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The Triumph of Nonviolence in Leipzig (October 9, 1989)

A contemporary witness recounts the events of Monday, October 9th in Leipzig, beginning with the GDR regime’s early-morning preparations for the city-wide demonstrations scheduled for later that day. As author Wolfgang Schneider recalls, local communist authorities and police forces anticipated violence and prepared themselves accordingly. In the end, however, 70,000 “fearful yet unyielding” demonstrators remained calm and peaceful in the face of massive security forces, and local leaders opted for restraint. This opened the door for further protests under the slogan “we are the people.”

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A great deal has been written and even more has been speculated about the course of events on that fateful Monday. It is still unclear whether a special order to shoot was in place on October 9th in Leipzig. The clarification of this question, still pending, is not even of decisive historical relevance, since Secret Order No. 8/89 (decreed on September 26 by the Chair of the National Defense Council, Erich Honecker) was still in force with no restrictions. With respect to the expected "riots," it clearly stated, "They are to be prevented from the start." And there was yet another clear instruction: "hostile actions should be prevented offensively."

Just how literally the Leipzig police leadership, chaired by the acting 1st Secretary of the SED district leadership, Helmut Hackenberg, took this order was already evident early that morning. Factory employees were warned against entering the downtown area after 4pm; mothers were supposed to pick up their children from inner-city day care centers and kindergartens by 3pm; schoolchildren and students were threatened with expulsion should they participate in "actions." The city was abuzz with rumors. There were furtive whispers about gunmen on centrally located buildings, fears about the deployment of paratroopers, and it was understood that the NVA* helicopter squadron in Cottbus had been put into "command-readiness." Reports about security-force bases in Küchenholz and Rosental were more reliable, as were those on preparations being made at the agra fairground in nearby Markkleeberg for the internment of "the delivered" (this had already been rehearsed on October 7). Churches were to be kept open for escapees, and a medical station was set up in St. Thomas posthaste. Emergency beds were set up in hospitals, and particular attention was given to the staffing of surgical and intensive care stations. Thousands of additional units of stored blood were ready and waiting. [ . . . ]

That day Leipzig resembled an armed camp. According to later testimony from the riot police, officers had been told that morning that a peaceful outcome to the demonstrations was unlikely, and that they should prepare for possible acts of violence. Accordingly, they wore riot gear: helmets with visors and neck protection, shields, gas masks (tear gas had been acquired in large quantities), truncheons, and so-called RKWs**; officers were armed with pistols, and dog teams were also deployed. On the courtyard of the VP*** District Authority, "munitioned up" armored trucks stood ready, huge steel giants with bulldozing capacity; the drivers were armed with submachine guns and sixty shots of ammunition apiece. The police troop numbered three thousand men, twelve hundred of whom had been brought over from the Halle and Neubrandenburg districts. In addition, there were five squadrons of Factory Combat Groups [Betriebskampfgruppen] and a special police task force from the Ministry for State Security. The number of those called in ran into the four figures, and their arsenals contained more than just handguns. [ . . . ]

* NVA [Nationale Volksarmee]: literally, National People's Army – trans.
** RWK [Reizwurfkörper]: CS gas projectiles – trans.
*** VP [Volkspolizei]: People's Police – trans.

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