How a Leipzig church led to the fall of the Berlin Wall

Three decades ago this week, demonstrations against the GDR reached fever pitch, signalling the beginning of the end for the East German communist regime - and it all began with meetings held in a Leipzig church.

How a Leipzig church led to the fall of the Berlin Wall
Citizens gather around the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig on Wednesday, 30 years after the Peaceful Revolution started. Photo: DPA

The Nicolaikirche is now a place of pilgrimage for many Germans of a certain age, and for good reason. It is from here that the 'Monday demonstrations' (Montags Demonstrationen) that grew throughout 1989 and 1990 evolved. 

Originally, meetings were held as Friedensgebet (prayers for peace), providing aid and comfort to opponents of the regime away (mostly) from the prying eyes of the Stasi. But the meetings held in the Nicolaikirche developed into a protest network that organized increasingly larger demonstrations, demanding an easing of harsh government restrictions on freedom of movement and the press.

While the first large-scale demonstrations took place towards the end of September, it was the protest that took place on the 9th of October, 1989, that really gave momentum to the 'peaceful revolution' the protesters called for.

Lutheran pastors and protest leaders, Christoph Wonneberger and Christian Führer had already been arrested by the security forces and warned off organizing any more demonstrations by the authorities in the weeks prior to October 9th, but they decided to move ahead with their protest regardless. 


Marches snowballed

That evening just after 6pm, thousands crammed into the Nicolaikirche for a service, then moved out into the streets in a march, vastly growing in numbers as they moved towards the city's main train station. Some estimate that up to 100,000 people were present, waving banners that said 'Wir sind das Volk' ('We are the people' – a slogan taken on by right-wing demonstrators in the present day) amongst other slogans.

Police and other authorities were powerless to react in the face of such a mass of humanity, and news of the Leipzig demonstration soon filtered out to other parts of East Germany, despite the media blackout in place. 

Footage secretly recorded of the protest was smuggled across into West Germany and broadcast by television stations accessible in the East, sparking even more opposition protests to the crumbling regime.

Shortly after the October 9th protest, party leader Erich Honecker was removed from office by the Politburo, and just a few weeks later on November 9th, 1989, border checks along the Berlin wall were abandoned – the Iron Curtain had fallen.

Demonstrators in Leipzig on October 9th, 1989. Photo: DPA

READ ALSO: Five films that shaped the GDR's legacy and what east Germans think of them today

Leipzig has been a centre for both discussion and celebration of the 'Monday Demonstrations' ever since, and events are taking place over the coming weeks and months to commemorate the peaceful revolution that began there.

At a time when protests against authoritarian movements across the world are capturing the public eye, it's important to remember the power of combined voices, coming together and demanding their freedoms – as the 'Monday demonstrations' show, they can spell the end of an autocratic state, in a peaceful manner.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


‘Wall of Shame’: How the Berlin Wall went up 60 years ago

In the early hours of Sunday, August 13th, 1961, communist East Germany's authorities began building the Berlin Wall, cutting the city in two and plugging the last remaining gap in the Iron Curtain.

'Wall of Shame': How the Berlin Wall went up 60 years ago
A cyclist passes the Berlin Wall memorial on Bernauer Straße in Berlin. The wall was erected 60 years ago on August 13th, 1961. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Rumours that the border between East and West Berlin was about to be closed had been swirling for 48 hours.

On Friday, the parliament or People’s Chamber of communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) had given the green light to take any measures necessary to halt the exodus of its population westwards.

READ ALSO: What it was like voting as an American in Germany right before the Berlin Wall fell

Over the preceding 12 years, more than three million citizens had fled the strict regime, opting for the freedom and prosperity offered by West Germany.

News flashes

At 4:01 am on that Sunday, a top-priority AFP flash dated Berlin hit the wire: “The army and Volkspolizei are massing at the edge of the Eastern and Western sectors of Berlin to block passage.”

In a second flash, the story was firmed up. “Berlin’s metropolitan trains have for the past two hours not been going from one sector to the other.”

Then one flash after another fell:
– 4:28 am:  “The GDR’s Council of Ministers has decided to put in place at its borders, even at those with the western sector of Berlin, the checks usual at borders of a sovereign state.”

– 4:36 am: “An order from the East German interior ministry forbids the country’s inhabitants to go to East Berlin if they do not work there.”

– 4:50 am: “Inhabitants of East Berlin are forbidden to work in West Berlin, according to a decision by the East Berlin city authorities.”

Barbed wire and guns

In the very early morning, AFP’s correspondent at the scene described the situation on the ground.

“Barbed wire fences and defensive spikes have been put in place overnight to hermetically seal the border between East Berlin and West Berlin.

READ ALSO: What happened during Germany’s ‘catastrophic winter’ of 78/79?

“The road is practically cut off for refugees.

“Most of the crossing points between the two sides of the city have been cut off since sunrise and are heavily guarded by the police patrolling with machine guns on their shoulders.

“Only 13 border crossings remain open between the two Berlins, controlled by numerous reinforced units of armed police.

A sign on the wall next to Brandenburg Gate reads: “The wall is coming down – not in 30, 50 or 100 years.” This photo was taken a year before the wall fell. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

Dramatic escape

“Germans from East Berlin can no longer go to the West without a special pass, the controls are excessively strict.

“As the net falls over the communist part of the city, a young Berliner from the East manages against all odds to ram with his car the barbed wire separating the two sectors of the city.

“Seeing the young man arriving at high speed in a Volkswagen, the police were too taken off guard to be able to stop the car, which carried the barbed wire placed across the street right to the French sector,” AFP wrote.

‘Death strip”

Little by little, the kilometres of barbed wire will give way to a 43-kilometre-long (27-mile-long) concrete wall cutting the city in two from north to south.

Another outer wall, 112 kilometres (70 miles) long, cuts off the enclave of West Berlin and its two million inhabitants from the GDR.

Constantly upgraded over its 28 years of existence, more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the wall is made up of slabs of reinforced concrete, 3.60 metres (12 feet) high, crowned with a cylinder without a grip making it almost impossible to climb.

The remainder is made of metal wire.

Along the eastern side of what is widely called the “wall of shame” stands a “no man’s land”, 300 metres (990 feet) deep in places.

Border soldiers from the DDR look over the wall in May 28th, 1988. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

At the foot of the wall a “death strip” made up of carefully raked ground to make it possible to spot footprints, is equipped with installations that set off automatic gunfire and mines.

However hermetic this formidable “anti-fascist protection rampart”, as it was officially known, would be, it would not prevent the escape of nearly 5,000 people until it fell on November 9th, 1989. Around 100 fugitives lost their lives trying to cross over.