Through the bare tile walls of her solitary-confinement cell in Leipzig, Katrin Hattenhauer could feel a rumbling. As she lay on her bare, plank bed, her petite frame shook with a vibration from the main street outside, the sound of something large and heavy and determined.
She knew, from the air of distress among her Stasi guards, that something was going on. But it was damningly hard to make the distinction: Was this the thundering surge of huge numbers of people rising against the state, or of tanks and columns of soldiers restoring order?
It was Monday, Oct. 9, 1989. In a month, it would be her 21st birthday. It seemed unlikely she would live that long. Cancer had nearly killed her five years before, and now the Stasi, the East German secret police, had told her that they wanted her dead, soon.
She had been locked in isolation for five weeks, after being picked out of a crowd of hundreds and arrested for insurrection as she carried a large, cloth banner: "For an open country with free people."
The last time any East Germans had made such an explicit call for openness, in 1953, hundreds had been massacred by Soviet tanks, and nobody had dared protest openly for democracy after that.
Her Stasi interrogator had said to her, during one of their lengthy sessions: "When things start outside, when we are given the order to start shooting, you can be sure that you will be the first in this jail to be put up against the wall."
Unbeknownst to Katrin Hattenhauer, East Germany had erupted that Monday, in her name. The banner she had carried, and the air of martyrdom created by the arrest of her group of unknown students, had galvanized the nation.
During her confinement, the tiny, silent peace protests they had been holding on Mondays in the square of Leipzig's St. Nicholas Church had metamorphosed into a full-scale revolt with thousands of people, then into a mass insurrection with tens of thousands, then into a national revolution, bringing a million people onto the streets, that would precipitate the end of the Berlin Wall exactly a month later, on the night of Nov. 9.
When Berlin celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Wall's breach on Monday, it will mark a symbolically important event that was neither the beginning nor the end of anything. Communism would stagger on for a month after Nov. 9, and elections and German reunification wouldn't take place until well into 1990.
Nor was the Wall's fall the event that triggered the end of East German communism. That pivotal event, the day that ripped past from future, had taken place exactly a month earlier, in Leipzig, where pressure had been building quietly, for weeks and years, in a church courtyard.
Its eruption was what Katrin Hattenhauer had felt shaking her prison-cell bed. It was the eruption she and her friends had launched.
The rumbling she felt on Oct. 9 had been the force of 70,000 people marching past and occupying the city's downtown district. Tanks, dogs and train-loads of shells had been shipped into the city that morning, and stood waiting at the train station, along with thousands of troops.
The soldiers were under direct orders from Erich Honecker, the leader of the German Democratic Republic, to prevent the occurrence of mass protests "from the start," and, if provoked in any way, to respond "offensively." Only four months earlier, tanks had cleared Beijing's Tiananmen Square of democracy protesters, killing hundreds. Mr. Honecker was not against a Chinese option. Slaughter seemed the logical outcome.
But the soldiers did not fire. They didn't even block anyone's path. Mr. Honecker was shocked, and only a few days later the magnitude of the Oct. 9 protest (and the even-larger ones encouraged by its lack of violence) would force him to resign.