How Bruce Springsteen rocked the Berlin Wall

Bruce Springsteen delivered a message of freedom to a huge concert in East Berlin in July 1988 – and the Berlin Wall fell the following year. Was it the spark that started the fire? Stephen Evans reports.

Nobody claims that rock music shook the Berlin Wall to destruction.  It’s the people of East Germany who must get the credit for that, with a bit of help, perhaps, from the politicians of the West who turned up the pressure and the leader of the Soviet Union who ordered that guns not be fired.

But might rock music have helped? And might one concert by one particular musician have helped a great deal?

On the night of 19 July 1988, Bruce Springsteen played to what seemed like the whole of East Berlin. Just over one year later, what seemed like the whole of East Berlin flooded through the holes the people themselves had knocked in the notorious Wall. 

Was there any connection between the two events? Did the concert provide that extra ounce of push? After all, as the great Springsteen lyric puts it: You can't start a fire without a spark”.

A new book, Rocking the Wall, claims that that concert, and in particular a short speech which Springsteen gave in German from the stage, galvanised attitudes. As the author, Erik Kirschbaum, tells the BBC: “Three-hundred-thousand East Germans were there – young, enthusiastic East Germans who had never had the chance to see a big Western rock star like that.  

Chimes of freedom?

“Springsteen played an amazing concert – four hours long. It went straight to their hearts.” But what added the political impetus was that in the middle of it, Springsteen defied the authorities and gave a speech no more than a paragraph long. He spoke in German, which he had written out phonetically: “I am not for or against a government.  I’ve come to play rock and roll for you, in the hope that one day all barriers will be torn down.” He was greeted with a roar of approval.

The moment he had spoken, he took off into Chimes of Freedom: “Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake/ Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an' forsaked/ Tolling for the outcast, burnin' constantly at stake/ An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing”. The concert was transmitted with a time delay on East German television and radio channels and the short but utterly powerful speech never made it to air – but those in the concert knew exactly what “barriers” meant, and their word of mouth later travelled the nation.

Of course, those words did not cause the collapse of communism. If they had not been spoken, East Germany’s communist regime would still have crashed. The forces of change were too strong. But those forces didn’t move on their own.  Some factors pushed them further and some held them back. Some fanned the flame – and Springsteen gets credit for that, according to Erik Kirschbaum: “They had never heard a message like that.  Here was this big, famous American rock star who came into the middle of East Germany, into East Berlin, and told them he hoped that the wall would come down one day. 

“I think it really contributed to fuelling the sentiment in East Germany for change. They were unhappy in East Germany. A lot of reforms were going on in other Eastern European countries in '88, but in East Germany it was a very stagnant situation. Springsteen came there and spoke to their hearts. He got them enthusiastic about change, and in the next 16 months we all know what happened,”

Tougher than the rest

Why did he do it? His manager, Jon Landau, said that Springsteen felt he had been tricked by the East German authorities. The two of them had met an official of the Free German Youth (the FDJ, an arm of the Communist Party) in the lobby of the hotel and learnt that the concert was to be “in aid of Nicaragua”. They expressed surprise to the official and threatened to pull out. 

Erik Kirschbaum explains: “They said ‘this isn't going to work. We don't play for Nicaragua’. And the FDJ official said it was no big deal in East Germany – just like doing a concert for Pepsi Cola in America. Springsteen’s manager said: ‘We don't do concerts for Pepsi Cola in America and we aren’t going to do a concert for Nicaragua. We're leaving.’”

With people on their way to the concerts by their thousands, there was much negotiating and the East German authorities agreed to take down the political posters around the stage. “They managed to calm Springsteen down but because the ticket still said ‘Concert for Nicaragua’, he was still determined to have the last word. And he knew he had the microphone on stage to say what he wanted to say.”  

The East German authorities had played with fire – and got burnt.  They had, over the decades of rock ‘n’roll, not quite known how to deal with a phenomenon of such popular potency. Artists were banned. The Rolling Stones, for example, were on the East German authorities’ index of censored musicians for radio time until 1982, when four songs were allowed. 

But you can’t ban a flood. More and more East Germans were turning their dials to the West. A survey showed that by the ‘80s, virtually all East Germans were tuning to West German radio and television stations (though not in the south east of the country, too far from the border – Dresden, for example, was too far to get the Western sound). The authorities sanctioned some East German rock bands. But this wasn’t quite the genuine article to the ears of the people.

Human touch

As the appetite for Western rock heightened in the late ‘80s, the authorities decided to allow a few big names in. Bob Dylan played. So did David Bowie and Joe Cocker. But it was Springsteen who set East Berlin alight. Apart from anything, his performance was electric. By all accounts, Dylan had underwhelmed – but Springsteen soared from the first raucous guitar chord. The authorities might have thought he was safe because his songs were dissident and working class in the US.  But they misjudged the politics.

Those who were there were electrified by the event. Michael Steininger was a welder in East Germany who had become a fan of Bruce Springsteen (he once spent a month’s wages on a set of albums). “It was fairly hot,” he recalls. “It was a time when things in East Germany started to shift, when you could start saying and thinking things which had been impossible up to then. 

“And then Springsteen came. It was a big, pretty dusty field that was completely crammed with people. They did sell tickets but pretty well anyone who wanted to get in got in. I can't remember any security to speak of. I remember it was one of those rare occasions where I could actually lift my feet and get carried on by the crowd. 

"I was blown away by his presence and the way he was not just playing fantastic music but performing and interacting with the audience and he did do that at this concert. Even where you have hundreds of thousands of people, he manages to relate to people as though he's speaking to each of us.

“And he did mention "freedom" probably risking not being invited again - but I don't think he cared about that.”

One year later, it didn’t matter. Springsteen is still with us. The regime of the German Democratic Republic is not.

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