Leipzig became a destination for me while I was trying to understand how the peaceful revolution came about which ended East Germany just as the Soviet Union collapsed. It seemed miraculous at the time. Those of us born not too long after World War II ended never knew a time when Germany was not divided, and hardly remembered when West Berlin was not surrounded by a wall and armed soldiers. Word leaked out of East Germany during my early adulthood of the oppression and atrocities of the East German secret police, the Stasi. Many desperate attempts, so often deadly, to escape into West Berlin, bore witness to the ham-fisted terror used to maintain Communist control over East Germany.
Then one night in 1989, the gates burst open, the people poured through, cheering and crying, and the wall fell. To those of us outside Germany, it was almost unbelievable. We didn’t know that communism was secretly failing throughout the Soviet bloc, that the funds to keep that iron fist clenched were running dry, or that the dream of freedom still lived in the hearts of those oppressed by tyranny. One of the ways this dream of freedom found expression was in Leipzig’s Church of Saint Nikolas, where weekly prayers for peace over a period of about seven years drew increasing numbers. In October 1989, participation at those peaceful prayers grew into the tens of thousands. Berliners took heart from Leipzig and began demonstrating. Even the Stasi couldn’t face the bloodbath required to shoot all those peaceful demonstrators back into submission. Without support from Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet troops, the East German government simply gave up, and Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate opened in November 1989 for the first time in nearly 30 years.
And who were these people whose quiet faith broke the tyrant? Leipzig is an old city, long known as the center of German publishing. It was the first in Germany, and possibly in Europe, to have a coffee-shop! Leipzig’s university is over 600 years old. Many great talents have lived there: Leibniz (arguably the inventor of calculus), Goethe (who wrote part of Faust in his favorite watering-hole), and Johann Sebastian Bach (choir-director in two Leipzig churches including St. Nikolas for some 25 years) to name a few! Wagner was born there, and Schumann, Mendolsohn, and Mahler all worked there. So Leipzig has a long and deep tradition of music, literature, and philosophy. I was pretty anxious to experience this city.
Leipzig wasn’t attacked with the incendiary bombs used by the Allies in World War II to flatten Dresden. Ordinary bombing did plenty of damage, but the city wasn’t devastated. The city was rebuilt under the aegis of the East German government, which is to say, lovely Baroque buildings were replaced with Soviet Bloc(k)s. After reunification in 1990, what had been West Germany turned its attention to the decline revealed in the former East. When we arrived at Leipzig’s central train station, amid the construction we saw lots of evidence of the city’s revival.
Graceful 18th-century buildings have been converted into busy shopping malls. By the Nikolaikirche, where armed Stasi once faced off against the candlelit faithful, outdoor café tables were surrounded by displays of—and stalls selling—harvest bounty. Naturally, since it was a lovely autumn day, there was an outdoor festival in the central plaza complete with entertainment by a tuxedoed crooner. Leipzigers did nothing to deserve the oppression they suffered during 40 years of Communist rule, and they didn’t lose their spirit. Like all Germans, they work hard, value art and beauty, and love to sit in the sunshine on holidays enjoying the fruits of their labor. And on any given Sunday, they can attend services at the Thomaskirche, where Johann Sebastian Bach was Organist and Choirmaster for over 25 years, and hear his music performed in the same space where Bach himself first heard it.
When the Secret Police gave up control in 1989, the citizens of Leipzig didn’t go into a destructive frenzy of the Stasi workplace. Instead, they preserved what they found inside as a museum and a reminder of how minutely, sadistically, and mundanely the Communist government spied on and persecuted their citizens. The average Secret Policeman didn’t work in luxury, but he did have the very latest in miniature microphones, disguise kits, and envelope-resealing technology. The Stasi infiltrated every schoolroom, office, and living room. Perhaps the only way such a cruelly invasive bureaucracy would be overthrown was by peaceful demonstration and overwhelming numbers. Courage and faith were the only weapons Leipzigers had to stand up against armed soldiers, and their bravery inspired other East Germany citizens to do the same. The people spoke with one voice, and November 9, 1989, the tyrannical government and its wall crumbled.