LEIPZIG, Germany -- When Valentine Kosch went out to demonstrate that chilly October evening in Leipzig 10 years ago, she was fully prepared to be shot. If she did not return by 10 p.m., her husband was to assume the worst and take the two girls to their grandmother in Dresden to start a new life.
As she said goodbye to her 6-year-old and 3-year-old, perhaps for the last time, Kosch did not tell them all this, of course. She explained to the elder child that she was walking around the city's inner ring with some friends so that teachers would be nicer to their pupils.
This was a strong motivation. Kosch had been fired from one East German school for being too nice to her charges and softening the rote drill with more relaxed methods borrowed from Montessori schools.
She was not very interested in politics, but she did want her own girls to have a more normal childhood and not be bound in the straitjacket of the German Democratic Republic, as the Communist eastern part of Germany was then known.
And so at some point she had started taking part in the Monday prayers for peace at the St. Nicholas Protestant Church in the medieval center of Leipzig.
When the augmented congregation had begun the quiet, disciplined, hourlong march around the inner ring two weeks earlier, she had joined in. She approved the crowd's modest demands -- more democracy and legalization of New Forum, the quasi-political club that had just formed.
This time it could be dangerous, Kosch realized. The authorities were threatening a "Tianan-men," a repetition of the massacre of students in Beijing four months earlier. Extra beds were set up in Leipzig hospitals; extra blood plasma was stocked; local army units were on heightened alert.
Facing the Stasi
Worst of all, the dreaded Stasi secret police were ordered to use "all appropriate means" to stop the "counterrevolution." They were joined by special-operations police, workers' militia and assorted other security units to reach a massed force of 8,000. Old Stasi plans were even activated to put troublemakers into what amounted to concentration camps.
At any time in the previous 36 years, ever since East Berlin workers were gunned down by Soviet tanks, such intimidation would have worked. The Germans, after all, had rarely in their history displayed civil courage. And for the previous four decades, the East Germans had competed with the Bulgarians to be the most subservient to Moscow.
Yet on Oct. 9, 1989, something snapped. East Germans, of all people, decided they could no longer go on living in fear. Despite the conspicuous threats, 70,000 Kosches -- seven times the turnout of the week before -- gathered to march around the inner circle road, right past Stasi headquarters at Dietrich Ring.
As he watched the looming confrontation, the city's deputy Communist Party secretary, Roland Woetzel, grew more concerned. His boss and the city police chief had been phoning in periodic reports during the day to East Berlin, but were getting no clear instructions about how to proceed.
The 83-year-old hard-line Stasi chief, Erich Mielke, had issued the orders to carry weapons and go on "full operational alert," but on D-Day itself, he fell puzzlingly silent. Nor was East German leader Erich Honecker even answering the phone; he left that to his deputy, Egon Krenz, whose very hallmark was keeping his head down and waffling.
The uncertainty heightened the risks. Psyched-up security forces faced tense demonstrators; both were afraid and edgy. A single misjudgment by some nervous policeman or undertrained workers' militiaman -- or a provocation by Stasi hard-liners, or an impulsive act by impassioned protesters -- could have triggered bloodshed.
Both history and crowd psychology offer far more precedents of such a charged atmosphere exploding into violence than discharging itself harmlessly.
Gradually, a terrible realization dawned on Woetzel. In this supercentralized state in which provincial lieutenants had never been allowed (or even wanted) to take any initiative, the omnipotent hierarchy above them was now abdicating, without even saying so. The Leipzig lieutenants were suddenly, totally, on their own. If they let the day's drift continue, a clash seemed inevitable.
In the last hours before the prayer meeting began, Woetzel sped to the home of the Gewandhaus Orchestra conductor, Kurt Masur. The two men, along with a pastor, a cabaret actor and two other junior party secretaries, hammered out a plea for nonviolence and a "free exchange of views about the future of socialism in our land."
A half-hour before the 5 p.m. start of prayer meetings, their entreaty was read out in St. Nicholas and three other churches and broadcast over radio and public loudspeakers.
As the prayers ended shortly after 6 p.m. and demonstrators poured out to the streets, the Leipzig party secretary phoned Krenz one last time. It was zero hour. The second-most-powerful man in East Germany again equivocated, saying blandly that he would call back. The Leipzig lieutenants were on their own. Confrontation was all but programmed within 10 minutes, when the column would pass the heavily protected train station.
"A very, very long time passed," Woetzel recalled afterward. Then his boss turned to the three party deputies in his office and asked what they should do next.
Under the circumstances, it was marginally less risky to dare insubordination to sacrosanct standing orders than to dare violence. The three advised pulling back the security forces. The party secretary did so.
'We are the people'
"Democracy now or never!" "We want reforms!" "Out with the Stasi!" the demonstrators roared.
And again and again, in what would become the rallying call of the revolution, "We are the people!"
As the column approached secret police headquarters, a circle of demonstrators stepped forward as marshals to keep any hotheads from storming the door. In a spontaneous gesture of immense dignity, marchers slipped out of line, dripped hot wax on the Stasi steps, and planted their prayer candles there.
About 7: 15 p.m. Krenz finally returned the call to Leipzig. By then it was all over. The demonstrators were dispersing. Germany's first successful revolution in history was bloodless.
A week later Honecker, the strongman of 18 years, would be dumped by his own Politburo. A month later the infamous Berlin Wall would open as the example of Leipzig spread and the more timid East Berliners took to the streets.
Within two months the autocrats in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania would also be dethroned. A year later East and West Germany would unite.
Ten months after that, 25,000 Muscovites would defy centuries of Russian political passivity, imitate the Leipzig pattern, and thwart a hard-line Soviet coup. Four months after that the Soviet Union would cease to exist.
In the end, Valentine Kosch did not get shot. And that changed a world.
This article is based on interviews with the principals. Elizabeth Pond is the author of "Beyond the Wall, the Story of German Unification" and "The Rebirth of Europe, the Story of European Unification."