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The Berlin Wall: what really made it fall

Extraordinary civil courage by the people of Leipzig on Oct. 9 first dissolved a crucial mental wall.

By Elizabeth Pond / October 8, 2009


Contrary to popular lore, the Berlin Wall did not fall on Nov. 9, 1989. Nor did it fall in Berlin.

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It fell on Oct. 9, 120 miles away, in the city of Leipzig.

First, civil courage – a rare quality in German history – had to dissolve the four-decade-old mental wall of East German fear. Only then could the cement wall collapse in Berlin.

Here's how it happened:

When Valentine Kosch set out to join the Monday peace march in Leipzig on Oct. 9, she expected to be shot by the massed East German security forces. She explained to her two young daughters that she was going to take a walk with friends so that teachers would be nicer to their pupils – an accurate enough description in her case. And she told her husband that if she did not return by 10 p.m., he should take their girls, move to Dresden, and start a new life there, where the two sisters would not be branded as children of an enemy of the state.

Like most East Germans in the decades after Soviet tanks suppressed the East Berlin workers' uprising in 1953, Mrs. Kosch was apolitical. Rather than fighting the constraints of the Communist system, she adapted to them, the better to shape her private sphere with a minimum of outside interference.

However, a few years earlier she had spontaneously introduced Montessori methods in the class she taught in the city school system. For this breach of the rules she had been demoted, in effect, to a classroom for special-needs children. She felt stifled by the rigidity of the educational bureaucracy. She was fed up.

The weekly peace vigils that Kosch joined had begun eight years earlier at the Nikolai Church in the medieval town center. It was just around the corner from the St. Thomas Church where Johann Sebastian Bach was once cantor, and where Martin Luther introduced the Protestant Reformation to Leipzig in 1539.

The Monday peace prayers followed a joint call by young East and West German theologians for removal from German soil of both NATO and (more discreetly, if more daringly) Soviet nuclear weapons.

Christian Führer, one of the originators of the appeal, was then the new pastor at the Nikolai Church. He conceived of his mission as succoring all who came to him in need, whether believers or nonbelievers. He is still revered today as the unpretentious denim-jacketed hero of the 1989 transformation, one of those clerics who showed compassion for all, did not collaborate with the Stasi secret police, and conferred on the Protestant Church a moral authority that it alone possessed in the (East) German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Throughout the 1980s, the Nikolai peace vigils had attracted a loyal but tiny number of participants. In 1989 the ranks swelled exponentially as two separate strands of exasperation came together.

The first movement consisted of modest reformers, like Kosch, who wanted to hold the GDR to its own constitution and laws and their provisions for fair elections and human rights.