October 9, 1989: Demonstration of 70,000 in Leipzig becomes the tipping point of the peaceful revolution in the GDR


30 years ago, on Monday, October 9, 1989, 70,000 citizens of the GDR gathered in Leipzig for an unauthorized demonstration against the ruling Socialist Unity Party of East Germany (SED), their resistance against reforms similar to those taking place in other countries of the Eastern Bloc, and rigged elections. Despite an armed police force of 8000, the demonstration remained peaceful and was not suppressed forcefully as it had happened in Beijing only weeks before.

The population of the GDR, encouraged by the first sign of the communist state bowing to pressure, replicated demonstrations like this in other cities, putting even more pressure on the SED dictatorship, which, together with the mass-exodus of East German citizens over the open western borders of the neighboring states finally led to the collapse of communist power, the fall of the Berlin wall, the opening of the inner-German borders, and ultimately the German reunification.

Why and by whom the armed police and military forces that had been deployed to Leipzig in order to forcefully dissolve any demonstration were stopped is not completely clear to this day. Disobedience by intermediate officers surely played a decisive role. The sheer mass of people (almost 15 % of the city’s population) may have been a contributing factor. A message of peace initiated by a committee of six, which included dissident SED politicians and the respected conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur, had been broadcast through the city’s loudspeaker announcement system. The protesters chanted not only “WE are the people!”, but also “NO violence!”, intimidating the armed forces, many of which were anyway wary about inflicting violence on their potential neighbors (some divisions even refused to leave their barracks). Communication from East Berlin to Leipzig aiming at enforcing the violent oppression was hampered by the circumstance that the chairman of the SED district of Leipzig was ill and could not forward the messages. Apparently, the armed forces were held back at short notice and despite everything was prepared for a bloody escalation: Additional hospital beds and blood transfusions had been brought in the days before. State leader Egon Krenz’s claim that is was him who ordered the forces not to intervene remains unsubstantiated. In the end, a situation that was on the verge of turning out like the Tiananmen Square Massacre remained peaceful thanks to the prudent behavior of everyone involved.

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