Chapter 2
Revolution and Candles

Demonstration in Wittenberge on 15 January 1990
Demonstration in Wittenberge on 15 January 1990 | Photo: Horst Podiebrad ©

"In any case, it wasn't the lack of bananas that got us onto the streets, but this constant feeling of fear and that we wanted to finally express our opinion freely," recalls Katharina Steinhäuser from Jena.

By Regine Hader and Dr. Andreas Ludwig

The people address their cries "We are the people" directly to the SED and the state leaders. On the seventh of every month, demonstrators march through the streets to denounce the "overwhelming approval" of 98.85 percent of the SED's policies in the fake May 7, 1989 local elections.Every Monday after the prayers for peace in the churches of East Germany it becomes clearer that these numbers do not express the actual mood in the country. At the Monday demonstrations, citizens are demonstrating against the regime”.  

At first the mood is still tense and anxious", describes the contemporary witness, who herself was present in Jena - after all, all those present know exactly how the state deals with regime critics if there is any question. She describes this feeling as the fundamental tenor of the GDR: a humming or background noise of fear running in the background for years. "Of course, we were once happy, newly in love and young. But we were supposed to be shouting “Hurrah” all the time - and even that could be wrong. I remember a huge hopelessness"."Permanent, diffuse insecurity and fear of doing something wrong, of being imprisoned without rights and of being at the mercy of the state" clung to everyday situations and weapons. Katharina Steinhäuser remembers her first demonstration: "When I heard that thousands of people were demonstrating in Leipzig, I felt incredibly encouraged. I thought: Now you can no longer stand aside. Knowing how many there were already were gave us courage".

There’s an upbeat mood as they stand close by each other, dart off and light each other's candles. Although they are all too aware of the brutal attacks on demonstrators in the past, the consequences for their careers and their own lives, the demonstrators feel not only courage but also relief. After a "long period of depression", every shared step on the street feels like freedom. "Just demonstrating against the regime was a sudden change, to say: Here we go! We just plain won't keep quiet about anything that weighs us down any longer”.

Original banners of the Peaceful Revolution
Original banners of the Peaceful Revolution | Photo: Bernd Schmidt ©
The citizens of Leipzig are protesting two days after the brutally suppressed protests on the occasion of the 40th anniversary celebration in Berlin. "No violence", demand six prominent Leipzig citizens of the SED functionaries and actually achieve that the police present, the military and the "working class combat groups" remain passive. The 300,000 demonstrators finally circumnavigate the entire city centre of Leipzig on the Ringstrasse - a turning point.

Journalist Siegbert Schefke is covertly filming. His video is smuggled into West Germany, broadcast on West German television - and spreads the news of the peaceful revolution.

Call of the GDR opposition New Forum
Call of the GDR opposition New Forum | Photo: © Documentation Centre for Everyday Culture in the GDR
How does the opposition actually go about organising these protests? Someone secretly passes on a piece of paper, someone else hurries to copy it, the words on the calculating boxes look "innocent", almost like a transcript from school lessons - but in fact they are deeply political. With these loose sheets of paper the call of the new forum spreads within a few days. For the first time in the history of the GDR, opposition members seek official approval as a political group. These are the hours of repositioning - in a few days thousands of citizens will sign the initiative.

Read on in chapter 3