The Pastor’s Children

Remembering Leipzig's Christian Führer and the nobility of nonviolence that changed the world.

Sebastian Willnow/DDP
Sebastian Willnow/DDP

Christian Führer’s name had all but disappeared from the collective memory of the world beyond his native Mecklenburg by the time he died in July, earlier this summer. A smattering of English-language obituaries marked his passing as the Lutheran pastor from Leipzig and author of the protest movement that would ultimately topple the Berlin Wall, and with it the East German communist state.

But the enormity of what he accomplished — nonviolently, under the nose of the most insidious of the communist bloc’s police states — deserved more attention. That he passed without much acclaim outside his native land also says much about what has transpired over the past quarter century both in Germany and the "West," a euphemism enjoying new life thanks to Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.

Stoking anger at the East German regime’s cheerleading for the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Führer carefully nurtured frustration with the hypocrisy of the "my dialectic right or wrong" way of thinking that prevailed across the Soviet bloc in those days. It is easy to forget how little of the internal dissent we in the West actually saw. But Führer’s weekly "prayers for peace," hosted by the mild-mannered Lutheran pastor for years in the vestry of Leipzig’s Church of St. Nicholas — die Nikolaikirche — blossomed into a mass movement that changed the world.

From my one meeting with Führer, in 1990, I think that the relative lack of acclaim that accompanied his death would not have bothered him much. We met in a café not far from his church, but he insisted that we not use the church as a prop and that his role was merely as catalyst, not engineer, of the East German state’s demise. His quest had little to do with the self, he told me, shy and dressed in his standard uniform of stone-washed jeans. "We were not arrogant, we did not threaten," he told me. "But we insisted on the truth. I think that was the simple formula for success." He was an anachronism, particularly in post-war Europe, mixing man-of-the-cloth with man-of-the-Left, an advocate of non-violence focused on collective freedoms — spiritual, political, and intellectual.

In fact, his Monday Prayers for Peace had been going since the early 1980s when, on Sept. 4, 1989, the gathering finally spilled out of his church’s walls and took to the streets of Leipzig’s Karl Marx Platz. "Wir Sind das Volk!" (We are the people!) — they chanted in stunning defiance before being beaten and arrested. The gatherings swelled every successive Monday that autumn, in spite of threats and provocation of East Germany’s Stasi security forces. By Oct. 9, crowds outside his church had swollen to 70,000. Reports of hundreds of arrests and grave threats of a Tiananmen-style crackdown filled the state-controlled airwaves, but something in the air had changed. Surrogate radio broadcasts from the West told another truth. Police bullied, threatened, and jailed protestors, including Führer himself. But in a country that had tragically failed to stand up to its own government in the past, a cleansing moment had arrived.

"What I saw that evening still makes me shiver today. And if anything deserves to be called ‘miracle,’ then this was a miracle of Biblical proportions," the pastor told an interviewer in 2009 on the 20th anniversary of the protests. "We succeeded in bringing about a revolution that achieved German unity — this time without war and military might. After so much violence and so many wars that we, the Germans, so often started, this was a peaceful revolution. I will never forget that day."

Führer’s template — rising from below without a charismatic leader — has been adopted by one democracy movement after another since 1989. Some have been more successful than others in coopting rather than confronting the police, in emphasizing dignity over indignation, in staying on the path of nonviolence, or avoiding the descent into chaos or irrelevance. But none have so comprehensively changed history.

Brave activists and common citizens have tried and failed to replicate this success in Iran, Egypt, Venezuela, Syria, and countless other states where aggressive or brutal tactics eventually wore them down. Like the dissolution of the Soviet Union two years after Führer’s uprising and the creation of a quasidemocratic Russian state — an event that had its own cast of heroic dissidents — time has generally shown that movements led from above will collapse in on themselves, ossifying into autarky, dictatorship or worse. In effect, it is one thing for the army or a faction or an ethnic group to make common cause with "the people." It is quite another for the people themselves to drive events and to refuse to allow elements of the ancien regime to highjack the cause.

Defining what constitutes a popular uprising is a chump’s game: Most of those behind such upheaval will claim the mantle of "the people" at some point, and some may even mean it — for a while, at least. But the true test comes when power must again be shared, or transferred, in the democratic process. It is at this point that the fatal flaws in most such regimes emerge. Paranoia, paternalism, or simple criminal instincts come to the fore. Fidel Castro in 1959 decided the Cuban people could not be trusted with freedom. Russia, starting with its war against Georgia in 2008 and continuing in the eastern Ukraine today, has channeled the Argentine junta of 1992, opting for a dose of good old-fashioned territorial nationalism to keep complainers in check. Egypt’s army in 2013 decided the people, along with Egypt’s state-dominated economy, needed to be protected from the Muslim Brotherhood.

It’s all the more reason to marvel at the Leipzig miracle. Whether Führer himself coined the movement’s powerful riposte to the thugs who ran East Germany’s "people’s democracy" is unclear. True to form, he never claimed credit. But "Wir Sind das Volk!" elegantly called the totalitarian bluff and led directly to the end of the Cold War.

Or at least the end of the first Cold War. Cold War II is now discussed without irony, though it would be premature to declare it underway. However dire the current state of Russian-Western ties, the fact is the Iron Curtain of old is gone, and any attempt to erect a new one has been pushed 1,000 miles eastward. Literally hundreds of millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe have real freedoms of the kind Führer and his Leipzig followers fought to secure. That may not be as happy a narrative as the end of history, but at a time when the throw weight of Russian missile systems is suddenly back in the news, it’s certainly one worth celebrating.

Michael Moran is the New York-based Managing Director for Global Risk Analysis at Control Risks, and a visiting fellow for peace and security at the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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