Glory Days: How Bruce Springsteen Helped Bring Down the Berlin Wall

When 'The Boss’ played a one-off show in East Germany during the summer of 1988, did his speech hoping that ‘one day all barriers will be torn down’ act as a catalyst for the events of November 1989?

Avner Shapira
Avner Shapira

Bruce Springsteen gave an historic performance in East Berlin on July 19, 1988. While only 100,000 bought tickets, some 300,000 came to hear “The Boss” in a huge field, and the authorities decided to open the gates and let them all in – a decision that looked very symbolic later on.

Only 16 months later, as a result of public pressure the East German government opened its borders with the West, which led to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.

The question is whether Springsteen’s concert was what fanned the flames of freedom in the closed-off communist country and helped bring about the mass uprisings and Autumn of Nations that led to the fall of the Soviet Union’s communist allies. The answer is a clear yes, says Erik Kirschbaum, in his 2013 book “Rocking the Wall: The Berlin Concert that Changed the World” (Berlinica Publishing).

Kirschbaum, a reporter for Reuters in Berlin, says historians have so far missed the importance of the show, which he calls the most politically important rock performance ever held, anywhere.

His theory is that The Boss set the spark for the mass revolt in East Germany, in particular because of a short statement he made in German in the middle of the concert: “I’m not here for any government,” Springsteen said in German. “I’ve come to play rock ’n’ roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down.”

The concert was organized by the Communist Party’s youth wing, Freie Deutsche Jugend, which invited Springsteen as part of an official effort to placate the political tendencies of the country’s restless youth – but according to Kirschbaum it had exactly the opposite effect. Springsteen made his mark not only on the 300,000 people who came to hear him but on millions more who heard the concert, which was broadcast on television and radio.

The political revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union were caused directly by a chain of events in the Soviet bloc starting in the 1980s, such as the rise of the Polish Solidarity movement and Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika movement, as well as reforms in Hungary and elsewhere, But Kirschbaum insists Springsteen tore a metaphorical hole in the Wall, which was not just a symbol of a divided Berlin and Germany since being built in 1961 but also the most famous symbol of the Cold War.

“Whether Springsteen deserves belated credit for helping end the Cold War depends to a certain extent on whether you believe in the power of rock ’n’ roll,” says Kirschbaum. “But what is beyond doubt is that Springsteen’s 1988 concert is a glorious example of the influence rock ’n’ roll can have on people who are hungry and ready for change,” writes Kirschbaum.

Another, no less interesting, question is how the American rock star was allowed to perform in the capital of the “Workers’ and Farmers’ State.” Western music was considered a bad influence on young people, a “decadent export.” A number of hits were banned from the airwaves – but this didn’t keep East Germans from listening to them on Western radio and television channels.

Kirschbaum tells the story of how, in the summer of 1987, the East Berlin police attacked hundreds of citizens because they encroached too near the Wall to hear concerts on the Western side, by musicians such as Genesis, David Bowie and the Eurythmics. Even before Springsteen’s concert in the summer of 1988, thousands of East German soldiers patrolled the Wall and prevented people from getting close when Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd performed in West Berlin.

The book also reveals documents from the Stasi (the East German secret police), showing how the FDJ succeeded in convincing the country’s senior leadership to approve the concert. They emphasized how Springsteen’s roots were in the working class, and his music included “hard and unadorned songs about the shady side of American reality.” One newspaper recommended the concert because Springsteen “attacks the injustice and social injustice of his homeland.”

The organizers called it a solidarity concert for Nicaragua, without Springsteen’s knowledge. He was furious when he heard of it on the day of the concert – and in the end the political banners were removed.

But ultimately, as Kirschbaum quotes one of the young people at the concert that day, it was like a nail in the coffin for East Germany.

Bruce Springsteen in concert in East Berlin, 1988.
Bruce Springsteen book cover

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