From the beginning, life in the GDR was extremely difficult. Limited resources and freedoms created a deep sense of unease and dissatisfaction among the people. On June 17, 1953, a spontaneous protest broke out in East Berlin against the government and its imposed living standards. This uprising of some 50,000 people was forcefully stopped by Russian soldiers, killing at least 125. Because more East Germans were flocking to the West, the government began construction of the Berlin Wall on August 12, 1961. The physical division of the city was symbolic of the political and ideological division between East and West Germany.
Fast forward to 1989, the fortieth anniversary of East Germany. Mikhail Gorbachev’s young policies of economic perestroika (restructuring) and public glasnost (openness) had relaxed the once hard-line government, but were not enough to prevent an imminent collapse of the Soviet system. In May, Hungary broke with Warsaw Pact protocol and tore down its barriers along the Austrian border, inciting 661 East Germans to escape across. Like a broken dam, similar-minded East Germans began flooding the West German diplomatic missions of various communist countries looking for asylum. When Hungary officially opened its border to Austria on 11 September, 15,000 East Germans crossed it into the West, with more continuing to do so at a rate of 10,000 each day.
At this same time, internal public opposition began to strengthen and grow in East Germany. Since 1982, people had been gathering at the Nikolaikirche in the centre of Leipzig every Monday to pray for concerns of both a personal and political nature. Over time this practice spread to other churches, and the tone became increasingly political. It was during these Monday prayer sessions that people began expressing not only their worries, but also solutions and courses of action.
Grassroots organisations were forming in direct opposition to the state - a clearly illegal gesture. Once organised, the people were emboldened by their size and solidarity. The Monday prayer services in the Nikolaikirche soon transformed into political protests on the square. After the service, the people would gather and walk peacefully to the centre of town holding lit candles.
These assemblies grew to extraordinary numbers and, in cases such as on October 2, were violently broken up by police. By October 16, 120,000 people had gathered for the Monday demonstration. Their calls for reform, however, fell on deaf ears. Instead, Erich Honecker, East German head of state, resigned on October 18 among cries of ‘we are the people’. Honecker’s sacrifice wasn’t enough, however. More and more people came to the Monday demonstrations with demands for ‘new thinking’.
The number of protesters in October peaked on the 30th with 300,000. Throughout it all, the demonstrators always emphasised non-violent means to change. Whenever a situation between the people and the police got out of hand, chants of ‘No violence!’ rose up from the crowd. The original intent was not to overthrow the government, but rather to reform it internally. The Monday demonstrations spread to other cities, increasing the pressure. In a last attempt to maintain power, the entire government resigned to appease the people, but it is too little, too late. Two days later, as a result of a miscommunication, East Germans were permitted to pass freely through the Berlin Wall. The end of the GDR had come.