Art and Culture Cities Philosophy Talking Point

The Bell That Tolls for Democracy

The Democrary Bell on Augustusplatz, Leipzig
Written by Kirstie Pelling

The Bell That Tolls for Democracy

“Can you see this egg opposite us? Inside this egg is the bell of democracy. Twenty years after the peaceful revolution we commemorated a special day, the 9th October, with this bell.” says our Leipzig tour guide Gitta Peri.

Squatting between the fountain and the tram lines, at the entrance to Grimmaische Street, the Democracy Bell doesn’t look much like a bell. It looks like an egg that a giant golden chicken might have just laid, slightly off tilt, appearing ever so slightly unstable.

Tourists give it a cursory glance as they trundle suitcases past it to the train station, although one or two do stop to try and puzzle it out. Others don’t notice it at all, because the Democracy Bell is as unassuming as the nearby clocktower is ornate. The University clocktower has the phases of the moon above it and a statue that strikes its bell on the hour. But there is no statue or human being to strike the golden egg. Like love, or new life, the energy comes from within. Perhaps this is not really a bell nor a clock but art.

Looking across Augustusplatz Leipzig from the State Opera House

Can you see the egg of the Democracy Bell on Augustusplatz, to the right of the fountain?

A not so peaceful memorial

The artwork, by Via Lewandowsky, was dedicated to the city in 2009, on the twentieth anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution in a ceremony that didn’t go too well, when the bell refused to chime twenty. Yes, twenty, once for each year.

“The bell is shaped like an egg because an egg means new life.” says Gitta.

The bronze monument marks 9th October 1989, where around 70,000 people gathered with candles, after prayers for peace in several of the Leipzig churches. Defying police, they peacefully demonstrated for freedom in the GDR. This and other protests, labelled the Monday Demonstrations, were significant in the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall and the onset of German reunification.

It’s one explanation, although others suggest the egg shape is reminiscent of a Chinese bell, a nod to the idea that Leipzig could have threatened a ‘Chinese’ response, a ‘Tianamen Square’. Scrambled eggs.

Passer by at the Leipzig Democracy Bell Demokratieglocke

Passers by never know when the bell will chime at Leipzig’s Demokratieglocke

The freedom to chime when it wants

The Democracy Bell is slightly scrambled; it’s not a great timekeeper. You can rely upon it to strike twelve every Monday night at 6.35 pm, a reminder of a significant moment on 9th October 1989.  But the rest of the week? Well, it’s not something to set your watch by.

Aside from Monday this bell has the freedom to chime when it wants. We’ve been told it chimes once in each hour, not on the hour but at some random time within it. And you can’t rely upon its chimes to figure the time because the number of strikes each hour is random too, somewhere between one and twelve. And only between the hours of 8am and 8pm.

“It cannot strike at top of the hour like the other clock towers. It strikes at random. Maybe at seven minutes past twelve. You never know. And if you stand close oh it’s so very loud because it’s bronze!” says Gitta.

Of course we can confirm none of this because we were never around when it decided to exercise its freedom. Is democracy really this confusing? In an age of Brexit, Trump and the rise of the right in Europe perhaps it as unpredictable as the bell.

There is an inscription on the granite ring at the foot of the sculpture which is supposed to help explain the artists vision. It is in the form of a haiku, written by a Dresden poet, Durs Grünbein. It reads:

“Democracy is – in infinite proximity – long visible as art”

Well, that clears it up!

Democracy Bell Leipzig

Not everyone pays much attention to the Demokratieglocke, the Leipzig Democracy Bell

Ding, Dong. But what time is it?

In a commercial world where time is money, and in a digital landscape where we keep our schedules next to our pillows, it’s good to know the Democracy Bell is there, squatting like an egg in a cobbled nest. Its loud ding a quiet and unassuming reminder that protest can and will change the world, that things are not always what they seem and that randomly administered surprises can still make you jump, relax, and smile.

Ding dong, time to move on. But of course it’s anyone’s guess what the time actually is.

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.

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