Leipzig 10/9/89: The Day Prayers and Candles Ended an Occupation

By James M. WallNikolaikirche cropped

Twenty years ago, October 9, 1989, East German citizens marched to a prayer service at Leipzig’s St. Nicholas (Lutheran) Church. In a ritual they had repeated many nights before, they marched  to the church holding lighted candles.

There were 70,000 marchers in the streets of Leipzig that night. Communist East German officials waited for the signal from Berlin and Moscow to disperse the crowd by force. The signal never came.  Two weeks later, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union began its total collapse.

The Leipzig Communist security chief wanted very much to subdue the rebellion.  His police force was well armed. Soldiers with machine guns stood on top of nearby buildings.

In a final scene from the East German movie, Nikolaikirche, the security chief stares out at the crowd, his defiance now gone, and says, “”We planned everything. We were prepared for everything, except for candles and prayers.”

I attended the premier showing of Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church) at the 1996 Berlin International Film Festival. Thirteen years later, Nikolaikirche remains for me one of strongest cinematic demonstrations I have ever seen of the power of peaceful, non violent protest against an occupying force.

I opened my Berlin Film Festival report by placing Leipzig in a religious context:

One could not visit Berlin in the 450th anniversary year of Martin Luther’s death without making a pilgrimage to Wittenberg, the city in which Luther began the Protestant Reformation.

His tomb lies in a place of honor in the Schlosskirche, where Luther posted his 95 defiant challenges to the pope’s authority. To reach Wittenberg from Berlin, one travels south on the autobahn past now-empty Soviet army barracks, passing at highway speed through areas where border crossings once delayed travelers for hours.

After an hour and a half on the autobahn, a smaller highway takes the pilgrim to the Elbe River, not far from the spot where American and Soviet troops met in the final days of World War II. One passes outmoded, nearly vacant chemical plants in what was once East Germany’s thriving industrial region. The more efficient factories in the western part of the country have replaced many of these plants.

At one operation near Wittenberg, the number of employees has been cut from 8,000 to 700. Wandering through Luther’s city and reflecting on the strife in Luther’s career, I saw similarities to more recent struggles in Germany that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

In Luther’s life, religion regularly interacted with politics. His initial success in reforming the church was possible in part because he cultivated the support of political leaders who protected him, and who eventually separated their states from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. . . .

leipzig-nikolaikirche-wc-pd-300Nikolaikirche, directed by Frank Beyer and based on a highly respected novel by East German author Erich Loest, records some decisive moments in “Die Wende”, the “turning” from communism to freedom. The movie re-creates events at Leipzig’s St. Nicholas (Lutheran) Church during the peaceful revolution of 1989.

Communist officials in Leipzig came very close to applying the “Chinese solution”–using massive force to put down public demonstrations. Those demonstrations began as prayer meetings across the city. . . .

Many if not most of those who prayed in the churches and then walked the streets with lighted candles to express opposition to communist policies were not committed Christians. But they found in the church a place where opposition to oppression could be voiced. The pastor at St. Nicholas acknowledged that the church was open to nonbelievers as well as believers.

On one occasion, the pews were filled with government officials and university students who had been sent to foil the demonstration. But the pastor shrewdly “reserved” the balconies for the demonstrators.

On the night of October 9, 1989, more than 70,000 citizens mobilized in the streets of Leipzig. Before the march, the St. Nicholas pastor admonished the demonstrators to be nonviolent: “Put down your rocks.”

Meanwhile, security officials waited for instructions from Moscow and Berlin on using force to subdue the demonstrators. The orders never came, and the police gave up. A month later the Berlin Wall fell. The security chief who wanted to subdue the rebellion is shown in the film staring out at the crowd in front of his headquarters.

“We planned everything,” he says. “We were prepared for everything, except for candles and prayers.”

When a colleague wrote to remind me of the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the end of Communist control over East Germany, I had just read Ali Abunimah’s essay,”After Goldstone, Hamas Faces Fateful Choice”, in the Electronic Intifada.

The parallel with Leipzig, while different in many historical circumstances, suggests that out of crisis moments, opportunities for new options may emerge. I am especially alerted to the parallel when I recall the instruction from the St. Nicholas pastor, “Put down your rocks.”

Abunimah begins:

The uproar over the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) collaboration with Israel to bury the Goldstone report, calling for trials of Israeli leaders for war crimes in Gaza, is a political earthquake.

The whole political order in place since the 1993 Oslo accords were signed is crumbling. As the initial tremors begin to fade, the same old political structures may appear still to be in place, but they are hollowed out.

This unprecedented crisis threatens to topple the US-backed PA leader Mahmoud Abbas, but it also leaves Hamas, the main Palestinian resistance faction, struggling with fateful choices.

Abbas, accustomed to being surrounded by corrupt cronies, sycophants and yes-men, badly misjudged the impact of his decision — under Israeli and American instructions — to withdraw PA support for the resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, forwarding the Goldstone report for further action. . .

Torrents of protest and outrage flowed from almost every direction. It was as if all the suppressed anger and grief about PA collaboration with Israel during the massacres in Gaza last winter suddenly burst through a dam.

“The crime at Geneva cannot pass without all those responsible being held accountable,” the widely-read London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi stated in its lead editorial on 8 October. The newspaper called for the removal of Abbas and his associates who betrayed the victims of Israel’s massacres and “saved Israel from the most serious moral, political and legal crisis it has faced since its establishment.”

After an extended analysis of the choices now facing Hamas, which has been working through Egypt to work toward unity with Fatah, Abunimah concludes that  the PA government of Mammoud Abbas is now too weak and subservient to the US and Israel, to be a valid partner for Hamas.

Abbas’ disastrous Goldstone response, Abunimah argues, should lead to a totally new government in Gaza and the West Bank, specifically, he concludes:

The political collapse underway offers all Palestinians — including Hamas — a new opportunity: to build a broad-based, internationally legitimate popular resistance movement that mobilizes all of Palestinian society as the first intifada did, and to reconnect with Palestinians inside Israel who face an existential threat from escalating Israeli racism.

This movement must work with and enhance the global solidarity campaign to put maximum pressure on Israel — and its collaborators — to end their repression, racism and violence, and hasten the emancipation of all the people of Palestine.

Abunimah implies this new opportunity for a unified Palestinian government might be seized not through violence, but through non-violent methods  At least that is one option open to Hamas, one the Gaza leaders should be encouraged to choose.

Israel’s military superiority is so overwhelming that, like the East Germans of Leipzig in 1989, only a peaceful confrontation makes any sense. It would require an Israeli willingness to put down its guns as well.  And given the militant track record of the current Israeli government, that option is impossible without pressure from the United States government.

The section cited from Nikolaikirche is adapted from my essay from The Christian Century magazine, March 13, 1996, Copyright 1996 The Christian Century Foundation amd Copyright 2004 Gale Group

The picture at the top of this page is from the cover of the novel on which the film Nikolaikirche is based. The book is out of print, but a paperback edition is available on line. I have been unable to locate a DVD of the film.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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4 Responses to Leipzig 10/9/89: The Day Prayers and Candles Ended an Occupation

  1. Bill Gepford says:

    One wonders why the non-violent resistance strategy has never, really been tried by the Palestinian community. It seems only logical given the military power of the Israeli army, backed by American support. I should think that would be newsworthy enough to appear in the American press.

  2. Pingback: Nonviolent revolution and the Berlin Wall | jonathan stegall: creative tension

  3. i dont understnad the candle reference, but its still a very well written article.

  4. There is no doubt to the importance of this event. The Iron curtain falling was one of the most significant events and one that I remember well even though I was just a kid. But I do agree with the post above…. candles?

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