Chimes of Freedom: How Springsteen Helped Tear Down the Wall
In July 1988, Bruce Springsteen gave East Germany the biggest rock concert it ever saw. In a new book, journalist Erik Kirschbaum says the Boss inspired an entire generation to strive for more freedom -- and deserves some credit for the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Who brought down the Berlin Wall? It was Polish trade unionists, Mikhail Gorbachev and his perestroika, Ronald Reagan and his Star Wars program, ordinary East Germans demonstrating in the streets and piling into the West German embassy in Prague, and of course Günter Schabowski, the Politburo member who read out that legendary note lifting travel restrictions -- "effective immediately" -- on the night of Nov. 9, 1989.
A new book published this week ventures to add another name to that list -- rock star Bruce Springsteen, who held the biggest concert in the history of East Germany on July 19, 1988, and whose rousing, passionate performance that night lit a spark in the hundreds of thousands of young people who saw him.
Springsteen attracted an estimated 300,000 people from all over the German Democratic Republic -- the largest crowd he had ever played to. They were hungry for change and freedom, and seeing one of the West's top stars made them even hungrier, argues veteran journalist Erik Kirschbaum in his book "Rocking the Wall,"
"It's safe to say that pretty much every East German between the ages of about 18 and 35 was either at the Springsteen concert or saw it on TV," Kirschbaum, who has worked for Reuters in Berlin for almost two decades, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It was an unbelievably intoxicating moment for them -- many of them had never experienced such a mass crowd of people having such a good time before."
Kirschbaum interviewed the organizers, Springsteen's manager Jon Landau and dozens of eyewitnesses who recalled with goosebumps and glowing eyes how their hero came across the Wall to play "Born to Run," "Badlands" and "Born in The USA" -- just for them.
A Failed Attempt to Be Cool
Kirschbaum is convinced it was the most politically important rock concert ever held. His book makes a strong case that historians should explore Springsteen's impact in fuelling the revolution. However, if they do, they might also have to devote at least a little attention to the role played by David Hasselhoff, whose poppy single "Looking for Freedom" was No. 1 in West Germany in the spring of 1989.
The Communist Party's youth arm, the Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ), had invited Springsteen as part of an official drive to placate the country's increasingly restless youth.
In 1987, police wielding truncheons and electric stun guns had beaten back hundreds of East Berliners who had gotten too close to the Wall because they wanted to listen to concerts by David Bowie, Genesis and the Eurythmics being held on the other side in West Berlin, just a few hundred meters away, on a field in front of the Reichstag building. Some of the loudspeakers were pointed east so that East Berliners could hear the music.
During West Berlin gigs by Pink Floyd and Michael Jackson a year later in June 1988, the communist regime deployed thousands of troopers from the Stasi secret police along the Wall to keep fans away.
Gray ranks of armed men confronting youths who only wanted to hear some decent pop music -- to young East Germans, such scenes just rammed home the message that they were locked inside a deeply unfun country.
Recognizing the problem, the FDJ organized concerts by Western bands such as Bob Dylan, Depeche Mode, Bryan Adams and Joe Cocker in late 1987 and 1988 to give people a little of the freedom they were craving. Springsteen was their biggest coup. It was an attempt to release some of the pressure building up in East German society. But it backfired.
Homemade US Flags
"Quite a few people told me they could sense that the Communist Party leaders were losing control and the Springsteen concert was like a last-ditch effort to change it, but it was too little, too late," said Kirschbaum. "Springsteen only made them want more freedom."
Many at the concert said their lives changed on that balmy summer night when the venue, a large field adjoining a cycle racing track in the Weissensee district of the city, was so packed that people couldn't move, and dozens who fainted had to be lifted over heads to ambulance crews.
Honed from childhood to be good Communists, people found themselves waving homemade US flags and singing along to "Born In the USA" -- while the authorities looked on in bewilderment.
The concert, said Kirschbaum, helped to convince many thousands of people that change was not only possible but imminent. The book describes what many saw as a profoundly symbolic moment when the East German organizers, overwhelmed by the crowd heading towards them, simply opened the barriers and let everyone in, even those without tickets.
'One Day All the Barriers Will be Torn Down'
Springsteen, meanwhile, connected with the crowd not just because he was a working-class icon and made great music, but because he played his heart out on stage that night -- unlike Bob Dylan, who had delivered a tepid, uninspiring performance in East Berlin in September 1987.
After playing the first 12 of 32 songs that night, Springsteen stunned the audience with a message he delivered in German.
"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 erupted into a delirious roar. "We all got the message, and it was electrifying," Jörg Beneke, a farmer who drove across East Germany to see the concert, told Kirschbaum.
To ram the message home, Springsteen went on to play his song "Chimes of Freedom."
"You couldn't be at that show and not feel that hope for a change," Landau, Springsteen's manager, told Kirschbaum.
"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. 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."
SPIEGEL ONLINE interviewed Kirschbaum last week ahead of the launch of the book. You can read the full interview on the next page.
- Part 1: How Springsteen Helped Tear Down the Wall
- Part 2: 'The Most Important Rock Concert Ever Anywhere'
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