Autumn 1989Posted July 19th, 2011
Adapted from a pamphlet written by Sup. F. Magirius and Rev. C. Fuhrer and distributed several years after the fall of the Berlin Wall to visitors at St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, Germany
The East German government strongly opposed human rights violations as long as they occurred outside of the Warsaw Pact’s (that is, the Soviet Union’s) sphere of influence. But in 1989 groups had appeared inside East Germany that were demanding justice and respect for human rights within their own country.
At times only a small number attended the peace prayer services at Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church). However, the situation grew explosive when the number of people willing to emigrate began to grow. These applicants for emigration—mostly non-Christians—had no other opportunity to gather and compare experiences but in our church. Still, together we were able to discover the topicality of the Bible’s message, especially the prophetic texts from the Old Testament or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. These two things do belong together: people need to discuss urgent social problems and they need to meditate and pray to God for support and guidance.
The windows of the church were decorated with flowers; every night brought numerous glowing candles: signs of fundamental change! But the greatest gift was the spirit of peace that reigned throughout, even on October 9, 1989, when everything was at stake.
Open to All
“Nikolaikirche—open to all” became reality in autumn 1989, and it surprised us all. It united people from the whole of the German Democratic Republic: those who wanted to leave the country and those who were curious, regime critics and Stasi (State Security Police), Christians and non-Christians—all beneath the outspread arms of the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. Exactly 450 years after the introduction of the Reformation in Leipzig, now it was Leipzig once more.
From May 8, 1989, the driveways to the church were blocked by the police. Later the driveways and motorway exits were subject to large-scale checks or even closed during the prayers-for-peace period. The state authorities exerted greater pressure on us to cancel the peace prayers or at least transfer them to the city limits. Monday after Monday there were arrests or “temporary detentions” in connection with the peace prayers. Even so, the number of visitors flocking to the church continued to grow to a point where the two thousand seats were no longer sufficient. Then came the decisive October 9. What a day it was!
There was a hideous show of force by soldiers, industrial militia, police, and plain-clothes officers. But the opening scene had taken place two days before on October 7, the fortieth anniversary of the German Democratic Republic. On this day, for ten long hours, uniformed police battered defenseless people who made no attempt to fight back. Hundreds of the peaceful demonstrators were locked up in stables in Markkleeberg. In due course, an article was published in the press saying that it was high time to put an end to what they called “counter-revolution.” That was the situation leading up to October 9.
A thousand party members had been ordered to go to St. Nicholas Church that Monday. Six hundred of them had already filled up the church nave by 2 p.m. They had a job to perform for the party, but what had not been considered was the fact that these people were exposed to the Word—the gospel—and its impact!
They heard from Jesus, who said:
“Blessed are the poor.” And not: Wealthy people are happy.
“Many who now are first will be last.” And not: Everything stays the same.
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” And not: Take great care.
The prayers for peace that evening took place in unbelievable calm and concentration. Shortly before the end, before the bishop gave his blessing, appeals by professor Kurt Masur, chief conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and others who supported our call for non-violence, were read out. The solidarity between the church, art, music, and the gospel was of importance in the threatening situation of those days.
The prayers for peace on October 9 ended with the bishop’s blessing and the urgent call for non-violence. More than two thousand people leaving the church were welcomed by ten thousand waiting outside with candles in their hands—an unforgettable moment. Two hands are necessary to carry a candle and to protect it from extinguishing. You cannot carry stones or clubs at the same time.
The miracle occurred. Jesus’ spirit of non-violence seized the masses and became a material, peaceful power.
Troops, military brigade groups, and the police were drawn in, became engaged in conversations, then withdrew. It was an evening in the spirit of our Lord Jesus for there were no winners and no defeated, nobody triumphed over the other, nobody lost face. There was just a tremendous feeling of relief.
This non-violent movement only lasted a few weeks, but it caused the party and ideological dictatorship to collapse. The Wall fell one month later, on November 9, 1989.
“You will succeed, not by military power or by your own strength, but by my spirit, says the Lord.” This is what we experienced. There were thousands in the churches. Hundreds of thousands in the streets around the city center. But not a single shattered shop window.
Horst Sindermann, who was a member of the Central Committee of the German Democratic Republic, said later, “We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.”