BBC World Service
Last updated: 2 november, 2009 - 12:26 GMT

Leipzig's peaceful protests

Nicola Wearmouth arrived at the Karl Marx Universitat, Leipzig, in East Germany in September 1989, to do her year abroad as part of her modern languages degree. In those first few weeks of her stay, she witnessed the Leipzig demonstrations first hand. The demonstrations began in September 1989, and were a peaceful protest that took place each Monday after prayers for peace outside St Nikolaikirche. The format for the demonstrations were copied all over East Germany.

With the severest of restrictions in force on the movement of nationals and foreigners, the GDR (German Democratic Republic) authorities had total control over the number of Westerners on its territory. In all there were a maximum of 15 long-term Western students in the GDR that year. And I was one of them.

In our group there were five British citizens, two Swiss nationals, an American, an Italian and a South Korean.

Although East Germany was on the cusp of freedom, when we arrived, the system was still securely in place: our telephone calls home to the UK were all tapped, we were assigned a very attentive Betreuer (supervisor) from the Stasi (the secret police) and we were taken on tightly controlled group visits at the weekends.

We Western students lived in a special block of flats, assigned to us by the authorities. We had East German roommates who had been handpicked. Presumably they were all deemed to be conformist and convinced enough of the system not be tainted by our Western bourgeois values. We did wonder if they informed on us. We checked our rooms for bugs, but never found any. We were probably not looking in the right places.

Private life was not just severely curtailed in the GDR, it had almost ceased to exist. Work and leisure were both planned for you by some arm of the state. Leisure activities outside of the collective were frowned upon or not even possible, as most leisure time was swallowed up by semi-compulsory social gatherings.

My fellow students were from all over the communist world: East Germans, Hungarians, Russians, Kazakhs, Poles, Malians, Zimbabweans, Chinese and Laotians (the hapless North Korean students were hastily recalled, when the protests really took hold).

Our immense stroke of luck, being in the right place at the right time, meant that we were able to witness everything first hand. Our timing was perfect.

The Monday demonstrations in Leipzig were already being held weekly when we first arrived, attended by the most foolhardy dissidents, as well as ordinary courageous and outspoken citizens. Leipzig was the heart of the protest movement and we were eyewitnesses to a groundswell of dissent which was quickly gathering pace.

By September 1989, what was certainly not apparent was how this insurgence would end. The two options imaginable at the time were a brutal crackdown or some glasnost-type reform of the political system.

We joined the protest marches cautiously, for our attendants and supervisors were never far away, even with a popular uprising on their hands. The last thing we wanted was to be deported for illegal protesting.

The demonstrations, calling for state reform at first and not the toppling of the regime, grew in size and intensity each week. The very act of going out onto the streets to protest, even if in just small numbers at first, had let the genie out of the bottle and from then on, the protestors became emboldened.

The demonstrators were quietly determined, stoical and fearless, but with no trace whatsoever of recklessness. They were sure that they were right and justified in their demands. There were no acts of vandalism, no provocation. They knew though just how dangerous their restrained, devotional protests were, not least by the presence of the police and army on the streets, so their actions were circumscribed from the start. It was more than evident however, that there was no going back.

We followed the marches, joining in some weeks, other times, when the atmosphere was very tense, we just watched. Once, the crowd started shouting at us, five young people standing on the sidelines, 'Join in, join in'. For a moment, I thought they might turn on us. To them we may have looked like informers or just plain cowards. We joined the protest.

The demonstrations reached a pitch on 9 October, the 40th anniversary of the founding of the GDR, when tanks, the army and police, with ferocious police dogs, swamped the streets. The atmosphere was very, very intimidating.

The soldiers deployed took aim and waited. The people, 70,000 of them, marched on undaunted, but we feared for their lives. The escalation culminated in orders given to the forces of law and order by Erich Honecker's cabinet to shoot, orders which were withdrawn within hours of being given. That was the moment when the regime began to crumble.

A bloodbath was very narrowly averted. I'm sure that we came within a hair's breadth of it. Who knows if the soldiers would have shot the protestors had the order stayed in place. They surely had family members out on the streets. But we'll never know, thankfully.

The following week, 120,000 demonstrators turned out, more determined than ever. Within a month the Berlin wall had fallen.

In 1988, at the time I applied to go to East Germany, no-one but no-one foresaw the total domino-style capitulation of the communist regimes which was to take place within the year. The East and West were firmly anchored, for centuries to come it seemed, frozen into place, antagonistically pitted against one another with an impregnable wall and intimidating, armed border guards and officials between them. By the end of 1989, it was all over.