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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Eighteen: Leipzig

Gunter Böhnke 
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In Leipzig with Gunter Böhnke, comedian and satirist. Who better qualified to explain what went wrong with the GDR?
Michael Palin - New EuropeWe meet up for a coffee in St Nicholas' Square, beside the Nikolaikirche, the church which during the 1980s became the focus of opposition to the socialist regime, which had demolished another church nearby. On 9 October 1989 the congregation came out and instead of going home, remained in the square. Anti-government banners were unrolled and, very rapidly, people began to join them. Gunter says he feared violence, there were plenty of tanks nearby, but thinks that the sheer size of the protest took both sides by surprise.

'If it had been 7,000 they would have opened fire, but when they saw there were 70,000 the order wasn't given.' The turning point had come, and nobody was quite prepared for it.

In the square today a discreet little plaque set into the cobbles shows in children's shoeprints the significance of that demonstration, when the people of Leipzig voted with their feet.

The GDR was never overtly sustained by military force, relying instead on an intense and comprehensive surveillance system run by the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, the Ministry of State Security, known to all as the Stasi. They operated a network of informers so extensive that estimates say one in every sixty inhabitants of the GDR was informing on someone else.

We walk down towards the old Stasi headquarters, passing on the way a series of condemned housing blocks which the city, unable to afford to demolish them, has wrapped in huge sheets and commissioned an artist to decorate with a series of massive murals.

The offices from which the Leipzig Stasi kept an eye on the two and a half million people in their district was built for an insurance company just before the First World War, and during Stasi days was known and feared as the Runde Ecke, the Round Corner. It's a self-important building on a busy corner opposite the Felix Mendelssohn High School for Music and Theatre.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Eighteen: Leipzig
  • Country/sea: Germany
  • Place: Leipzig
  • Book page no: 273

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