Where the wall began to fall

Financial Times

23 November 2007         

On the evening of Monday October 9 1989 more than 70,000 people in Leipzig took to the streets to protest against communist East Germany’s dictatorial regime. The mood among the demonstrators was tense. The pro-democracy protest was the largest of its kind for decades in East Germany and no one knew if the police would use force to break it up.

The police, unsure what to do against thousands of candle-bearing marchers, did not intervene. The rest, including the fall of the Berlin Wall a month later, is history. Indeed, many experts see the date as a turning point on the path to German reunification.

Leipzig became known as the “city of the peaceful revolution”. Now, 18 years on, it still has much to offer – a rich history as a trading centre dating from medieval times, stunning architecture, a thriving exhibition centre and much else. It also presents itself as a “city of music”, emphasising its links to Wagner and Bach. But it is Leipzig’s role in the “Wende” (the “turn”, as Germans call reunification), that draws me to the city.

The obvious place to start is the Protestant St Nicolas church in the old town, which was founded in the 12th century and came to symbolise the people’s peaceful resistance to the dying years of the East German regime. It was here that people gathered on that October night, to hold vigils against the violent regime.

Today it remains an impressive place of worship, with an eye-catching 18th-century interior with white pillars and pews, and a double balcony around the body of the church. And it is also still politically active under its priest, Christian Führer, who played an important role in 1989 uprising.

“The peaceful revolution was also astonishing for us,” he says as we meet in his apartment overlooking the church, “and it inspired many people around the world, who make visits every year”.

Führer, who prefers jeans and a casual shirt to more traditional clerical garb, says the church is now focused on “today’s problems”, such as the city’s high level of unemployment, and in the building itself there are few reminders of the dramatic events on 1989.

There is, in the square outside, a statue in the form of one of the church’s majestic pillars, where most of the protesters gathered. However, the church is the meeting point for a volunteer-run weekly walking tour – the only one of its kind I could find in Leipzig – that aims to “trace the footsteps of the peaceful revolution”.

The day I joined, a group of young American students was being shown around, following the path that marchers took in 1989, through the main squares and along the ring road encircling the town centre. Ninety minutes later, the tour ended at the Museum of the Runde Ecke, the former Leipzig headquarters of the Stasi secret police.

It was from this early 20th-century building with an elegant curved front (hence its name, which means ”rounded corner”) that the Stasi organised spying missions, eavesdropping and intimidation. Yet it was also here that on December 4 1989, citizens ejected the hated spies and claimed the Runde Ecke as their own. Much of the building is largely as it was when the protesters entered. Anyone who has seen this year’s Oscar-winning movie The Lives of Others, about the Stasi, will appreciate the Runde Ecke, with its rooms full of surveillance devices, equipment for disguises and the like, and showing the seemingly amateurish but nevertheless sinister habits of the Stasi. An English guide helps tackle the German-heavy displays.

Before visiting Leipzig’s other important reunification offering – the Leipzig Forum of Contemporary History – I popped into Leipzig’s Art Exhibition Hall, a gallery showing local artists, with many works from the pre-1989 period. The space hosts temporary exhibitions, many of them giving useful entry points to appreciating the famous Leipzig school of modern art.

The Leipzig Forum is a publicly funded museum that reminds Germans and visitors of the significance of Germany’s division and reunification. The modern multimedia museum covers life in East Germany, the building of the Berlin Wall, east-west relations and reunification. I found the section on political resistance to the communist regime most interesting.

The forums director Rainer Eckert said the museum had just received a facelift ahead of October 2009, the 20th anniversary of the Leipzig protests.“All of Germany, not just the east, should see the significance of this date,” he says.

For some, it seems, Leipzig remains the city of peaceful revolution.

Hugh Williamson is an FT correspondent in Berlin

Lively LeipzigSt Nicolas Church, Nikolaikirchhof Nikolaikirchhof 3, tel: +49 (0)341960 5270; www.nikolaikircheleipzig.de

Walking tour of the peaceful revolution, tel: +49 (0)341961 2443

Museum of the Runde Ecke, Dittrichring 24, tel: +49 (0)341961 2443; www.rundeeckeleipzig.de

Art Exhibition Hall (Kunsthalle der Sparkasse Leipzig), OttoSchillstr 4a, tel: +49 (0)341986 9898; www.kunsthallesparkasse.de

Leipzig Forum of Contemporary History, Grimmaischestr 6, tel: +49 (0)34122 200; www.hdg.de