RIP Christian Führer, East German Peace Activist

In the early 1980s a church in Leipzig, East Germany’s ­second-­largest ­city, began holding “peace prayers” on Monday night. Two young pastors, Christian Führer and Christoph Wonneberger, at the Nikolaikirche, or St. Nicholas Church, led the services. As Andrew Curry wrote in the Wilson Quarterly, it was a dangerous undertaking, but the church was the only place where any dissent could be cautiously expressed. “The church was the one space someone could express themselves,” Führer said. “We had a monopoly on freedom, physically and spiritually.”

Through the 1980s, as Curry reported, the Monday meetings grew. Gorbachev’s reforms gave Eastern Europeans hope. But they knew their history.

In 1953, workers in 700 East German cities declared their opposition to the Unified Socialist Party of Germany, or SED, the party that was synonymous with the East German state, and demanded the reunification of the country. Soviet soldiers fired on demonstrators, and more than 100 were killed. In the years since, all opposition movements in the Soviet bloc had met the same fate: “’53 in Germany, ’56 in Hungary, ’68 in Prague, ’89 in ­China—­that’s how communism dealt with critics,” ­Führer says. 

Suddenly in 1989, with a breach in the Iron Curtain between Hungary and Austria, and Solidarity winning an election in Poland, more people started showing up for peace prayers, more than the small church could hold. People started flooding out of the church and marching with candles through Leipzig. Week by week that fall, more people joined the marches – hundreds, then thousands, then 70,000, 150,000, 300,000. And then, unbelievably, the Communist Party fell, the Berlin Wall opened, and East Germans were free after more than 40 years. As a Leipzig politician told me in 2006, “As it says in the Bible, we walked seven times around the inner city, and the wall came down.”

I was saddened to read that Christian Führer died Monday in Leipzig at 71. “Führer” is a German word meaning “leader.” Christian Führer was truly a Christian leader.

I talked about the Monday prayers and the fall of communism in this 2012 speech: