Leipzig makes the leap to travel destination

  • By Rick Steves Herald Columnist
  • Friday, May 10, 2013 10:32am
  • Life

Once trapped in communist East Germany, bustling Leipzig is now a city of business and culture.

It’s also a city of great history: Martin Luther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Richard Wagner, Angela Merkel, and many other German VIPs have spent time here.

There are many reasons for visitors to spend time here, too. Music lovers can make a pilgrimage to St. Thomas Church — where Bach was a choirmaster — and to the excellent museum dedicated to him.

Art lovers will enjoy the Museum of Fine Arts, history buffs can trek to a Napoleonic battle site at the edge of town, and those turned on by hip hangouts can flock to the Sudmeile district.

But there’s another compelling reason to visit. The people of Leipzig were at the forefront of the so-called “Peaceful Revolution” that toppled the post-war communist government.

The famous scenes of Berliners joyfully partying atop the Wall were made possible by lesser-known protests that began in Leipzig in 1982. These eventually came to a head in a series of civil-disobedience actions that caught the regime completely off-guard in 1989.

Expecting an armed insurrection, the communist leaders were so flummoxed by the peaceful tone of the protests that they simply allowed them to continue.

The epicenter of these events was St. Nicholas Church — Leipzig’s oldest — located in the compact downtown core called Mitte.

As anti-communist sentiment grew, the church was a major staging ground for the Peaceful Revolution. People would bravely go inside the church to meet, not knowing what would happen to them when they came back out.

To mark those protests near the church there are now multicolored panels in the pavement that light up after dark and on the streets of the Mitte, are murals commemorating the anti-communist events.

The city center also has two museums that document life behind the Iron Curtain. One is the Stasi Museum in the “Runde Ecke” — the notorious so-called “Round Corner” building — where the communist secret police (Stasi) detained and interrogated those suspected of being traitors.

That same building now houses a ramshackle but intriguing exhibit about those harrowing times. More than two decades later, the museum and its committee are still going strong.

The other museum — the Contemporary History Forum — is funded by the German government. This center examines life in a divided Germany (1945 to 1990), focusing mainly on the East but dipping into the West to provide contrast.

There’s still a surprising gap between the psyches of the East and West. My guide to Leipzig was a Western German now living in the East whose wife grew up in the communist “DDR” (the initials for the old East German regime).

My guide said that only about 1 percent of Germans are in “mixed marriages” between Easterners and Westerners. And more than 20 years after reunification, half of all Western Germans still have never been to the East.

His wife, who had participated in the quiet rebellion, spoke of leaving the church cupping candles to let the soldiers know they were unarmed. She said people also held their babies up as human shields.

Located on the way between the former East Germany (Berlin and Dresden) and the former West (Frankfurt and Nurnberg), Leipzig is a bridge between those two worlds.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

© 2013 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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