In her tweed skirt and sensible shoes, sixtysomething church elder Sigrid doesn’t look like a revolutionary.
She carries neither iPhone nor gun, but revolutionary she is. She has been at the heart of a movement that toppled an oppressive regime, thawed the Cold War and brought down the Berlin Wall, opening East Germany to unification and democracy. This softly-spoken woman was part of changing German, and world, history.
Sigrid was there where it all began – Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche (St Nicholas Church, pictured above) deep in East Germany, every Monday night for peace prayers, discussions and peaceful demonstrations in the years leading up to the fall of the Berlin wall.
‘It started with about 15 people,’ Sigrid explains as she pours me a coffee in a simple back room of the church. ‘We used to go once a year for a peace retreat, but then we decided to do it every week.
‘Then more and more people came. Not just Christians – anyone was welcome and they came to discuss the situation, to air their grievances, to discuss disarmament, environmental issues, human rights and freedoms.
‘By the end there were thousands - we could not fit in the church so we poured out into the square, and people came from all over East Germany.’
The story of Nikolaikirche is the untold, under-rated, almost unbelievable story of the fall of the Berlin Wall. A story of courage, nonviolence, people power, and many say ‘a miracle.’
Inevitably the movement attracted the ire of East Germany’s brutal security forces which surrounded the church with roadblocks and security checks. There were arrests and temporary detentions every week as well as threats, brute force and bashings. The highways leading into Leipzig on a Monday were closed.
Yet the peace prayers, meetings and demonstrations continued, growing larger and stronger, with the church slogan ‘Nikolaikirche – Open to all’ becoming a daily reality under the watch of the prophetic
‘Angel of Peace’ (pictured below) was painted hundreds of years earlier above the altar. Young people wore an image depicting ‘swords into ploughshares’ on their shirts, drawing on the prophetic Old Testament imagery. It became the symbol for the movement, spreading to Berlin and other churches in East Germany which supported, and provided havens, for the nonviolent resistance.
When I asked Sigrid what access the movement had to training or resources to maintain nonviolent commitment and discipline, she smiles and shakes her head from side to side: ‘We had none, just the teaching from the gospel, we just followed it.’
She explains the simple, yet profound strategy that proved the decisive factor.
‘We held a candle in one hand, and with the other we held the hand of the person next to us – this way no one could throw a stone at the police. This is how we kept the peace.’
It left East Germany’s hardline riot police baffled.
At one point Sigrid, a board member of the church at the time, was called to the Mayor’s office and urged to stop the weekly meetings. She told the mayor they would continue.
Another time the Stasi, East Germany’s notorious security agency, sent 1000 agents to one of the gatherings. They sat through the prayers and reflection, listened to the radical message of the gospel and, it’s claimed, many were profoundly affected as they heard the Sermon the Mount being read and discussed for the first time.
Then on October 9, 1989, more than 2000 people leaving the church were welcomed by an estimated 70,000 waiting outside with candles in their hands chanting ‘We are the people’. It was at this point, Sigrid explains, a miracle of peace and nonviolence occurred.
‘Troops and the police were drawn in, became engaged in conversations, then withdrew. Nobody triumphed over the other, nobody lost face.’
The next week, 120,000 people showed up, the following week, the number more than doubled to 320,000.
This consistent, peaceful, respectful, nonviolent pressure, lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9 and the East German ideological dictatorship collapsed.
‘We planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers,’ said Horst Sindermann a former East German Central Committee member years later.
The Monday night prayers for peace continue at Nikolaikirche. Leipzig’s down-and- outs come for a coffee and chat – it is still a church ‘open for all.’ Programs for the unemployed and migrants are staffed by volunteers such as Sigrid who follow a simple teaching, a teaching that, when practised by the people together, is known to lead to revolution.
Donna Mulhearn is an Australian journalist and peace activist currently travelling through Germany gathering stories on the impact of war. She is en-route to Iraq where she will document the impact of depleted uranium weapons on the Iraqi community.