The Pastor's Children

Remembering Leipzig's Christian Führer and the nobility of nonviolence that changed the world.

Christian Führer's name had all but disappeared from the collective memory of the world beyond his native Mecklenburg by the time he died in July, earlier this summer. A smattering of English-language obituaries marked his passing as the Lutheran pastor from Leipzig and author of the protest movement that would ultimately topple the Berlin Wall, and with it the East German communist state.

But the enormity of what he accomplished -- nonviolently, under the nose of the most insidious of the communist bloc's police states -- deserved more attention. That he passed without much acclaim outside his native land also says much about what has transpired over the past quarter century both in Germany and the "West," a euphemism enjoying new life thanks to Vladimir Putin's aggression in Ukraine.

Stoking anger at the East German regime's cheerleading for the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Führer carefully nurtured frustration with the hypocrisy of the "my dialectic right or wrong" way of thinking that prevailed across the Soviet bloc in those days. It is easy to forget how little of the internal dissent we in the West actually saw. But Führer's weekly "prayers for peace," hosted by the mild-mannered Lutheran pastor for years in the vestry of Leipzig's Church of St. Nicholas -- die Nikolaikirche -- blossomed into a mass movement that changed the world.

From my one meeting with Führer, in 1990, I think that the relative lack of acclaim that accompanied his death would not have bothered him much. We met in a café not far from his church, but he insisted that we not use the church as a prop and that his role was merely as catalyst, not engineer, of the East German state's demise. His quest had little to do with the self, he told me, shy and dressed in his standard uniform of stone-washed jeans. "We were not arrogant, we did not threaten," he told me. "But we insisted on the truth. I think that was the simple formula for success." He was an anachronism, particularly in post-war Europe, mixing man-of-the-cloth with man-of-the-Left, an advocate of non-violence focused on collective freedoms -- spiritual, political, and intellectual.

In fact, his Monday Prayers for Peace had been going since the early 1980s when, on Sept. 4, 1989, the gathering finally spilled out of his church's walls and took to the streets of Leipzig's Karl Marx Platz. "Wir Sind das Volk!" (We are the people!) -- they chanted in stunning defiance before being beaten and arrested. The gatherings swelled every successive Monday that autumn, in spite of threats and provocation of East Germany's Stasi security forces. By Oct. 9, crowds outside his church had swollen to 70,000. Reports of hundreds of arrests and grave threats of a Tiananmen-style crackdown filled the state-controlled airwaves, but something in the air had changed. Surrogate radio broadcasts from the West told another truth. Police bullied, threatened, and jailed protestors, including Führer himself. But in a country that had tragically failed to stand up to its own government in the past, a cleansing moment had arrived.

"What I saw that evening still makes me shiver today. And if anything deserves to be called 'miracle,' then this was a miracle of Biblical proportions," the pastor told an interviewer in 2009 on the 20th anniversary of the protests. "We succeeded in bringing about a revolution that achieved German unity -- this time without war and military might. After so much violence and so many wars that we, the Germans, so often started, this was a peaceful revolution. I will never forget that day."

Führer's template -- rising from below without a charismatic leader -- has been adopted by one democracy movement after another since 1989. Some have been more successful than others in coopting rather than confronting the police, in emphasizing dignity over indignation, in staying on the path of nonviolence, or avoiding the descent into chaos or irrelevance. But none have so comprehensively changed history.

Brave activists and common citizens have tried and failed to replicate this success in Iran, Egypt, Venezuela, Syria, and countless other states where aggressive or brutal tactics eventually wore them down. Like the dissolution of the Soviet Union two years after Führer's uprising and the creation of a quasi-democratic Russian state -- an event that had its own cast of heroic dissidents -- time has generally shown that movements led from above will collapse in on themselves, ossifying into autarky, dictatorship or worse. In effect, it is one thing for the army or a faction or an ethnic group to make common cause with "the people." It is quite another for the people themselves to drive events and to refuse to allow elements of the ancien regime to highjack the cause.

Defining what constitutes a popular uprising is a chump's game: Most of those behind such upheaval will claim the mantle of "the people" at some point, and some may even mean it -- for a while, at least. But the true test comes when power must again be shared, or transferred, in the democratic process. It is at this point that the fatal flaws in most such regimes emerge. Paranoia, paternalism, or simple criminal instincts come to the fore. Fidel Castro in 1959 decided the Cuban people could not be trusted with freedom. Russia, starting with its war against Georgia in 2008 and continuing in the eastern Ukraine today, has channeled the Argentine junta of 1992, opting for a dose of good old-fashioned territorial nationalism to keep complainers in check. Egypt's army in 2013 decided the people, along with Egypt's state-dominated economy, needed to be protected from the Muslim Brotherhood.

It's all the more reason to marvel at the Leipzig miracle. Whether Führer himself coined the movement's powerful riposte to the thugs who ran East Germany's "people's democracy" is unclear. True to form, he never claimed credit. But "Wir Sind das Volk!" elegantly called the totalitarian bluff and led directly to the end of the Cold War.

Or at least the end of the first Cold War. Cold War II is now discussed without irony, though it would be premature to declare it underway. However dire the current state of Russian-Western ties, the fact is the Iron Curtain of old is gone, and any attempt to erect a new one has been pushed 1,000 miles eastward. Literally hundreds of millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe have real freedoms of the kind Führer and his Leipzig followers fought to secure. That may not be as happy a narrative as the end of history, but at a time when the throw weight of Russian missile systems is suddenly back in the news, it's certainly one worth celebrating.

Sebastian Willnow/DDP

Democracy Lab

Back to the Trenches

After years of pursuing peace and stability, Kenya's political factions are returning to bare-knuckle politics.

On Sept. 3, Kenya's opposition coalition announced that it will venture to the country's coast to seek out signatures for a growing petition demanding a referendum to amend the country's constitution. It's not clear what the referendum will entail, exactly, but organizers promise it will cover everything from electoral and land reform, to instituting an inclusive political process, to improving security and fighting corruption. The petition already has over 1.4 million signatures, including those of former presidential candidates Martha Karua and Peter Kenneth. Just a year ago, Kenyans seemed resigned to the idea that no price was too high to pay for peace. Chastened by the 2007-08 post-election violence that left more than 1,300 people dead, the country was determined to do all it took to ensure a peaceful election. But if this referendum and the mounting opposition movement backing it are any indication, that consensus has since been broken.

The return to bare-knuckle politics -- complete with open discussion of ethnic exclusion in government and emotionally charged mass rallies -- has raised political temperatures to a level not seen since 2007. Having been locked out of key institutions of state (the ruling coalition controls both chambers of Parliament), the Kenyan opposition is struggling to stay relevant. This has forced it to adopt extra-institutional tactics such as mass action and calls for popular sovereignty through the referendum. Though Kenya's security problems started before the current administration came to power, increased violence and new acts of terrorism have invigorated the opposition. It claims that President Uhuru Kenyatta's government, in addition to blocking out community voices and abetting corruption, has failed to secure the country against aggression from al-Shabab.

All this is happening at a time when the government is hemorrhaging political capital fast due to high levels of insecurity, corruption, and accusations of ethnic favoritism. So far, Kenyatta's administration has reacted with restraint to the opposition's rallies. Threats to ban them through the Inspector General of Police have not materialized (largely due to their legal dubiousness), although it is widely rumored that the government leaned on the country's media outlets not to give live coverage to the opposition's rally on July 7, a date that has significant political symbolism for Kenyans. It was on July 7, 1990, that opposition leaders symbolically kicked off mass rallies to demand for a return of multiparty politics in the country. It is the spirit of this movement that Kenya's opposition hopes to capture in its latest calls for mass action.

On May 31, 2014, Kenya's de facto opposition leader Raila Odinga returned from the United States to a raucous welcome at a rally in Nairobi's Uhuru Park. At the rather chaotic rally, Odinga excoriated Kenyatta's government for having failed in its first year in office, and promised to spearhead "consultative rallies" across the country aimed at forcing the government to the negotiating table to discuss issues affecting Kenyans. These issues include rising insecurity, the high cost of living, youth unemployment, corruption, and ethnic exclusion in the public service that favored co-ethnics of the president and his deputy. In many ways, Odinga's homecoming rally marked the official end of the tepid acceptance of "peace at all costs" narrative. But more was to come.

At around 11 p.m. on Friday, July 5, a group of gunmen attacked a village and a police station in Lamu County, leaving at least 22 dead. Less than a month earlier, on June 15, almost 50 gunmen drove into the Kenyan Coastal town of Mpeketoni less than 40 miles from the Somalia border. The attack left more than 60 dead. These attacks heralded a new chapter in the saga that is insecurity in Kenya. Previously, such attacks and kidnappings were associated with the Somali terror group al-Shabab and had no discernible domestic political ends besides trying to force Kenya to withdraw its troops from Somalia. The recent Lamu attacks were different in that, even though they were claimed by al-Shabab, evidence suggests that they are also tied to local grievances over land ownership. (The photo above shows locals barricading a road to protest rising insecurity after the Mpeketoni attack.)

Following the Mpeketoni attack the government of Kenya, led by the president and the cabinet minister in charge of security, were quick to pin the Mpeketoni attack on the leading opposition alliance, the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD). The cabinet secretary in charge of internal security, Joseph Ole Lenku, charged that opposition leaders were inciting Kenyans to violence. This charge was echoed by the Majority Leader in the National Assembly, Aden Duale. He and others suggested that the attackers had singled out members of the president's ethnic group, although members of other ethnic groups were also killed. Later, the police arrested Lamu Governor Issa Timamy, a member of the party United Democratic Forum, on charges of incitement to violence and murder; he was later released on bond.

At first, it was unclear who had directed the attackers, but later attacks in Hindi and Gamba gave more insight into their motives. Moments after the attack Mpeketoni attack, al-Shabab sources in Somalia claimed responsibility. But it later emerged that the proscribed secessionist group, the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), might have been behind the attacks. More proximately, the attacks are likely to have been motivated by grievances over land allocation in Lamu County.

Grievances over land along the coast are as old as the geographic entity known as Kenya. In 1902 the Crown Land Ordinance alienated all "unoccupied" land. The result was that various coastal communities were robbed of their ancestral lands. The Land Titles Ordinance of 1908 added insult to injury by legitimating land acquisitions by settlers -- Arabs, Indians and Europeans -- at the expense of the indigenous African communities. The indigenous community's communal claims to land were simply incompatible with the individualized ownership of commoditized land. Government records indicate that by 1978 there were about 130,000 known landless people along the coastal strip.

After independence in 1963, the government embarked upon resettlement of squatters on the land annexed by the Kenyan colonial state (and now owned by the government of Kenya). Many of these squatters were from Central Kenya and spoke Kikuyu. This is precisely the source of "historical injustice" that locals have campaigned against in Lamu and other parts of Kenya's coastal strip. The land question contributes to a general sense of marginalization on the Coast among those who consider themselves indigenous to the region; it is this sense of alienation that spawned the MRC, whose slogan defiantly proclaims that "Pwani si Kenya" (The Coast is not a part of Kenya). Although most reports on the land-related attacks have focused on their potential al-Shabab connection, the attacks are not unique to Kenya. Similar clashes have been occurring, with increasing frequency, in the North Eastern and upper Rift Valley regions.

As the attacks become more and more frequent, the sense of insecurity in Kenya has started to have tangible effects. The tourism industry along the coast is on its deathbed after the al-Shabab kidnappings and attacks scared away tourists and caused furloughs. The security situation has acquired a decidedly political angle, with the possibility that these local groups -- including the MRC -- are linked with al-Shabab. With every new attack Kenyans are getting more and more impatient with the government's proven inability to either prevent or react in a timely manner to the wanton murder of innocent citizens. It took the government more than five hours to react to the Mpeketoni attack. It later emerged that local security officials actually had intelligence on an impending attack but did nothing. The government reacted to all this by transferring a few police officers and indicting some low level officials. After the Westgate attack on September 21, 2013, the president appeared willing to protect his security chiefs rather than to reform the country's struggling security establishment -- and it looks like his priorities haven't changed.

The president seems willing to incur incredibly high political costs, including within his political base, in order to protect his security chiefs. Why is the government unwilling to take the fight against insecurity seriously? How will the presently heightened political temperatures interact with the high levels of insecurity?

To be sure, the CORD alliance is not content to let the political instability and countrywide insecurity persist. Since the collapse of the deadline for a national dialogue with the government on July 7, the opposition alliance continues to push for a raft of reforms through a constitutional amendment that, according to them, will address insecurity, rising cost of living, corruption, ethnic exclusion, among other issues. In response, the government has tried -- and failed -- to blame the opposition for some of the violent stirrings, as seen after the Mpeketoni attack. Outnumbered in parliament, opposition prefers to use people power to pressure the government.

For now, it is fair to say that Kenya's president and his government will be hard pressed to maintain control in the face of these dual challenges: rising insecurity and a restive opposition. The country has now reverted to the same levels of ethnic fear mongering that preceded the 2007-08 ethnic clashes. That is truly worrying.