, an activist nearly died.141

In Leipzig itself, security measures were in place well before the anniversary and included both the detention of dissidents and prevention of travel to the city by suspect nonresidents.142 Surrounding districts received instructions not to allow their own troublemakers to leave for Leipzig.143 Such events did not receive media coverage in the GDR, since there was no form of free press. Rather, newspapers carried congratulatory coverage of the GDR’s scripted fortieth-anniversary celebrations. State-controlled media also printed even more praise for the decisive Chinese actions in Tiananmen Square and noted that Chinese leader Yao Yilin had honored the GDR by attending the October 7 anniversary in person.144

ALL MATTERS WOULD come to a head on October 9, the first Monday after the anniversary. Contrary to Honecker’s expectations, the regime’s escalation of the use of violence in September and early October had actually created an increased desire on the part of Leipzigers to claim the ring once and for all on that night. One Leipzig housewife later explained why she decided to join the October 9 march: “Every Monday was worse than the one before. There was more and more violence on the part of the state. The security forces got more and more brutal. It was clear that it was coming to a tipping point.”145 She felt that the time had come for her to get involved. Another woman decided to go to the October 9 march precisely because the October 7 anniversary violence had been so awful: “I was horrified, because I would never have thought that the ‘Workers’ and Farmers’ State’ would beat up workers like it did on October 7 and 8. It made me furious.”146 This rising anger was even apparent to outside observers. Diplomats from the United States, reporting on events to Washington not only from the embassy in East Berlin but also from Leipzig itself, concluded that there would be an enormous crowd on October 9 after the use of force on the anniversary two days earlier.147

Leipzigers’ long-term frustrations over the decay of their city and the pollution of their immediate environment had combined with their shock at the massive emigration crisis and at the violence in Saxony’s streets. The protest movement in Leipzig had gone from marginal to massive. The small group of activists, by involuntarily but then bravely taking their protest outside the Nikolai Church, had created a public venue for grievance at their open-air Monday night events, and these in turn had given rise to the massive Monday marches. The ruling regime, by responding with violence and fulsomely praising the Tiananmen Square crackdown at every opportunity, had not only failed to suppress the growing movement but also created new converts to it. The question now was what the regime would do during what would clearly be the definitive fight for the ring on October 9.

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