Monday, November 09, 2009

Leipzig, 1989

In 2002, I was one of the guests of honour at a science-fiction convention in Leipzig. I had a fine old time. My hosts took me and the other guests to the top of the Völkerschlachtdenkmal War Memorial, the largest war memorial in Europe, and held a celebratory dinner in Auerbach’s Keller, the cellar restaurant where Goethe is supposed to have received inspiration for Faust. I visited the monumental train station, too, and the church of St Thomas, where Bach was cantor, and where he is buried (a choir was rehearsing one of his cantos: a spine-tingling moment). My hosts also took me to the Nikolai Church, in the heart of the medieval part of the city, and showed me the former Stasi headquarters, partly converted to a nightclub, past which, in the last days of East Germany, candle-carrying citizens had walked once a week, risking their freedom in peaceful protest against the communist regime. The Nikolai Church and the story of the Monday demonstrations and those candle-lit walks left a lasting impression on me, and got me interested in nonviolent protest, something I'd later work into some of my fiction.

The fall of the Berlin Wall didn't begin in Berlin; it began in Leipzig, with those peaceful protestors. In 1989, prayers for peace, a regular Monday-night event in the Nikolai Church, became so swollen by citizens dissatisfied with the Communist government that nonviolent demonstrations began to be held in the nearby Karl Marx Square. Towards the end of October, over 320,000 people gathered in nonviolent protest - more than half the population of the city - and by then similar protests were being held in squares of other cities in East Germany: an inexorable tide of protest that led to the toppling of the wall, the end of the East German government, and the eventual reunification of Germany. Nonviolence doesn't always succeed, of course, but even when it's beaten down by determined and ruthless opponents, it can leave behind the seeds for change. In 1968, student protests in Warsaw and the Prague Spring were swiftly subdued; yet afterwards, as Michel Gorbachev admitted, nothing was the same again. The Soviets and their puppet governments had lost credibility, and the support of the people. When they were challenged again, twenty years later, they fell apart.

Where do science fiction writers get their ideas? Isn't it obvious?


Blogger saint said...

The actual night of the fall was precipitated by an offhand comment by an officiant reading an official statement about immigration. He was mistaken in his comment, but... well, the whole article is here on the professors' blog at Edge of the American West if you're interested.

it's that whole butterfly flapping it's wings thing.

November 09, 2009 10:56 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Yes, very good. All it needed was one little trigger...

November 09, 2009 11:01 pm  
Blogger George Berger said...

Here's something I seem to remember. I'm not certain. At least some of the German protestors were united in a group called Neues Forum , New Forum. It was explicitely non-violent. Many of its members were anti-Soviet but Socialist in various senses. Some wanted to correct the "Really Existing Socialism" that they lived under, by divorcing it from the Soviet system, getting rid of its defects, and in general by setting up a system of humanistic Socialism. I have no idea of which aspects of Western capitalism the members thought worth adopting, but I do know that many were Socialists. I also know that many were disappointed by the way things turned out. So was I.

November 13, 2009 10:29 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

As I rcall, there was the peace movement inside the Protestant church, and there was Neues Forum, which arrived much later on the scene, but was much bigger. And yes, if only, instead of rushing out to embrace freedom and getting clobbered by neoliberal capitalism at its worst, the best of socialism and western democracy could have achieved some kind of useful symbiosis... One of the other things I saw in Leipzig, in 2002, were giant empty factories rotting where they stood, doomed by a general movement of industry to the west.

November 14, 2009 3:41 pm  
Blogger George Berger said...

Thanks for confirming my memory Paul. All I know about is Neues Forum and the disappointment of some or all of it's members. The Germans later coined the word "Östalgie," That's short for "Nostalgia for how it once was in Eastern Germany." Clever but accurate. Several years ago I heard a morning interview with Professor Hobsbawm on BBC 4 radio. He said (roughly) "We had a choice between socialism and barbarism, and we chose the latter." I agree. The program was broadcast that evening agaIn, but in a ten minute shorter version. My partner and I listened, sure of what would happen. As we predicted, that great quote (from the name of a French periodical) was cut. I had a horrid image of the famous historian sitting at his radio and getting visibly angry. I did, and the image has not faded.

November 14, 2009 5:34 pm  

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