By Erik Kirschbaum

Did Springsteen help bring down the Berlin Wall?

Published 2013-06-25

Did Springsteen help bring down the Berlin Wall with a record-breaking concert in East Berlin in 1988 -- almost exactly 25 years ago? That's a question that I've been wrestling with for the last 11 years and it's the topic of a book that I've just finished called "Bruce Springsteen, Rocking the Wall, The Berlin Concert that Changed the World". Unfortunately I wasn't one of the lucky 300,000 people who crowded into a meadow on July 19, 1988 in Communist East Berlin to see the biggest and probably most important Springsteen concert ever anywhere. I didn't even hear about that East Berlin concert until 2002. But that concert has been a big part of my life for the last decade and I've been talking to scores of people who were there as I researched the ins and outs of what went it and what came out of what I would argue was the most important rock concert of all time. Springsteen's concert helped spark a revolution in East Germany even if that's not what he intended to do.

That's certainly quite claim. Yet many who believe in the energy of rock 'n' roll and many more who believe in the power of Springsteen have subscribed to that theory right away even though there are some skeptics who had doubts whether his four-hour show and his stirring anti-Berlin Wall speech could have really triggered the upheaval in East German that followed it. The book has nevertheless convinced some of those initial doubters - in fact a colleague who first thought it was a totally exaggerated claim to say Springsteen helped bring down the Wall with that concert has just finished translating my book into German and is now an unabashed believer that Springsteen's once-in-a-lifetime concert to the people of East Berlin did in fact play an important role in fueling the revolution in East Germany that less than 16 months later toppled the Berlin Wall.

So I think it is time for historians to take a new look at the end of the Cold War and acknowledge that Springsteen's July 19, 1988 concert in the heart of East Berlin, where he sang and talked from his heart to the hearts of a generation of young East Germans hungry for freedom, might have had a role in bringing down the Berlin Wall and bringing the end of the Cold War to a speedy and unexpected conclusion on Nov. 9, 1989.

“You couldn’t be at that show and not feel that hope for a change,” Jon Landau, Springsteen’s manager, told me in one of the interviews he gave me for the book, which was released on June 19 by Berlinica Publishing Company in New York and will be released in German in mid July. “The effect that the speech and then the song ‘Chimes of Freedom’ had on the audience was spectacular. It was a moment none of us will ever forget."

It is almost exactly 25 years to the day when Springsteen was on a stage in the middle of Communist East Berlin and pulled a crumpled note out of his pocket to deliver what I would argue was one of the most powerful – and most underrated – appeals for freedom made during the Cold War. He had already been playing for more than an hour to an audience fed up with the Stalinist government and its aversion to reforms. He was really angry that the local East Berlin organizers tried to put a Communist spin on his concert by labeling it as a benefit for Nicaragua.

He stepped up to the microphone and said: "I'm not here for or against any government. I've come to play rock 'n' roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down.”

The crowd roared because they had never heard anyone say anything like that before – an American rock star coming into their isolated country and telling them he was playing this concert, the biggest in their country’s history, for them in the hope the hated Berlin Wall could be torn down. To ensure that message got to those on the fringes of the grounds, spread out over a meadow the size of 50 football fields, Springsteen rammed the point home by following his stirring anti-Wall speech with “Chimes of Freedom”.

It was a stirring moment in East Germany, sort of like Woodstock times 10. Almost everyone in East Germany between the ages of 18 to 45 saw the concert live, watched it on a delayed TV broadcast, heard about it or read about it. That generation still raves about it today.

It was so much more than just another rock concert. It was, as the book shows, a catalyst for the tremendous change that swept East Germany over the ensuing 16 months that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. That magical four-hour concert did more to shake the Communist country than anyone has until now realized or understood.

I've spent two years talking to people who were at that concert as well as experts on East Germany for my book "Rocking the Wall". It is about that extraordinary day when ordinary life in East Germany came to a standstill. Those who witnessed the concert still have a glow in their eye about it and scholars agree that Communist East Germany was a different place after Springsteen unwittingly helped fuel a rebellion.

“It sent a strong message to people all over East Germany,” said Jochen Staadt, an expert on East German history at Berlin’s Free University I talked to about the impact of the concert. Staadt, a musician himself, was persona non grata in East Germany but watched the concert on East German TV from West Berlin. He was in awe at the size and enthusiasm of the crowd -- something rarely seen in tightly controlled East Germany. “It was amazing that the East German regime had let all that happen.”

For the book I also talked to music and cultural experts like Craig Werner, a professor of music and cultural history at the University of Wisconsin. Werner believes the concert helped change the course of history. “Music can play a significant role in supporting a movement that is already there. And East Berlin in 1988 was exactly the kind of place where music could support and inspire people who are active or potentially active. Springsteen’s concert by itself didn’t cause the Berlin Wall to fall. But it was a significant piece of the mix.”

East Germany and its FDJ youth organization were worried they were losing an entire generation and so they took a gamble by allowing Springsteen in with the hope that could improve sentiment. That strategy backfired and the concert only made East Germans hungrier for more of the freedoms that Springsteen symbolized. That he also had the courage to speak out against the Berlin Wall while standing the middle of East Berlin – a far bolder act than what John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan did with their famous speeches from the safety of West Berlin -- only added to the euphoria.

"Bruce walked off the stage after the concert, and we said -- you know, just personally to each other -- that we had a feeling a big change was coming in East Germany," said Landau, who patiently answered all my myriad questions about the concert and provided a wealth of previously unknown details about how the concert got off the ground and was saved at the last minute despite East Germany's pro-Nicaragua tricks. "We both sort of felt the system, these people in the crowd, our audience, they were just busting out. They were just ready for change.”

So why did I want to write this book for so long? Good question.

Back in 2002, I was riding home in a taxi when the driver suddenly started chattering on about another Springsteen performance—in East Berli in 1988. The taxi driver just wouldn't shut up about that concert. “Yeah, I know,” I said, trying to close my eyes and relax. I had just filed a Reuters news agency report on Springsteen chastising George W. Bush for bullying countries like Germany that were opposed to invading Iraq. “I’ve seen lots of Springsteen concerts too, and they’re always amazing.”

No, you don't understand, the taxi driver siad. "You don’t understand.” That East Berlin concert was really different. There was never anything like it. More than 300,000 people watched it live, and millions more saw it on television. The whole country was shaken up. The Berlin taxi driver’s uncontain- able enthusiasm about that concert was contagious, and he got me wondering: Had there been something really special about that Springsteen show in Communist East Berlin?

The more I delved into it, the more I wanted to know. It was fascinating, for instance, to find out that Springsteen had the courage to deliver a short anti-Wall speech in East Berlin. It was also incredible to read about the size and unruliness of the biggest- ever East German concert crowdand how countless thousands without tickets simply stormed the gates to get in.

And then it dawned on me—its date: July 19, 1988. That was less than sixteen months before the Berlin Wall fell. Was there be a direct line between Springsteen on July 19, 1988, and the Berlin Wall bursting open on November 9, 1989

It seems clear to me now that there must be a link between that Springsteen concert and the shifting sentiment in East Germany that led to the Berlin Wall’s collapse. Whether Springsteen deserves credit for helping end the Cold War depends on whether you believe in the power of rock ‘n’ roll. What is beyond doubt is that Springsteen’s 1988 concert is an incredible example of the influence that rock ’n’ roll can have on people who are hungry and ready for change.


The book, Rocking the Wall, is now available from Amazon.

Erik Kirschbaum, a native of New York City and long-time Springsteen fan, has lived in Germany for twenty-five years as a Reuters correspondent. “Rocking the Wall, Bruce Springsteen: The Berlin Concert That Changed The World” is his third book. Guest writers' views don't necessarily reflect those of Greasy Lake's staff.


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