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.

ByDavid Crossland, SPIEGEL
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.

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.

'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.