We had planned for everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.Horst Sindermann, member of the Central Committee of the GDR
Throughout my time in Leipzig there has been a particular moment that has held me fascinated. It was October 9, 1989, when 70,000 protestors came up against a wall of specially-armed police and riot police of the Stasi (secret police). This was East Germany (GDR), where dissent and protest were unallowable and had in the past (most notably July 17, 1953 but also just days before!) been put down with violence and death. Now this crowd, armed with candles and chanting “Wir sind das Volk!” (We are the people!) washed up against a line of riot shields and… they did not shoot. The police gave way. I’m fascinated by moments that go right, and want to know why — what happened? It should have been a bloodbath. Why was this the moment that changed the world?
The results of this moment echoed throughout East Germany and the world. While limited protests were happening elsewhere, this was the largest and the one covered by the media, including the East German media. This moment inspired and encouraged protestors throughout East Germany, most notably in Berlin. Just a month later the wall fell and we remember those iconic, unimaginable images of people dancing — yes, dancing — on the top of the Wall, that symbol of terror and oppression for so many years. These repercussions, these ripples that circled out from this decisive moment, led a speaker to name Leipzig “The City of Heroes.”
Many of the concerts I attended in Leipzig, and worship my first Sunday there, have been in the Nikolaikirche, what one of my sabbatical advisors says “gets my vote for the most beautiful Lutheran church in the world.” And it is gorgeous. It also might deserve our vote for the most consequential Lutheran church in the world, because those protests grew out of the Church, most notably this church. Back in the 1970’s they began holding “Peace Decades” (10 days of prayer vigils and services) every November out of a growing fear of the arms race. In 1982, they moved these to every week: every Monday, people gathered (under the theme “Swords into Plowshares”, quoting Isaiah). This went on for years.
These gatherings for prayer became one of the few times various opposition and protest groups (environment, denuclearization, emigration, reform, etc.) were able to meet under the same roof, and became a key coordinating point. As can imagine, the varying goals and preferred tactics for these groups, most notably those advocating to for the right to leave East Germany and those advocating to stay and reform the nation, often came into conflict, a tension point the Stasi and GDR deliberately fanned for their own purposes.
Meanwhile, Gorbachev was talking openly of perestroika and glasnost, and there was a feeling that reform might be possible. Groups began holding small-scale marches out of the Peace Services, marches which were quickly shut down. The police started blocking all accesses to the Nikolaikirche, trying to discourage the Peace Prayers. They broke up the marches, sometimes violently. They spread rumors about them — that they were hooligans, violent criminals, they wanted to undermine society. They arrested and detained many. They set dogs on the protestors and beat and hurt many.
But Leipzig was also the host of biannual trade fares, events which brought the GDR much-need “hard” (i.e. western) currency. Coincidentally, these fares also brought in western media, and the GDR was particularly paranoid about their international image; they counted on projecting a strong, united front: of course their people were content, hard-working, fulfilled.
The tensions grew as small-scale marches were attempted out of the Peace Prayers. They escalated drastically on October 2 when the police violently broke it up. On October 9, the next prayer service, noone knew what was going to happen. Those who entered the church didn’t know what would happen when the left the building.
The Stasi sent a number of their stooges to fill the church in advance to make a ruckus and break up the services. Almost 600 of them filled the church before afternoon. By that night the church was filled to overflowing. The preachers that night (yes, plural, there were at least 3 sermons) preached about non-violence, imploring, emphasizing, pleading people to remember that violence only begets violence. The texts were the Beatitudes: Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the meek.
Inside were people wanting to leave the GDR, and people wanting to stay. They expected when they walked out those doors that police with dogs and batons would be waiting for them. But what they didn’t know is that outside, 30,000 people had gathered with candles. They received them into their midst with open arms. They began their march. They came to the police cordon. And the police gave way.
I have a theory — I think it’s because the Stasi stooges heard what the people were actually saying; they heard Jesus preach on the Beatitudes. Because they actually got in conversation with the people who’d been so demonized, about whom such terrible rumors had been spread by their superiors, because they actually went they disovered that what they’d been told, was wrong. They were sent to disrupt, and instead they listened. They discovered these were people just like them.
When I visited the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum (Forum of Contemporary History), when talking about that night in October they had a clip of some western journalists who were covering it. One western reporter said he saw a moment, after the marches. Later a group of protestors met a group of police out on the Ring road and asked them, “Why didn’t you shoot?” The journalist got a lump in his throat as he reported their response: “What should we do? They were our children.”
At the head of this post is a quote that I love-love-love. The police really were prepared for everything — in fact, they had just developed extensive plans for a “pre-emptive strike,” rounding up anyone known to be an agitator (remember the Stasi were spying and keeping files on everybody) or who might be, to whisk them away into concentration camps. They had all the plans in place — and never executed them.
They really did prepare for everything. One of the tensest moments was when the protestors came to the “Runde Ecke,” the Stasi headquarters (and hub of all the state’s eavesdropping and spying on its people). The Stasi stood ready with shields, truncheons, guns, ready for the violent attach they fully expected. The protestors put candles on the steps. The Stasi didn’t know what to do. They weren’t prepared for candles and prayers.
It does make me think — I believe in the power of prayer, and I believe in the power of candles. I’ve seen what they can do. What regular vigil would we start? What might God be calling us to pray to change in our world, our nation, our state, our city, our neighborhood, our homes right now?