Leipzig Aglow with the Annual Festival of Lights

Photo by Richard Varr

The 1989 Peaceful Revolution celebrated every October 9th

By Richard Varr

They knew freedom would come one day – all they had to do was stand up for it. And on October 9, 1989, they did – defiantly, peacefully. But it was the sheer numbers of protesters that would determine their destiny as they would soon see Communist rule crumble into the history books.

Crowds in Augustusplatz gather for the Festival of Lights, Oct. 9, 2018. Photo by Richard Varr

Every October 9th, on the anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution, Leipzig citizens celebrate how prayers and a yearning to be free brought out a surging crowd – virtually overnight – of more than 70,000 who demanded democracy. Back then, they stood with candles in hand, not knowing whether police would fire upon them. They chanted over and over again, “We are the people” and “No violence” as they marched around Leipzig’s inner-city ring road. And the march remained peaceful because holding candles prevented protesters from throwing stones.

Thousands of candles illuminate the Festival of Lights. Photo by Richard Varr

They demonstrated against East Germany’s oppressive GDR government, the feared Stasi (Secret Police) and Communist rule. Despite threats of police gunfire to quash the rebellion, the overwhelming crowds made it impossible for police to imprison the tens-of-thousands. The Berlin Wall tumbled a month later.

Augustusplatz, October 9, 2018. Photo by Richard Varr

During my visit to Leipzig earlier this month, I took part in the so-called Festival of Lights, held every October 9th, commemorating the Peaceful Revolution. Citizens come together at nightfall, again cradling candles where it all took place – in central Augustusplatz, and earlier in the imposing Romanesque and Gothic St. Nicholas Church, where Monday prayer meetings beginning in 1982 would spawn a revolution seven years later.

An all women orchestra performs in this year’s Festival of Lights. Photo by Richard Varr

This year’s anniversary paid tribute to women for their role during the rebellion. An all-women orchestra performed amidst the chanting of five actresses recalling the hardships they suffered. “Of course we were intimidated,” the actresses shouted as the music reached a crescendo, looking out upon the candlelit panorama beneath illuminated City Tower windows synchronized to display “89.” “We knew of people suddenly disappearing, of children who had to be adopted because their parents were under arrest.”

Five actresses on stage alongside the orchestra. Photo by Richard Varr

“Sometimes, I had downright nightmares about the Stasi attacking our home at night and taking me with them, just as it happened to my father at his workplace in 1952,” one chanted.

St. Nicholas Church.

Key to each anniversary is the Speech on Democracy at St. Nicholas Church. This year’s speaker – in keeping with the tribute to women theme – was former Federal Minister of Justice Herta Däubler-Gmelin, the first woman to give the speech. “Today is a day of remembrance, with our thoughts looking forward. I am thankful to be a part of it,” she said within the packed church. “I think we should state clearly and with more self-confidence what we expect from politics and politicians, and then add what we citizens ourselves could and must do – more and better.”

Single column outside St. Nicholas Church. Photo by Richard Varr

St. Nicholas is one of the sights of the Peaceful Revolution, where Monday prayer meetings swelled in the fall of 1989 as calls to end Communism echoed throughout Eastern Europe, culminating in Leipzig with the October 9th demonstration. In the adjacent courtyard stands a single column –a replica of the church’s inside columns with their sprouting palm fronds design. The outside pillar and a bronze plaque with footprints below symbolize the thousands of people who couldn’t get into the church and who marched during the Peaceful Revolution.

Inside beautiful St. Nicholas Church. Photo by Richard Varr

Another important sight is the former Stasi headquarters building, now a museum, at the so-called Round Corner. “The situation was really dangerous,” local historian and tour guide Theresa Hertrich told me during a tour. “Would the Stasi in the headquarters shoot the people as they walked by? So the people put candles on the stairs so they could show they were peaceful.”

Bugging/recording devices inside the Stasi Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

The museum showcases the Staci’s oppressive methods and spying tactics. One exhibit reveals the Secret Police had about 2,400 employees and 10,000 “unofficial” employees who spied on fellow citizens. “Many worked every day in factories with colleagues and reported any anti-government talk. That’s how the Stasi collected information on citizens,” explains Hertrich.

“People had to have two faces – a private face, and one official face if you talked to people you didn’t know. Because it was really dangerous to say out loud what you were thinking.” Other museum exhibits include bugging devices, a recreated detention cell and a steam-driven machine used to open envelopes of private letters. Yet another sensational exhibit revealed how the police would question suspected citizens for hours in hot interrogation rooms, and then collect their scents from perspiration on a cloth they sat on, so specially trained dogs could later track them down.

Madler Passage. Photo by Richard Varr

Under the GDR, buildings decayed and the environment suffered. “In the 70s, you could still see the charm of Leipzig, but at the end of the 80s there was nothing anymore. Nothing was renovated,” said tour guide Birgit Scheffel while we sipped coffee within Leipzig’s famous Madler Passage, one of the city’s many passageways lined with retail shops cutting through city blocks. Scheffel explained that after German East-West reunification, shops, malls and department stores sprung up where there was once rubble and empty space.

Augustusplatz, October 9, 2018. Photo by Richard Varr

“In my family, we did not starve. We had basic food,” she said when describing day to day life during GDR rule. “But if you wanted something special like oranges and bananas, we could only get those once a year.”

“We had to wait 15-18 years for a car,” she added. “We had to wait for a normal telephone up to 20 years.”

Recreated living area inside the N’Ostalgie Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Leipzig’s N’Ostalgie Museum adds yet another dimension of daily life under Communist rule. On display are old scooters, kitchen utensils, toys, old film cameras, bicycles and even a Trabi car, to name just a few of the everyday items mostly made in East Germany. Yet there are no signs or explanations of these items in the museum because those who lived during that era know what they are.

Trabi car inside the N’Ostalgie Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

“Most GDR museums are about the Stasi or the Wall,” noted museum owner Nancy Hager. “It’s very interesting for German people, both West and East, to have a place that’s neutral and not political. Many people that lived then had their own personal memories that were not political.”

Market Square. Photo by Richard Varr

“Sure, there were many citizens who didn’t care – absorbed by their daily life,” said Gisela Kallenbach, a former Leipzig City Council woman and former member of both the Saxony State Parliament and European Parliament. “Many were resigned to the fact they couldn’t change anything because we had the wall – like an open prison in the GDR. For myself, I’m convinced that if you suffer, you have to make changes.”

Augustusplatz, October 9, 2018. Photo by Richard Varr

I’m hoping I can make it back to Leipzig for next year’s 30th anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution – an event that, just like the 25th anniversary in 2014, will draw even larger crowds and a march along the inner-city ring road.

“We started to become braver citizens back then,” recalls Kallenbach. “It’s still as if it happened yesterday.”

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