The University that brought down a regime

By Carlos S. Francis

St Pauls church Leipzig
University of Leipzig with St Pauls Church © Universität Leipzig

For more than 700 years St Paul’s University Church, the heart of the University of Leipzig (1409), had survived. The Thirty Years War (1618-48) that killed 20 percent of all Germans, the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), and even the ferocious Anglo-American air raid on December 4, 1943 that showered bombs on the city, had not touched it. The bombs slid off the steeply sloping roof and the interior of the church was untouched. The brave people of Leipzig threw water at the roaring flames and rushed into the burning church to save priceless artifacts.

After all, the Church was the symbol of the city. Just as Notre Dame is the symbol of Paris.

First founded in 1229, as a Dominican Abbey, just inside the Eastern city walls, the church had become the center of the city as the city grew, prospering from trade and then industrialization. Dedicated in 1240, and renovated in the 15th century, Martin Luther, the monk at the center of the 16th century Reformation, preached in the Church, which became Protestant in 1545. It was left unscathed by the religious wars that swirled around. A quote from an old travel book captured its splendor. “St Paul’s Church was known as one of the most splendid, well preserved, open churches of Middle Germany it was ornate with tombs, epitaphs and other artifacts, intertwined with a tradition of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music and the history of the Reformation”

The use of “was” is significant. It no longer exists. 

University of Leipzig with St Pauls Church
University of Leipzig with St Pauls Church

The Church was destroyed. Not by war. By a deliberate act. An act that eventually, a mere 21 years later, would destroy the GDR.

After 1968, there are no references to the Church in official guide books of the GDR. For the regime itself had brought down the Church, using explosives, on May 30, 1968. That was the Day the GDR actually ended. For a regime that had a semblance of legitimacy based on the anti-Fascist resistance, starting in the 1930s, showed a brutality as callous as  Stalin’s Russia. In 1968, the hardline regime of Walter Ulbricht, a Leipziger mockingly called the “goatee” by the citizens of the GDR, decided to blow up the Church to redesign St. Augustus Square or Platz. At the center of this campaign was Paul Froehlich, the SED regional secretary who wanted to bring down the university church and the Augusteum to design what the party promised would be “the most beautiful square in Europe.” Of the five plans that the GDR regime had to redesign the Square only one let the church survive. This was the plan that the Communist GDR politburo would not approve. Four wanted the church destroyed.

To the shocked surprise of the people of Leipzig the Communist party chose the dull designs of the Berlin architect Prof. Henselmann, who had built the Stalin Allee in Berlin, over that of the local architect Siegel. The only difference was that Henselmann’s plans got rid of St Paul’s University Church.

The reason? Opposition groups, especially the Church, gathered in front of St Paul’s. Such protest was inspired by the Biblical verse “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”(Isaiah 2:4). A verse that is on the wall of the United Nations Headquarters in New York. A verse that inspired Christians to show up in small numbers to protest the GDR regime. As a symbol of their protest, inspired by pure idealism, they wore the ploughshares on their sleeves. For the regime this was an intolerable provocation. Just three hours away by road, the people of Prague had risen against their oppression, and the Warsaw Pact, including East Germany, had sent tanks against the people. 

The GDR, under the regime of Ulbricht, wanted to send a message. That message was the destruction of St Paul’s University Church.

St Pauls Church Leipzig being blown up
St Pauls Church Leipzig being blown up

To show the people of East Germany that the Communist party stood mighty over the people the party decided, on May 7, 1968 that the Church and the Augusteum, a neoclassical building of great beauty, were to be demolished. On May 30, the decision was carried out. At 10 AM on that day, all the church bells of Leipzig rang at the same time. A few minutes later the first muffled explosions were heard. Contemporary eyewitnesses describe how the first explosions knocked down the foundations of the 700-year-old Church. And then an enormous cloud of dust enveloped downtown Leipzig. It was the end of an era.
A brave graduate student and a friend at the Department of Physics at the University decided to protest. Their act would change history. Harald Fritzsch, and his friend, Guenter, bought a large piece of yellow cloth, about 2.5 x 5 square meters in a shop in Potsdam, painted the picture of the destroyed University Church with the inscription: “We Demand Reconstruction!”  and rigged it with a clock. Disguised as a worker, Gunther smuggled the banner into Congress Hall, part of the Leipzig Zoo, where the award ceremony of the International Bach Festival was to take place at the on June 20, 1968. At precisely 8.08 PM, during the award ceremony, the banner unfurled. The applause, the whistles, and the stomping of feet, lasted for more than six minutes and was a grand gesture of defiance from the people under the Communist regime since 1945. A Japanese and a Czech television crew recorded the act as cameras clicked. West German television picked up the event and broadcast it around the world. 

The regime was furious and the entire city was turned over. However, Fitscher and Guenter had made their plans. A few months earlier they had noticed that while East German police boats closed in on anyone who was sailing a boat on the open sea near the East German coast the same was not true of Varna in Bulgaria. They escaped to Turkey on a folding canoe. 

The event turned East German history. Paul Froehlich, Secretary of the East German Communist Party in Leipzig was seen as a possible successor to Ulbricht. He flew into a rage and had a heart attack. His death, a few months later, paved the way for Erich Honecker to become the next leader of East Germany. A moderate, unlike Froehlich who  destroyed the Church, Honecker set East Germany on a path of economic modernization in the 1970s. 

This wanton act of destruction did not destroy the spirit of resistance. The Evangelicals merely moved to St. Nikolai Church a mere 200 meters away. It was here that, in 1989, the protests that would eventually bring down the Soviet Empire, took place. 21 years later the Church had taken it’s revenge.