The problem with collective action is you can’t do it on your own. Massive popular collective action emerges from mysterious movements in the Zeitgeist, but it also requires dedicated organizing that often seems not just unlikely but almost miraculous. When it happens, however, popular collective action can upend immutable social realities, make the impossible probable, and achieve an historic jerk toward freedom and democracy in the most hopeless of circumstances.
I was reminded of this when I visited St. Nicholas Church (Nikolaikirche) in Leipzig last summer. 26 years ago, the city was part of East Germany, the most thoroughly organized system of repression in the string of East European “people’s republics.” A simple 8-panel pamphlet provided by the church takes 2 panels to explain the building’s cobbled-together character as pieces were added, restored, or redone in different architectural styles since the church was founded in the 12th century. In passing, those 2 panels also mention that Johann Sebastian Bach was once the organist and choir director there. The other 6 panels, however, are devoted to explaining the central role the church played as a gathering place for nonviolent protesters in the 1980s, leading to the night of October 9, 1989 when, according to the pamphlet, a “miracle” happened.
For most of the 1980s the church had held Monday evening “prayer meetings” that had initially included a few dozen people focused on planning anti-nuclear protests. Over time the meetings began to attract hundreds as the church welcomed East German dissidents of all kinds, “Christians and Non-Christians alike.” By 1989 Nikolaikirche was filling its 2,000 seats with people unified around both open borders and democratic reform but divided between “We want to leave” and “We’re staying here.” Against the background of ongoing peaceful revolutions in Communist Eastern Europe in 1989, East Germany was seen as the place where both the peace and the revolutionary processes would end. By September, head of government Erich Honecker was openly threatening “the Chinese solution,” referring to the massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square that May. The evening of October 9 in Leipzig was supposed to be the German Tiananmen.
The “Monday prayers” had become protest demonstrations disrupting traffic on the 10-lane ring road surrounding central Leipzig. These had started with a thousand or so demonstrators, but in the two weeks prior to October 9 they had attracted first six thousand and then ten thousand. Organizers hoped for double or even triple that on October 9. Orders from Honecker were to stop the march at the “Eastern Knot” using “all measures necessary” and to “fight them with no compromises.”
While organizers preached the gospel (and the tactics and mechanics) of nonviolence, they did not gainsay the expectation that violence would be used against them, and government media did more than hint that October 9 would be a final showdown. By mid-afternoon Nikolaikirche had filled its pews for its 5 pm prayer, and thousands more were gathering outside and at other churches nearby. It was a quiet, fearful crowd, by most accounts, punctuated more by nervous chatter than by joy at seeing the numbers gathering inside the ring. Organizers had hoped for 20 or 30 thousand, the government had prepared for “as many as 50 thousand.” At 6:30, as the crowds pushed onto the ring road off Karl Marx Square and headed north for the “Eastern Knot,” local government officials told East Berlin headquarters that “there are 100 thousand, if not more.” This massive number paralyzed the central government for 45 minutes, leaving the final order to impose the Chinese solution to local officials. They decided not to.
As Honecker planned aerial bombing of the ring road for the following Monday’s demonstration, he was deposed in an internal government coup. A month later the Berlin Wall fell. Shortly after that the Velvet Revolution began in Czechoslovakia, followed by others in the Eastern Bloc and eventually in the Soviet Union itself.
The “miracle” of October 9 in Leipzig is not only that the government did not massacre thousands and disperse the crowd, or that the protestors remained nonviolent. To me, the greater miracle is the tens of thousands of individual decisions by those who showed up that night, especially those not previously active, despite the Great Fear the government had tried to instill – or possibly because of it. Why did people not crawl deeper into the repressive holes of their private lives and instead show up to be shot or imprisoned? Was it simply wits-end desperation or a new sense of possibility? Was it a principled decision to stand up for one’s own and others’ humanity come what may or was it simply a desire to be part of the action with plans to run if things went bad?
In Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, contributors analyze Leipzig and 18 other experiences of non-violent “revolutionary crowds” from India and the U.S. civil rights movement to Ukraine (in 2004) and Burma. Co-editor Timothy Garton Ash discerns “an international learning chain” in these experiences, with organizers and activists learning from each other’s successes and failures. But these studies cannot adequately account for why so many people show up when they do. “I have spent many hours of my life standing in revolutionary crowds,” Ash comments, “and they remain gloriously mysterious. What is it that sways them one way or another? Who is that comes up with the chants that erupt, apparently spontaneously, as the crowd speaks back to the speaker as if it were itself one person?” He calls these “pentecostal moments, when ordinary men and women speak as if inspired.”
On my visit, I walked the Leipzig ring road and was amazed to see a huge commemorative mural splashed across the Leipzig Marriott Hotel overlooking a ring-road parking lot and facing “the Eastern Knot.”
This crazy mural shows one-eyed expressionless cartoon characters massing on two sides of a broken wall, some escaping in a hot-air balloon, but most are gathered around banners reading “Freedom,” “Democracy Now,” and “We’re staying here.” The more I looked at that mass of cartoonish humanity, the more I was struck by how “gloriously mysterious” such “pentecostal moments” are. The artist, Michael Fischer-Art, must have realized that any interpretation of what people were thinking or feeling during that moment could not have been accurate and would have dissipated the mystery.
What is not mysterious is the “international learning chain” that today’s organizers, professional and volunteer, are employing and advancing to create these moments – or rather to create the conditions that, when circumstances align, can bring masses of people into action to jerk the arc of history toward justice. I’ve been fortunate to be organized by some of them in my time, and they’re a bit of a mystery, too. What keeps them motivated day in and day out to pursue the smallish efforts that might win small victories that just might lead to larger ones? Some are crazy optimists who see possibilities where I see only obstacles, but many are severely realistic with a certain “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will” that seems thoroughly unnatural to me.
As I begin a new year with more worried Weltschmerz than I’m used to, I’m glad I spent a few days last summer as a tourist in Leipzig. It reminds me of all those young organizers I know (some now middle-aged) who persist in small groups in hopes of creating larger ones. It reminds me that sometimes their persistence results in pentecostal moments and new links in the learning chain – and sometimes even miracles.
Chicago Working-Class Studies
Excellent piece of writing. The sixties continues to fascinate me for the same reason. Why did all of those mass events happen, and happen then? It is inherent in their nature that they seem impossible before they happen, inevitable after they happen.
A wonderful & inspiring piece, Jack. Thank you for sharing it.
Nice piece Jack, thank you! I’ve been thinking a lot about the difficulty of collective action lately as we continue to have no state budget in PA!