The St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig — the Nikolaikirche in German — is a symbolic place in the history of the GDR. The Monday demonstrations that took place in front of its gates ushered in the end of the division between East and West Germany. Sophie Dollinger was born in Leipzig in 1988 and spent her childhood and youth there. Today she works at the Daimler Corporate Academy and lives in Stuttgart. In 2016 she was married in St. Nicholas in her home town.
Family members from East and West: A wedding in St. Nicholas
Sophie Dollinger and her husband were married in the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig on October 1, 2016. She was born in Leipzig, and he comes from Berchtesgaden in Bavaria. Today the couple lives in Stuttgart. When asked why they decided to hold their wedding in Leipzig, Sophie Dollinger says, “We love Leipzig. It’s not only my home town and the city where we first met, but also a place that has played a key role in recent history. We wanted to take our wedding guests along on a tour of Leipzig and its history — especially because most of our friends and relatives had heard how beautiful Leipzig is but had never experienced it for themselves.” The peaceful revolution that ended the GDR began in front of the gates of the St. Nicholas Church. For Sophie Dollinger, St. Nicholas is a symbol of freedom and the overcoming of borders.
At our wedding, a family from East Germany and one from West Germany came together in the St. Nicholas Church. Today it’s a matter of course, but 30 years ago it would have been unthinkable.
Praying for peace in the St. Nicholas Church: The birth of a social movement
Starting in November 1982, people came together to pray for peace every Monday in the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig. These meetings were initiated by the Evangelical Office for Young People in the state of Saxony in the GDR. The initiators and participants of these weekly meetings wanted to demonstrate their resistance against the buildup of nuclear weapons by the East and the West in the Cold War. The prayers for peace also offered a platform where people could express their hopes and fears. Because there was no space in the GDR for open political debate, people used this hybrid of a political event and a worship service for this purpose. This was where they discussed social and political issues, invited people to attend lectures, and prayed for peace. In a surveillance state with stringent limits on freedom of opinion, this was a singular series of events.
Parallel to the increasingly open criticism of the SED regime’s policies, the number of people participating in the prayers for peace grew significantly in 1989. These events acquired considerable political relevance. The SED regime tried to exert pressure on the church leadership and force it to regulate the content of the prayers, but the participants refused to be intimidated. They changed the venue of their meetings, first to the courtyard of St. Nicholas and then to the streets. Simple prayers for peace became peaceful protest demonstrations whose main organizing principle was nonviolence.
The Monday demonstrations in 1989
The Monday demonstrations officially began on September 4, 1989. Directly after praying for peace in the St. Nicholas Church, a crowd of people gathered together to demonstrate for freedom and civil rights. Their main demand was for an improvement of the living conditions in the GDR. The number of demonstrators grew rapidly: In the course of two months, the initial number of 1,000 demonstrators increased to 20,000, and by October 9, 1989 it had swelled to 70,000.
Peaceful demonstrations modeled after the one in Leipzig were also held in other parts of the GDR. On November 4, 1989 the biggest demonstration in the history of the GDR, with about a million participants, took place in Berlin. The Berlin Wall came down five days later, and less than a year later this was followed by the reunification of East and West Germany.
The Leipzig Festival of Light
For a number of years now, the city of Leipzig has staged an annual Festival of Light on October 9. At this event, crowds of people gather and walk through the streets of Leipzig in memory of the Monday demonstrations and the peaceful revolution of the people of the GDR.
Sophie Dollinger has also participated in this event. This is what she tells us: “When I joined the first Festival of Light, I met many people who had participated in the demonstrations in 1989. It touched me deeply to see how strongly moved these individuals still were by these experiences. I still feel that the sheer number of people who demonstrated for this peaceful revolution back then was a miracle.”