LEIPZIG, Germany (AFP) – European leaders and former dissidents on Thursday celebrated 25 years since one of the most dramatic mass protests in the run-up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The ceremony in the eastern German city of Leipzig comes one month to the day before the reunified capital marks a quarter century since the communist authorities threw open the despised Cold War barrier.
In that momentous autumn of 1989, successive Mondays saw mounting demonstrations against the Stalinist state in eastern cities.
The peaceful protest in Leipzig of 70,000 people on October 9, the largest turnout to date, met with stunned disbelief from the East German authorities and Soviet troops.
It proved a turning point after months of unrest which had sparked fears of a bloody crackdown on the order of Tiananmen Square in Beijing that June.
German President Joachim Gauck, who was himself a pro-democracy pastor in the communist East, called the night of October 9, 1989 “magical” and paid tribute to the demonstrators’ courage.
“They were familiar with the arrogance of power – an order to shoot would in no way have been unthinkable,” he told a ceremony at the city’s Gewandhaus concert hall.
“But they came anyway – tens of thousands overcame their fear of the oppressors because their longing for freedom was bigger. The overwhelmed authorities put down their guns before the overwhelming masses.”
Gauck said the “young demonstrators in Hong Kong” today calling for more democratic rights from the Chinese leadership were acting in the same spirit.
He was joined in Leipzig by his counterparts from Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary and dozens of former activists, as well as former US secretaries of state James Baker and Henry Kissinger, who was born in Germany.
The opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9 brought the long-demanded liberty to travel for Easterners and would usher in the end of the regime, and Germany’s reunification the following October.
The leaders were to gather later at Saint Nicholas Church for prayers for peace, whose weekly occurrence at the same site 25 years ago led by the late firebrand pastor Christian Fuehrer helped touch off the popular movement.
The commemorations will culminate in a restaging of an iconic candlelight dusk procession, images of which went around the world in 1989, signalling a new wind was blowing in East Germany.
Chants of “No violence” and “We are the people” – a direct rebuke to the leaders of the “people’s republic” – became a rallying cry for a beleaguered nation of 17 million ready for change.
“I thought immediately, this is irreversible,” artist Matthias Buechner, 61, told AFP, recalling the images of soldiers and police officers simply watching the demonstration in shock.
“The gentle power of the street would take over power in the country. But that it would all go so quickly took us all by surprise.”