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Cities of heroes: risking it all

A revolutionary year, 1989 saw thousands of ordinary East Germans take to the streets, risking their reputations, careers, and even lives to demand freedom.

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At a time when political prisoners faced years behind bars, and even torture at the hands of the infamous Stasi, they showed true courage in going against the regime.

The people of Leipzig, in East Germany, were among the first – and most vocal – to call for change in the GDR.

Gathering first in secret, at the city’s St Nicholas Church, and eventually getting up the courage to go public, the protesters were determined to show the Stasi, and the government, that they would not give in quietly.

Alonside their “We are the people!” catch-cry, those who took part in the so-called Monday Demonstrations also insisted “We are staying here!”

Even as thousands of East German refugees fled to other Eastern Bloc countries in a desperate attempt to reach the west, many of those left behind hoped to change the system from within.

‘We’re staying here!’

“The majority of people at the demonstrations were calling ‘We want to stay, but we want to change the system’ – they wanted a democracy, but a socialist democracy,” says Kathrin Furmanek.

Furmanek, a university student in Dresden in 1989, took part in demonstrations there in the autumn of Germany’s revolutionary year.

When East German refugees who had sought shelter at the West German embassy in Prague were allowed to leave for the west – provided they travelled through the GDR – thousands tried to get onto their sealed trains.

She remembers the very real sense of danger involved in going up against such a brutal regime.

Even now, 20 years on, the thought of “running away and struggling with the police” as she did that day still gives her goosebumps.

“I jumped over a fence two metres high,” she explains. “I don’t know how I did that, but if you have the police and dogs behind you, then you can be very fast and very quick over such things, it is not an obstacle at all then.”

Stasi provocation

Furmanek says it was clear the authorities were keen for an excuse to crack down on the demonstrators.

“There were people calling ‘we want to see a green corpse’ – the police wore green uniforms – but it was not the normal people who were shouting this, but somebody from the Stasi who wanted to provoke such an incident

“They wanted a reason to go against the demonstration, and against the people who were demonstrating.”

Now a teacher living in Sydney, Furmanek says that at the time she and the other protesters were only too aware of the chance they were taking.

“They took photographs on every corner, and everyone who really wanted to have a change was praying that it was going to happen.

Fears of a brutal crackdown

“Otherwise with all the pictures and your signature on the list for the Neues Forum [a movement calling for regime change], it would have been the end of my studies, the end of your normal existence.”

As the protests gathered pace, even those on the other side of the Berlin Wall were holding their breath.

“When the people in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Berlin tried to open the Iron Curtain it was amazing,” said West Berliner Baerbel Simon.

“We saw on TV all the demonstrations, the revolution, we were amazed to see it but we were worried. We hoped for a better future, but we worried it might change into a bloody revolution.”

Earlier in 1989, student protests against the communist regime in China had been brutally put down at Tiananmen Square – and observers and participants alike were terrified the same thing could happen again.

Tanks, riot police on streets

“The GDR government expressed sympathy with what the Chinese government had done at that time,” said Furmanek.

“So we – all the people – feared that in Germany, too they would use weapons, and that it would be like in Budapest in ’56 or in Prague in ’68.”

It certainly came close – at the Monday Demonstration in Leipzig on October 9, riot police, the Stasi and even tanks lined the streets.

“I was very afraid,” says Torsten Schultz, a student in the city in 1989. “I still remember that big demonstration.

“I was sitting in the university library and when I looked down I could see lots of people gathering, and I went down.

“I saw all the lorries and trucks with police and their shields and helmets, I had never seen anything like that before on a normal street – if I had seen that it was only in the West when there were demonstrations. That was very fearsome.”

Shift in balance of power

But at the critical moment, the troops stood aside to let the protesters pass, and the balance of power shifted permanently.

Secretly-filmed footage of the march was smuggled out of the country for broadcast in West Germany, sparking copycat demonstrations in cities across the nation.

And as the regime’s grip on the country unravelled, the people of Germany took power – eventually breaking the Berlin Wall down with their bare hands, something unthinkable just months earlier.

“It was a self-liberation,” Pastor Christian Fuehrer, one of the leaders of the movement explained.

“We did it without the dollar or the DAX [the German stock exchange], without the US or Soviet armies. It was the people here who did it.”