In 1989, 70,000 people gathered outside of the St. Nicholas Church when a miracle happened: they were not disturbed by the notorious secret police of the GDR. This single event established the church’s role in the community as a safe haven and place for free thought and the exchange of ideas.
Built in the 12th century, the St. Nicholas Church in is the oldest church in the city of Leipzig. Throughout its many years it has housed countless events that have cemented it as one of the premier tourist attractions in the city. During the 18th century, Johann Sebastian Bach served as the music director for all of Leipzig. While most are familiar with Bach’s position as cantor at the famous St. Thomas Church, he also had a major presence at St. Nicholas.
“Today there are a lot of organ concerts at St. Nicholas and also modern concerts in cooperation with the university choir,” said Steffi Gretschel, the Head of International PR and Tourism for Leipzig. “So there is a lot going on, but there is also still a lot of political discussion.
The church’s role in the 1989 Peaceful Revolution continues to define its contemporary identity in the city of Leipzig. The revolution would be the starting point for the reunification of Germany, though not by any preconceived notion. It started after a few members of the Leipzig community began gathering on Mondays for prayer and discussion. They would debate the political system, environmental issues and life behind the Iron Curtain. Soon, these Monday prayers became so prominent in the city that all of the participants could not fit in the church comfortably. The demonstrations spilled out on to the street in full view of security cameras and other citizens.
“It wasn’t chosen as a headquarters, it just sort of developed into one,” said Gretschel. “Outside, there is a sign that says ‘Offen für alle’; that means open for everyone. That sign has been there since the GDR time.”
The St. Nicholas Church’s acquired role of unofficial headquarters for revolutionary activities caused some unsettling feelings in the capital. As a result, the secret police were told to keep a watch on the demonstrators. Guards were sent into the city so that the revolution was kept under control. Despite this, the people in the church had a plan for how the peace prayers would operate. They asked the demonstrators not to be violent with the police in the city.
“Historians today say that there was some kind of miscommunication between the Stasi here in Leipzig and their headquarters in Berlin. So that was one reason why there was no interference,” said Gretschel. “The other reason was that the people remained peaceful. The leaders told the people ‘don’t throw stones, don’t use weapons.’ So the people just used prayers and candles. I think that if one person decided to throw stones, the demonstration would have taken a whole different turn.”
The Peaceful Revolution was a success. Protesters and police remained unarmed and no arrests occurred, despite the large size of the crowd. After worldwide coverage of this demonstration of 70,000 people, the Iron Curtain fell. The St. Nicholas Church still stands today as a large tourist attraction in Leipzig to remind people of these demonstrations and the impact it has had on the German country.
“For me, St. Nicholas Church has an important meaning. Not because of religion, but because of freedom, democracy and important change in German history,” said Claudia Lechler, a graduate student at the University of Leipzig. “Lots of students are not religious like me. I guess they see the church as an important part of Leipzig and as a sightseeing attraction for tourists but less for religious purposes.”
Younger student-dominated generations view the church as a place of history free from its religious connotations. Many other local residents continue to rely on the church as a place of political freedom and safety.
However, it is not just students who see the church everyday. It is also a place for people who lived behind the Iron Curtain and wish to revisit the place where the revolution began. People of all ages and backgrounds flock each year to the St. Nicholas Church to get a taste of the history.
“It is big tourist attraction, but it is also very important to the local community,” Gretschel said. “I think if you are interested in Europe after the Iron Curtain, the church is the starting point of your discovery.”
by the Borderless Bobcats History Group: April Laissle, Chris Dobstaff, Ellen McIntire, Rudaba Nasir