Every event in world history is twice told: first as a tale of heroism, then as a joke. 20 years ago, a West German satirical magazine lampooned the East German revolution with Zonen-Gaby on the cover, a GDR girl holding a half-peeled cucumber and saying “My first banana” with a tear running down her cheek.
We live in ironic times, an age sceptical of heroism. We have learned to fear heroism as a concomitant of war and dictatorship. In the past, the so-called Wende (“turnaround”) has been chiefly celebrated as the fall of the Berlin Wall, a blissful miracle that descended on the divided city of Berlin as a gift from on high. But there was always a whiff of the historical lie about the capital-centric commemoration: the drama did not climax in the politburo, but in Leipzig.
The city was first brought to its knees on 9 October, when 70,000 people took to the streets: their sheer numbers brought the machinery of repression to a grinding halt. The knock-on effect spread throughout the country, demoralising the regime. So it could be said that the Wall actually fell in Leipzig. No 9 October, no 9 November. And the 20th-anniversary commemoration goes to show that the rest of us have finally caught on.
Triumphant scenes of mass embraces on the Berlin border are now gradually giving way to images of the endless and eerily quiet, smoothly-flowing procession of Leipzig protestors. Gradually we are coming round to calling the Wende, a coinage of penultimate Chairman of the State Council Egon Krenz, by its rightful name – which isn’t the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s the Peaceful Revolution.
The funniest urban legend about the revolution makes a serious point: viz. the courage the Saxons showed early on, and the cowardice other East Germans ought to look back on in shame for having hit the streets too late in the day. The story goes that back in September and October of ’89, whenever a car pulled into a gas station with licence plates from any northern district in Saxony – let alone plates with an “I” for Berlin, the GDR capital –, the Saxon attendants would refuse to give them any gas, saying: First go demonstrate, then you can come back! We don’t know whether it really happened that way, but the feud has been going strong for 20 years now: Which is really the heroic city: Leipzig or Berlin?
Little photographic evidence of Leipzig demo
This revolutionary credit quarrel last broke out again in the controversy over the reunification memorial, when Leipzig felt passed over and had to be propitiated with €15 million to put up a memorial of its own. But that didn’t end the feud, which harks back to deep-seated animosities from the days of the GDR, when scorn for the capital was fuelled as much by rage against the machine as envy of party-liners’ privileges in East Berlin.
After all, for propaganda purposes the East German capital, the nation’s “westward-facing showcase”, was generally well-stocked with scarce commodities. Provincials viewed Berliners as party faithful, given their physical proximity to the centre of power, and felt theirs suspicions borne out in ’89 when the capital-dwellers brought up the rear. In fact the biggest Berlin rally, on 4 November, was officially authorised.
What inflames the inter-city rivalry today is the exaltation of Berlin as the symbol of reunification. The Wall actually did symbolise a divided Germany. But the images of people storming and dancing on the Wall that night must not obscure the historical fact that, the day of the decision, a fearful silence reigned in Berlin.
The fear has been somewhat forgotten because there are so few images of Leipzig’s first Monday marches in September and on to the 9th of October. Western journalists were accredited only for Berlin. Besides, it was dangerous to film, as the secret videos show: you see the helplessness of dispersed protestors and the oppressive closeness of the throng encircled by the police.
What you do not see is half a dozen armoured personnel carriers, the nervousness of the riot police, and the death threat looming in the air after Egon Krenz, on an official visit to China in late September, had rubber-stamped the Beijing massacre. That the people did not let that stop them is their great and enduring feat.
An irony of history: after the fact, the Leipzig SED apparatchiks and Berlin hierarchs took the credit for how peacefully it all went on 9 October. The most brazen falsifier of history that day would have to be Egon Krenz, who rang up Leipzig after the demonstrations were over and signed off on the “decision” not to fire on the protestors. Actually, there is no evidence of any such decision. But there is plenty to suggest that a bloodbath was only averted by the sheer absence of orders from higher up.
We still have to bring ourselves to recognise the anti-authoritarian brand of heroism that appeared on the scene at the time. Actually, contrary to what is widely recounted, there was no schism between Berlin and Leipzig: the dissident network extended throughout the German Democratic Republic. In September, Berliners went to Leipzig for the first demonstrations: in early October, Leipzigers went to Berlin. We do not have pictures of all the protests that autumn, but there were countless heroic towns – and villages. And if some are not writ as large in today’s tributes, that too lies in the nature of the peaceful revolutionaries.
They have not staked any claims to supremacy on the strength of their subversive deeds. Their weapon was bravery. Their tactic de-escalation, their strategy humility. You can tell the heroes of ’89 by the fact that they never claimed to be heroes.