Chimes of Freedom: How Springsteen Helped Tear Down the Wall

In July 1988, the singer gave East Germany the biggest rock concert it ever saw.

ByABC News
June 19, 2013, 3:24 PM

June 22, 2013— -- 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.