The citizens of Leipzig are very proud of the fact that the East Germany revolution of 1989 began in their city. Leipzig has two famous churches in the heart of its old quarter. Bach made St. Thomas Church famous for music when he was its choir director for 28 years in the first part of the 18th century. Nearby St. Nicholas Church, meanwhile, became the center of the protests in 1989 that eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Communist regime.
The Church in East Germany had been a relatively safe place for non-conformists from peace activists to punk rockers. "Back then, churches and church communities were niches, safe havens," Gottfried Schleinitz told me in an interview last February in Leipzig. "And the community would give you supports, and sometimes also sanctuary. There was a strong sense of solidarity. It was like a second home. There was a very family-like structure. The church parishes were not so much statutory bodies under public law, according to the official legal definition, but much more like life communities."
Schleinitz is a pastor who participated in the demonstrations that broke out in autumn 1989. They began with prayers. "Within the Monday meetings, prayer was the main structure," he recalled. "But it is also true that there is no prayer without information, and when there is information there is also dynamite. They would say: this prayer is for him and for her and for them. They were all affected people. Partly also persecuted people. So somehow the whole thing acquired a certain political meaning."
From the prayer meetings grew the demonstrations in front of the doors of the Nikolai Church. "And then on September 4, there were attacks by the Stasi," Schleinitz related. "They took the demonstrators and people who came out of the church and put them on trucks. I wrote letters to the authorities back then. I called it fascistic."
As the demonstrations grew in size, from the couple hundred of early September to more than 300,000 people in late October, the overall emphasis began to shift. "We were very active in keeping the whole thing nonviolent and peaceful," Schleinitz said. "We used candles and tape and whatever was available. It was the only option to keep everything peaceful. We had a very strong hope that something would change in the country. So we wanted to be involved in the demonstrations and in the prayers and in the discussions. We had also discussions with functionaries. It was an attempt to change something by talking about it, a change of the society, a change of the system. It was also against corrupt party comrades and the corrupt politics of the party. Later the slogans became much more individual: 'I want my freedom. I want to go out. I also want what they have.' Those very big and wide things from the beginning became much more personal and much more individual. I thought it was a shame."
After the Wall fell in November, the crowds melted away. "In December there was one demonstration with candles," Schleinitz remembered. "It was really beautiful. It reminded me of the times at the beginning. The focus was more on issues concerning both the German states. Reunification was a topic. There was also a strong impression that the future would be determined from outside. Gorbachev played a role in this. And a lot of thing had already been planned at the European level. Internally, new groups like Neues Forum and the new political parties played a big role. But actually the parties were only counterparts of the Western parties. Indeed many people from the West established themselves here in the East."
Schleinitz is perhaps most remembered for a tape that he made at the time that was an appeal for non-violence. He made it on the condition that it would only be played in the case of an emergency. The authorities disregarded this instruction. We talked about what the message was, how it was used, and the challenge it posed for Schleinitz during that tense and exhilarating autumn in Leipzig in 1989.
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
On that evening I came back home from an event, and we were watching the news journal Tagesthemen on the ARD channel, and my wife and I were looking at each other and said: "In which movie are we now?" And then we realized that this is the reality. And we started to cry. The tears came. It was incredible. Nobody could have foreseen it.
What did you think would happen next?
Well, our thoughts at this moment were ambivalent. This one thought had been there before -- during August, September, October -- and was very important for us: We do need another society. Something has to change here. And the other side of the ambivalence during this evening was: Well, what will happen now? Now all boundaries are missing. Now there will be no change within our society. But of course the feeling of freedom was dominant.
Did you think about immediately going and visiting the West?
Before I had not thought about leaving the East and going to the West. I was offered the opportunity to go to the West on business trips, and I declined all of them. I did not go because in our church there was a sister who was not allowed to visit her brother. So I said: I must show solidarity. I can't do a business trip.
I did not have any ambition to go to the West. We assessed the situation in the capitalist system relatively realistically. In our view this system did not include the concept of humanity. What many of us didn't know in our own system was the extent of misanthropy in an ideological dictatorship. We could sense it. But we were accustomed to it. From the theological view, from the spiritual view, the approach to justice and peace was closer in the GDR. And also the idea was closer to the message of the New Testament. And we wanted to shape the church in the middle of the society. That the obligatory atheism would be able to change a whole people so much was not clear from the beginning.
Were you born here in Leipzig?
No, I was born in Plauen.
Tell me about your decision to have a career in the Church.
It was during the 1950s. It was during a period of time when the Church was under a lot of attack in the GDR by the government of Walter Ulbricht. It was also a time when Stalin was still in power. As schoolchildren who had grown up in the Church, we had to suffer a lot under Stalinism. Several times I was almost expelled from school because of my political point of view and also because of my convictions. In the beginning I did not want to study theology but chemistry. Originally I am a natural scientist. But then for religious/political reasons and the implications, I decided to work in the Church.
Can you give me an example of being almost expelled from school?
To read the rest of the interview, click here.