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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.

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At 6 p.m., the hour the Nikolai congregation was to leave the church and walk around the inner-city ring, the top Leipzig party secretaries made one last desperate phone call to East Berlin, to Egon Krenz, the deputy and heir apparent to veteran strongman Erich Honecker. Krenz had risen as high as he had by never sticking his neck out. This night was no exception. He equivocated and said he would have to consult the others.

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After Leipzig party secretary Helmut Hackenberg hung up the phone, "a very, very long time passed," said Wötzel later, recalling the eternity of the next few minutes. Then Hackenberg asked his deputies, "What do we do now?" One shot by a jumpy 18-year-old in the ill-trained factory militia or one step too far by an angry marcher – or a Stasi provocation – could have triggered an explosion.

Under the circumstances, it was marginally less risky to nullify sacrosanct standing orders than to dare bloodshed that their superiors might later blame on them. The junior secretaries urged Hackenberg to disengage the security forces. He did so. The Leipzig officials fully expected to be expelled from the party for taking such forbidden local initiative.

Yet their wariness about the new mood on the street was justified. The 10,000 of the previous week were not scared away. Astonishingly, they were joined by 60,000 others who also cast aside their fear and walked past Stasi headquarters chanting, "Wir sind das Volk." "We are the people."

Germany's first successful revolution in history was bloodless. East German parliamentary Speaker Horst Sindermann famously admitted later, "We were ready for everything – everything except candles and prayers."

As Führer commented this summer, reflecting on that night: "We were afraid day and night, but we had the courage of our convictions. The Bible had taught us the power of peaceful protest and this was the only weapon we had.... It still moves me today to recall that in a secular country, the masses condensed the Beatitudes in the Lord's Sermon on the Mount into two words: No violence!"

Observant East Berliners and Eastern Europeans quickly realized that in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's new era, if enough demonstrators turned out, the security forces would not shoot. Within weeks the East German, Czech, Bulgarian, and Romanian Communist leaders were all deposed.

"For the first time in my life," confided a 40-something West German who had long been inured to the shame of the German failure to resist Hitler in the 1930s or to establish a republic in 1848, "I'm proud to be a German."

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, is the author of "Beyond the Wall." She interviewed the Leipzig principals described in this article in 1989-90.