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East Germany's angel of peace

  • 04 July 2012

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: