Chimes of Freedom How Springsteen Helped Tear Down the Wall
Part 2: 'The Most Important Rock Concert Ever Anywhere'
SPIEGEL ONLINE: When and how did you get the idea for the book?
Kirschbaum: I was in a taxi on my way home from a Springsteen concert in Berlin in 2002 -- after writing a story for Reuters about how he criticized Bush for bashing Germany's resistance to invading Iraq -- and the taxi driver couldn't stop talking about the 1988 concert in Weissensee. I had never heard about that '88 concert before. The taxi driver said that "88 concert was biggest, best and most exciting concert ever anywhere and it had the whole GDR shaken up." I started looking into that '88 concert and the more people I talked to who were there, the more plausible that theory became that there may be a connection between it and the fall of the Wall. Some might scoff at the idea that Springsteen's concert helped bring down the Wall. But if you read the book and see what happened there, I bet you'll become a believer in the power of rock 'n' roll.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What concrete influence do you think the concert had on the fall of the Berlin Wall 16 months later?
Kirschbaum: It's hard to pinpoint a direct cause-and-effect with the Springsteen concert and the Berlin Wall falling. And obviously there were a lot of other things going on in that era before the concert with Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, Solidarnosc in Poland, and then later the opening of Hungary's border to Austria in early 1989, the mass exodus of East Germans in the summer and fall of 1989 and the Monday rallies in Leizpig and elsewhere. That said, I think it is clear that the concert was an important spark and had a major effect. There were 300,000 people there at the concert and millions more watched it on (East German) TV that evening. The FDJ was hoping the concert by a big popular Western rock star would appease the increasingly discontent younger generation -- internal East German surveys found that almost none of the young East Germans were listening to East German radio anymore but rather West German radio. But Springsteen's concert had the opposite effect -- rather than appeasing East Germans, it only made them even hungrier for the freedom and fun times that Springsteen seemed to embody up there on stage.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Was it one of the most politically important concerts of all time? How does it measure up against, say Woodstock? Live Aid?
Kirschbaum: Yes, definitely, it was in my mind the most important rock concert ever, anywhere. It amazes me that no one else has ever written about this concert before in the context of the monumental changes that brought down East Germany in 1988 and 1989. As a journalist it was almost too good to be true for me to stumble upon this earth-shaking concert but no one had connected the dots before. There was fortunately quite a bit of material, films, Stasi reports, records and other stuff about the concert available and thousands of witnesses who were happy to talk about it. Woodstock certainly had a profound effect on the United States and the atmosphere in East Berlin can perhaps be compared a bit to Woodstock. But if you look at what happened after the East Berlin concert, I think Springsteen's '88 concert is in a league of its own as the most important rock concert ever anywhere. The taxi driver was right!
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The East German authorities allowed Springsteen to perform because they wanted a release valve for an increasingly frustrated East German youth. Why didn't that work?
Kirschbaum: The East German leadership seemed increasingly worried that they were losing control of the younger generation that was well aware of the Gorbachev-inspired changes and reforms taking place in other Eastern European countries. The East German leaders were willing to jump over their shadows and start doing once-unthinkable things like: allowing in an American rock star to perform for young East Germans. That would have been utterly unimaginable just a few years before. You have to remember that rock music was long officially frowned upon by the regime in East Germany; it was seen as a decadent American export designed to corrupt young people and seduce them away from Communism. And now, in the eyes of many young East Germans who grew up following that anti-rock party line, the Communist leaders were inviting in one of the world's biggest American rock stars? It was just too strange for many young East Germans.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How important was Springsteen in all this? Do you think the impact would have been the same if Queen, David Bowie or some other mega-act had come to East Berlin at that time?
Kirschbaum: I think it's fair to say that Springsteen is a special case and his special form of rock music and his working class ethic came across especially well to East Germans. He played for about four hours, and he played his heart out. That's something a lot of the eyewitnesses said again and again. They really felt Springsteen was going all out for them. Even though some said they had trouble hearing all the music because of the poor quality of the sound system -- and because the place was so packed -- everyone there said it was a magical evening. Many East Germans were huge Rolling Stones fans, and the Rolling Stones would probably have had a massive impact as well. But the Rolling Stones wanted hard currency and, in fact, did not go to East Berlin until the summer of 1990 -- once East Germans had converted their Ostmarks into D-marks but just a few weeks before reunification. It was a great concert, but the crowd was smaller and the Wall had of course already fallen about 10 months earlier. I think it was a combination of it being Springsteen, who he was and what he stood for as well as his willingness to basically play for free in East Berlin and his desire to play in East Berlin along with his anti-Wall speech in German.
- Part 1: How Springsteen Helped Tear Down the Wall
- Part 2: 'The Most Important Rock Concert Ever Anywhere'