Photos by Hansjoerg Niethammer
Leipzig is known as the city of Martin Luther and the Lutheran Reformation, Johann Sebastian Bach, the St. Thomas Boys Choir, and of the Peaceful Revolution of 1989, which brought down the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Empire. Leipzig is today as it was a thousand years ago, the market place of Europe and the economic capital of the region. To navigate this fascinating city, we turned to Tour Guide Sylvia Rebbelmund.
From Sylvia, we learned that the city was founded at the intersections of two main medieval trade routes and was established by business owners from many different cultures. With her binder of photos, which shows the city in all its glory, past, present and future, we discovered that in the 1920’s one-third of the world’s fur trade was conducted in Leipzig. Most of the downtown buildings were built to be trade fairs and sample rooms, which are connected by thirty (somewhat) secret passageways and courtyards. It was these free trade fairs that drove innovations and the exchange of ideas. It was the merchants, not the nobility, who opened schools and music academies, established choirs, and supported the arts. Even during its time as part of the Soviet Empire as the German Democratic Republic (GDR), it stayed true to its friends and its beliefs. Today, with the youngest and most educated citizens in the nation, industry is thriving, high tech companies are moving in, and its unemployment is the lowest per capita in the country. It is also home to the oldest business school in Germany where all the classes are taught in English, the language of business. It is also a very green city with one-third of the city covered in green belts, with a multitude of parks and lakes. It is also extremely multi-cultural and LGBT-friendly.
The day before we arrived, 300 anti-immigration protesters marched only to have their speakers muffled by more than 3,000 counter marchers who chanted, “All are welcomed!” and “We are the people.” It was very reminiscent of what happen in 1989.
The Peaceful Revolution
No visit to Leipzig would be complete without a visit to the Stasi Museum in the Round Corner, where we met Mrs. Irmtraut Hollitzer, the former member of the the Citizens’ Committee on the Dissolution of State Security. Her personal story of perseverance, struggle, and desire for a life of freedom for herself and her four children is worthy of a Hollywood thriller. She had the foresight, with her son, Tobias Hollitzer, to join a group of fellow citizens in seizing of control of the Stasi Headquarters to prevent its agents from destroying their files so that the world would never forget the crimes of the German Democratic Republic. As she walked around the museum with us, she told us her story.
When the Allies carved up Germany at the end of the war, in which 62 million people were killed, Leipzig was included in the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic, also known as East Germany. The Soviets brought their secret police with them, the KGB, which they called the Stasi, and began surveillance of its own citizens, creating distrust among family and friends in a campaign of sociological and psychological terror and intimidation.
The Hollitzer family, like so many others, were frustrated with the lack of opportunity, liberty, jobs, and the ability to travel (East Germans were the only citizens in the Soviet Empire which were specifically forbidden to travel to the West). They joined their neighbors and friends at Saint Nicholas Church on Mondays to pray for peace. Over the years, the police and the Stasi gathered names and addresses of those who attended and threatened them with violence. Young Tobias was soon on the Stasi radar because he organized groups to help clean up the river Pleisse, as well as musical performances in the city’s squares.
In preparation for their march, they used the mimeograph machine from Saint Nicholas church to spread the word and to invite other congregations to join them. As their numbers grew they took their protest to the streets. They marched for human rights and a free press. They practiced non-violence techniques; they did not throw rocks, and not a single window as ever broken. They lit candles, marched arm-in-arm, and shouted “We are the people!” and “We want to leave!” and “No violence!” They were beaten. Young men were snatched up and taken way for “temporary detention” or were “disappeared,” a euphemism which meant they were murdered.
On October 9th, 1989, just two days after the 40th anniversary of the founding of the GDR, more than 70,000 people from all over the region gathered at St. Nicholas Church and marched on the ring road past the train station, churches, and to the Stasi Headquarters where they placed lighted candles. They knew Mikhail Gorbachev was in Berlin that night, so they also shouted, “Gorby, Gorby, Gorby!”
In the back of her mind, Irmtraut Hollitzer remembered the last time East Germanys protested. It was June 17, 1953, and police and soldiers opened fire on those protesters, killing 55 and injuring 25. She left the march to go home to her daughter, just in case the same thing would happen that night, only to discover all four of her children were at the protest which proved that the power of one voice, joined by thousands, can transformed lives and the whole world.
As feared by the protesters, the police chief and his 8,000 armed officers had been prepared to shoot them as they protested. The hospital had been banking blood. Arrangements had been made to detain 1,300 people in solitary confinement. Overwhelmed by the more than 70,000 protesters, the police chief called his superiors in Berlin for instructions. Time after time no one answered the phone, and he refused to give the order to shoot.
Eventually the crowds dissipated and the people went home. Four weeks later, the Berlin Wall fell. This protest became known as the Peaceful Revolution and inspired other East Germans to protest as well.
When the Hollitzers and the “Leipziger Bürgerkomitee” took over the Stasi Headquarters, they found 1.5 million bullets, 7,000 hand grenades, machine guns, and even 31kg plastic explosives that the Stasi were ready to use on its own people. They also found evidence that the Stasi stole $32 million in German marks by opening its citizens’ mail during just a single Christmas holiday season.
St. Thomas Church
A Houston Connection
While visiting Saint Thomas Church, we ran into Houston’s own, the Reverend Doctor Robert G. Moore, formerly the senior pastor at Rice Village’s Christ the King Lutheran Church. Moore, along with his wife Kathy, is spending the next three years as a guest pastor at the historic St. Thomas Church and as the Reformation Ambassador for the City of Leipzig and the Director of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Wittenberg Center, all the while hoping to perfect his German language skills. Moore is thrilled that his former congregation’s Bach Society is one of the mote than 130 groups who will be performing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach which was inspired in great part by Martin Luther’s biblical translations. Christ the King Church has a long standing relationship with St. Thomas Church. The congregation has served for decades as one of the centers for the work of the Houston-Leipzig Sister City Association which donated a new stain glass window honoring the 20th anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution.
The Peace Window at St. Thomas Church
Theologians like Moore are using this anniversary to reexamine what we know about Martin Luther, reading such major works as The Freedom of the Christian. Musing as to whether he really nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, Moore is skeptical.
“As a very pious man, Luther would not have desecrated the church door,” stated Moore. “Anyway, during that time, notices were posted on the church door with a bit of wax, not nailed to the door.”
From Thread to Art
Leipzig still has many industrial building in the suburbs, including the largest cotton mill in continental Europe. The complex now known as The Spinnerei was the largest importer of cotton from the southern states of the USA, before and after the Civil War. It was built to last, with three-foot-thick brick walls and a steel-tiled floor, this massive complex of factory, living quarters, and gardens was home to more than a thousand workers. The building is believed to have survived the unrelenting bombing of the city because they had planted chives on the roof as a cooling agent. Many speculate that at 10,000 feet, the chive covered roofs looked like fields, and thus was not bombed.
After the war, the factory went through several owners and different uses before being decommissioned in 1992. It was saved from vandals by artists looking for cheap spaces to work and live. Now known as Spinnerei, it is home to galleries, exhibition halls, a movie theatre, and about 100 artist studios, many of which we visited. The Spinnerei is also home to the so-called “New Leipzig School,” with renowned artist Neo Rauch as its most famous member. With eleven galleries, an art supply store, and a chic café, a visit to Spinnerei is the perfect way for art lovers to spend the day.
If you go
WHERE TO STAY
Located conveniently near the main train station, Opera House and the historic and downtown district.
via Leipzig Erleben
WHERE TO EAT
Auerbachs Keller is one of the most famous restaurants in the world, having been immortalized in Johann Wolfgang Goethe drama, Faust. Enjoy traditional Saxon/German Cuisine.
Madler Passage, Grimmaische Strasse 2-4
WHERE TO DRINK COFFEE
Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum. Coffee has been a favorite beverage in Leipzig since it was introduced in 1711. Grab a coffee from the bar on the ground floor, or enjoy lunch or dessert at Café Francais or the Vienna Café on the second floor.
FOR GREAT VIEWS OF THE CITY
Panorama Tower, Augustusplatz 9. Amazing 360-degree view of the entire city, perfect for skyline photos at sunset. Panorama-leipzig.de
The Monument to the Battle of the Nations, Str. des 18. Oktober 100, stadtgeschichtliches-museum-leipzig.de/site_deutsch/voelkerschlachtdenkmal/ Set in a beautiful park with a reflection pond, the views from the top illustrate why Leipzig is known as a green city.
HISTORY OF LEIPZIG
Stasi Museum in the Round Corner
Forum of Contemporary History also known as the Tearful Palace
Explore the history of World War II in Germany and Europe through artifacts and videos. Tissues are available.
Grimmaische Strasse 6
Mr. Dace and Mr. Niethammer were the guests of the City of Leipzig.