It is said that the key to the door in the Iron Curtain was cut in Leipzig. It was to become the key that opened Berlin’s infamous Wall and ultimately brought about its collapse, not to mention that of the Soviet empire. But 20 years ago to the day, in the second city of what was communist East Germany, no one had any notion of what was to come. Instead, the shabby, heavily polluted town of nearly half a million people was gripped by an all-pervasive fear.
Newspapers controlled by the Communist Party had done their best to whip up panic, full of dire warnings about the state’s readiness to crush “the counter revolution” by force. The order had been given by none other than Erich Mielke, the regime’s despised and feared Stasi chief. There were rumours about hundreds of Kalashnikov rifles and machine guns being broken out of store rooms at secret police headquarters in preparation for a bloody showdown with the growing numbers of demonstrators who were taking to Leipzig’s streets to protest against the Communist regime.
“We were terrified that the state would enforce a Chinese solution,” recalled Christian FÃ¼hrer, a pastor who was one of the demonstration leaders. “You have to remember that our protests against the regime were happening only weeks after the massacre at Tiananmen Square.”
FÃ¼hrer is one of the big heroes of East Germany’s peaceful revolution. He looks more like a lorry driver than a pastor and is rarely seen without his sleveless jean jacket. At age 66, he could easily be mistaken for someone 10 years younger. In 1989, the East German regime were using 28 Stasi officers to watch him night and day; his spiky grey hair earned him the secret police codename “hedgehog”.