Springsteen in East Berlin


It was a thunderous example of what the man himself would call ‘the everlasting power of rock and roll’. When Bruce Springsteen, all presence and perspiration, bounded onstage under the glowering skies of East Berlin on the 19th of July 1988, he captured the hearts and minds of a generation which, under the thumb of a fearsome albeit fading regime, had been wondering whether to stick or twist. With the Boss’ stirring lyrics still ringing in their ears, these were the people who, a year later, would tear down the Wall.

Forget David Hasselhoff’s freeloading exploits and trite lyrics the following summer. Born and raised on the mean streets of New Jersey, Springsteen has always been awash with empathy for the plight of the individual. The collision of a wordsmith on a quest for ‘a world I can call mine’ and a people suffocated by a government of which George Orwell would have been proud was always going to be a match made in heaven. Granted, there is something captivating about watching an American rock star on the far side of the Iron Curtain repeatedly baying the word ‘Cadillac’ into his microphone at the top of his lungs in front of an audience for whom the Trabbi was as good as it got. However, it is the moment of silent communion between Springsteen and the Berliners towards the end of the show that makes the pulse race.

As we inch ever closer to the twenty fifth anniversary of the Wende, the blunder the Communist authorities made in allowing the concert to go ahead demands a closer look. Seduced by the Free German Youth’s promises of songs depicting ‘the shady side of American reality’, the suits gave the green light to a showman who, unbeknownst to them, had been juggling the role of his country’s moral compass with a dogged patriotism that tended to give the benefit of the doubt to the little man in American society. Something else that had failed to register in the corridors of power was that Springsteen and his E Street Band were a flurry of self expression, colour and, last but by no means least, fun. As such, they were the very antithesis of the East German regime and, by the time the first strains of Born In The USA rang round the makeshift arena midway through the set, it no longer seemed to matter that this was the most unremittingly anti-American record of Springsteen’s entire repertoire. The crowd was sold.

The Boss has never been averse to breaking into social commentary on stage, even displaying a penchant for covering his idols’ songs to illustrate his point. Should any of the 300,000 strong audience in East Berlin that evening have remained uncertain of his political orientation in the wake of a brief speech in which he distanced himself from any government and expressed the hope that ‘one day all the barriers will be torn down’, Springsteen obligingly launched into a hearty rendition of Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom. A lyrical tour de force shot through with utopian visions, this will have spoken to all those East Germans capable of deciphering Dylan in his prime. The concert, then, was a heady mixture of idealistic sentiments that, in the words of spectator Jörg Beneke, hammered the ‘nail in the coffin’ of the East German government.

Did Springsteen shake the foundations of the Berlin Wall? It is tempting to conclude that he did. After all, November the 9th 1989 did not come out of the blue. It is true that the act of dismantling the wall happened quite literally overnight but the wheels had been set in motion long before. This was the bandwagon onto which Hasselhoff would jump with such alacrity, as the people’s restlessness reached fever pitch that summer. If you retrace their footsteps, though, all roads lead to a cycle track in the Weissensee district where, once upon a time, Asbury Park’s favourite son had demonstrated that the grass sometimes is greener on the other side.

Jack Arscott

Connolly, K. (2013) ‘The night Bruce Springsteen played East Berlin – and the wall cracked’ in the Guardian

Image: Bundesarchiv