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Opinion

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.

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The second consisted of the growing number of East Germans who simply wanted to escape to the normality of West Germany's casual freedom and opulence, in the wake of more than 100,000 compatriots who had in recent weeks abandoned country and possessions to flee west via Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.

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People in the two categories disdained each other, but Pastor Führer – while personally urging everyone to stay at home and build East Germany – opened the Nikolai haven to both persuasions. Indeed, he reconciled them to each other, in part through their common interest in his Monday updating of the list of those who shouted out their names as they were secretly hauled off to jail.

With our contemporary knowledge of the outcome, it is hard to recall just how much courage Kosch and her fellow marchers required 20 years ago to carry their candles on that disciplined hour-long walk around the old town, right past the Leipzig Stasi headquarters.

At the time, many in both East and West Germany feared that although détente was blossoming in Europe, an anachronistic hard-line East German hierarchy might hang on for a long time (on the pattern, say, of North Korea today). The Stasi – whose ranks maintained a much higher ratio in proportion to the population than Hitler's SS ever enjoyed – still held tight control. And East German citizens still shared with the Bulgarians the reputation of being the most quiescent people in the Soviet bloc.

Moreover, there had been a nasty crackdown over the weekend. On Oct. 7 and 8, security forces had detained several thousand demonstrators in Leipzig, Dresden, and East Berlin on the occasion of the GDR's gala 40th anniversary. In Leipzig, the watchdogs, tone-deaf to history, had even rehearsed plans to inter thousands of dissidents in new concentration camps.

Hospitals had been stocked with extra blood plasma in preparation for a Monday-night clash, and Leipzigers knew it. The city's security contingents, reinforced to 8,000 – only 2,000 short of the record turnout of 10,000 peace watchers the previous Monday – had been issued live ammunition and ordered to use whatever means were required to suppress the "counterrevolution," the most serious crime in the Communist books.

By all measures of the previous 36 years, this show of power should have sufficed to keep would-be marchers safely at home.

But what was the fallback if intimidation didn't work this time? Throughout the day, as confrontation loomed, the Leipzig party secretaries tried in vain to elicit new instructions from East Berlin party headquarters. Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra director Kurt Masur, theologian Peter Zimmermann, deputy city party secretary Roland Wötzel, and three others hammered out an urgent appeal for nonviolence, to be read in all the churches and broadcast on radio. Marchers braced themselves to hold each other back from any rash action or reaction.

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