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Seven years ago tomorrow, on October 6, 1989, the Communist Party of East Germany warned would-be demonstrators in Leipzig that order would be defended, "if need be, with a weapon in hand." Thousands of pints of blood were flown in to hospitals where doctors were on alert to treat the expected shooting victims. Armored vehicles and military transports filed into the city carrying troops. Helmeted riot squads with shields formed human walls. Live ammunition was distributed, and young recruits were asked to sign statements that they would follow orders to shoot, even if they had family members among the demonstrators. Some wept.
Since 1983, Pastor Christian F?hrer had held the Friedensgebete or "Prayers for Peace" every Monday at 5 p.m. in the Nikolaikirche. This was arguably the spiritual sparkplug of the peaceful revolution in East Germany.
First here, then later throughout the country, groups met under the roof of the church as the one safe haven where they could voice criticism of the regime and seek a way to change it.
Though the motivation of many was more political than spiritual, the participants accepted the church's plea to protest using only peaceful means. So many people were attracted to the groups that the nervous communists infiltrated them with scores of informants. Several reported on Pastor F?hrer, whose Stasi secret police file revealed their identity later. Even his own staff had a mole.
October 9, 1989, Pastor F?hrer was warned that if he held the Friedensgebete, he would provoke civil war. Two hours before the service was to begin, 500 Communist Party members followed orders to take seats in the church to prevent demonstrators from participating. Helga Wagner, a professor at Karl-Marx University, was one of those who had never been in a church before.
Leipzig's streets were filled with tens of thousands of tense, pale people who wanted change, but were unsure if the price would be blood. Parents had been warned to pick up their children from school early because shooting was expected.
Couples like Christoph and Maria Bormann discussed at home which of them would go to the Nikolaikirche, so that one of them would be alive to care for their children. Christoph left alone, making his way through a sea of people streaming into the city toward the center of town.
The clock ticked toward five and Leipzig was taut.
Pastor Christian F?hrer began the service, letting the words of the beatitudes ring out: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." Shouts from the thousands outside filtered through the walls of the church. The service continued with the hymns and prayers that had become familiar to those who had come week for week that fall. As the people prepared to leave the church, they knew that this time they might be shot.
As the benediction was given, something remarkable happened. In the words of Friedrich Magirius, who was there, "The spirit of peace and non-violence spread over those assembled. Everyone held his neighbor tightly, and this spirit went out with the people onto the square. The power was contagious."
Christian F?hrer claims, "It was like the book of Acts when the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and his household. This was something quite remarkable, because these people were mostly not Christians. And yet the people behaved then as if they had grown up with the Sermon on the Mount."
An amorphous mass of 70,000 people assumed purpose and form, moving slowly through the city of Leipzig. They saw the light glinting off the weapons, looked at the walls of shields and helmets and armored vehicles, and walked peacefully between them. The demonstrators walked the entire length of the ring through Leipzig's center, linking arms. Some shielded a flickering candle.
When the crowd neared the Runde Ecke, the headquarters of the Stasi, secret police, the mood grew ugly with catcalls.
"Keine Gewalt," shouted the demonstration leaders. "No violence." With extraordinary restraint, no one threw a rock through a window, or so much as knocked off a policeman's hat. Forty years of frustration and repression were not expressed in any way that gave the troops reason to shoot.
The order to fire never came. When the evening ended, the forces for peaceful change had won. East Germany had reached its turning point.
Over the next four weeks, the streets swelled with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators throughout East Germany, growing more bold in their demands for freedom. The communist leaders acknowledged they had lost control, and in one last attempt to regain it, deposed the party's general secretary, Erich Honecker. But there was no calling back the floodwaters of change.
One month after the showdown in Leipzig, on November 9, 1989, a silent march commemorated the 51st anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of violence against the Jews leading up to World War II. As people left the Nikolaikirche and marched through Leipzig for the seventh time, the Wall in Berlin fell. The crash was as resounding as that of Jericho.
In a moral, political, and spiritual earthquake, communism in the entire Eastern bloc was brought tumbling down. What had taken roughly 10 years in Poland took 10 months in Hungary, 10 weeks in East Germany, 10 days in Czechoslovakia, and 10 hours in Romania. The seismic tremors reached Moscow in August, 1991, as the coup failed. In the end 400 million people were freed, and scarcely a shot was fired.
Looking back seven years later, Christian F?hrer says, "In 1989, it was the moment of Kairos. It was remarkable that in this un-Christian country the spirit of Jesus, the spirit of peace, could descend on the masses. When in the entire history of this country was a revolution ever carried out without bloodshed? That was the spirit of God at work. God honored us by letting us play this part in his plan."
Not many who filled the churches in East Germany to protest in 1989 came back, once they had won new freedoms. By February of 1990, the Nikolaikirche was sparsely attended. Only 10 percent of the population in Leipzig belongs to any church today. A malaise has taken the place of the euphoria that filled the city during the fall of 1989. Chronic housing shortages and massive unemployment have proven disillusioning to people who thought they would instantly have the standard of living of their West German relatives.
Reunification has cost West Germany staggering sums, prompting some there to wish the Wall were standing again. Resentment against refugees competing for state support has produced ugly torchings and a wave of violence against foreigners, particularly in the East. Although they have fared better economically than most of the other freed peoples, East Germans are gloomy.
Christian F?hrer observes, "Before, we had the theoretical version of materialism and atheism, which was gray and unattractive, and fairly easy to reject. Now we have the real materialism, and it is a real temptation. When the people of Israel were with Moses, they didn't fail when they were in slavery, but when they were first free. It was in the desert that they built the golden calf and worshiped it."
The Nikolaikirche has continued with the Friedensgebete every Monday at 5 p.m. since, with its main focus turned to the unemployed. The church helps those least likely to find work, women over 45 and men over 55, placing those they can in jobs and going to the various agencies with candidates.
Unperturbed by the number of people who have left the church, Christian F?hrer accepts minority status now as he did under the communists. "We are charged to be salt and light in this world. That doesn't mean that the whole soup is made of salt. As Christians, we are called to always hope. No one would have thought that the entire Soviet empire would break apart, and do so peacefully. We should expect the unexpected and not let despair get the best of us."
Barbara von der Heydt is a Senior Fellow with the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.