BERLIN - Twenty-five years ago Bruce Springsteen was on a stage in Communist East Berlin, playing a concert in front of 300,000 East Germans, when he pulled a crumpled note out of his pocket and delivered one of the most powerful — and most underrated — appeals for freedom made during the Cold War.
On that warm summer evening of July 19, 1988, Springsteen had already been playing for more than an hour to an audience fed up with the Stalinist government and its aversion to reforms. He was upset that the local East Berlin organizers tried to put a Communist spin on his concert by labeling it as a benefit for Nicaragua.
He stepped up to the microphone and told the crowd why he came to East Berlin: "I'm not here for or against any government,” Springsteen said, speaking 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 crowd roared its approval. They had never heard anyone say anything like that before — an American rock star coming into their isolated country and telling them he was playing this concert, the biggest in their country’s history, for them in the hope the loathed Berlin Wall could be torn down. To ensure that message got to those on the fringes of the grounds, spread out over a meadow the size of 50 football fields, Springsteen rammed the point home by following his stirring anti-wall speech with “Chimes of Freedom.”
It was an unforgettable moment in East German history. Almost everyone between the ages of 18 and 45 saw the concert live, watched it on a delayed TV broadcast, heard about it or read about it. That generation still raves about it today.
Was Springsteen’s appearance in East Berlin and his call for freedom more than just another rock concert?
Was Springsteen a catalyst for the tremendous change that swept East Germany over the ensuing 16 months that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989? Did that magical four-hour concert do more to shake the Communist country than anyone has until now realized or understood? Looking at the end of the Cold War from today’s perspective, does Springsteen deserve some recognition?
I've spent two years talking to people who were at that concert as well as experts on East Germany for a book, "Rocking the Wall." It is about that extraordinary day when ordinary life in East Germany came to a standstill. Those who witnessed the concert still have a glow in their eye about it and scholars agree that Communist East Germany was a different place after Springsteen unwittingly helped fuel a rebellion.
“It sent a strong message to people all over East Germany,” said Jochen Staadt, an expert on East German history at Berlin’s Free University who was astonished at the size and enthusiasm of the crowd. “It was amazing that the East German regime had let all that happen.”
Craig Werner, a professor of music and cultural history at the University of Wisconsin, believes the concert helped change the course of history. “Music can play a significant role in supporting a movement that is already there. And East Berlin in 1988 was exactly the kind of place where music could support and inspire people who are active or potentially active. Springsteen’s concert by itself didn’t cause the Berlin Wall to fall. But it was a significant piece of the mix.”
East Germany and its FDJ youth organization were worried they were losing an entire generation and took a gamble by allowing Springsteen in with the hope that could improve sentiment.
That strategy of "one step backward, two steps forward" backfired and the concert only made East Germans hungrier for more of the freedoms that Springsteen epitomized. That he also had the moxie to speak out against the Berlin Wall while standing in the middle of East Berlin — arguably a more courageous act than what John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan did with their famous speeches from the safety of West Berlin — added to the euphoria.
“You couldn’t be at that show and not feel that hope for a change,” said Jon Landau, Springsteen’s manager. “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. We both sort of felt the system, these people in the crowd, our audience, they were just busting out. They were just ready for change.”
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. But what is beyond doubt is that Springsteen’s 1988 concert is a glorious example of the influence that rock ’n’ roll can have on people who are hungry and ready for change.
Erik Kirschbaum, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1984 with degrees in history and German, is longtime Springsteen fan. He has lived in Germany for 25 years as a Reuters correspondent. “Rocking the Wall: Bruce Springsteen” is his third book.