“We are the people!” How Leipzig launched a revolution

70,000 march in Leipzig's Monday Demonstration on October 9, 1989

70,000 march in Leipzig's Monday Demonstration on October 9, 1989

IT WAS ALEXIS DE Tocqueville who wrote that “The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform.” While this observation clearly applied to Eastern Europe’s doomed communist governments in 1989, it was not entirely true in the German Democratic Republic in October of that astonishing year. Instead, “the second German state” decided its own destiny the moment it refused to reform while it still had the chance. That was the moment when the people of Leipzig took the cause of reform into their own hands.

“Those who come too late”

Please note that I said “reform” and not “revolution,” let alone “reunification with the Federal Republic.” These were still pipe dreams in October of 1989, and not even particularly attractive ones for most people. The majority would still have been satisfied with a few democratic reforms at home and an open border with the Federal Republic. A new “socialism with a human face” was as much as most people expected to see in their lifetimes. But the fraudulent election in May had energized the tiny underground opposition movement. Internment camps were going up across the country, and the communist government’s repeated threats of a “Chinese solution” à la Tiananmen Square gave dissidents a cause to fight for, namely sheer survival in the face of a potentially genocidal government. 

Then, as escapes westward via Hungary and West Germany’s Prague embassy grew from a trickle to a flood, East Germans began to realize that their government was hardly the all-powerful monolith they had been brought up to fear. Finally, Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to East Berlin on October 6 in connection with the GDR’s fortieth anniversary –  in the course of which he publicly told communist boss Erich Honecker through an interpreter that “those who come too late [i.e. who don’t introduce reforms in time] will be punished by life itself” …



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