Memories of how Springsteen rocked Berlin

BERLIN (Reuters) - When Bruce Springsteen spoke out against the Berlin Wall at the biggest concert in East German history in 1988, no one in the crowd of 160,000 had the faintest idea that the symbol of the Cold War would soon be history.

U.S. rock star Bruce Springsteen plays the guitar during a packed concert at a stadium in East Berlin's Weissensee district in this July 19, 1988 file photo. When Springsteen spoke out against the Berlin Wall at the biggest concert in East Germany history in 1988, no one in the crowd of 160,000 had the faintest idea that the symbol of the Cold War would soon be history. REUTERS/Wolfgang Kumm/Files

But now -- 20 years after the American rock star went behind the Iron Curtain -- organizers, historians and people who witnessed it say his message came at a critical juncture in German history in the run-up to the Wall’s collapse.

It was not the only show that summer with political fallout. In June, a concert for Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday in London was beamed to millions worldwide. Two years later he was freed from an apartheid jail and later elected South Africa president.

Such concerts for a cause remain part of the summer music calendar, even if their impact is diluted in the internet age.

Springsteen, an influential songwriter and singer whose lyrics are often about people struggling, got permission at long last to perform in East Berlin in 1988.

Even though his songs are full of emotion and politics, East Germany had welcomed him as a “hero of the working class”. The Communists may have unwittingly created an evening that did more to change East Germany than Woodstock did to the United States.

Annoyed at the billing “Concert for Nicaragua” that Communist East German leaders stamped on his July 19 performance, Springsteen stopped halfway through the three-hour show for a short speech -- in heavily accented German:

“I want to tell you I’m not here for or against any government,” Springsteen said, as he pointedly introduced his rendition of the Bob Dylan ballad “Chimes of Freedom”.

“I came to play rock ‘n’ roll for you East Berliners in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down.”

The words fed the discontent building in East Germany and added to a restless mood in the country severed from the West after World War Two -- and especially in the city split by the Wall, built during the darkest hours of the Cold War in 1961.


The East German organizer told Reuters hardline leaders only reluctantly endorsed the plan by the Communist party’s FDJ youth group to let Springsteen in. It was an era of change sparked by the “perestroika” reforms of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

“It obviously wasn’t easy and we had to fight hard to get permission but we eventually succeeded,” Roland Claus, an ex-FDJ leader and now a member of parliament, said in an interview. East German hardliners were skeptical of Gorbachev.

“The higher-ups understood that rock music was international and if East Germany wanted to do something to improve the lot of young people, we’d have to try it,” he said. “We were proud we got him and had great hopes it’d help modernize East Germany.”

Instead, the open-air concert at a cycling arena only seemed to make East Germans long more for the freedoms that Springsteen sang and spoke about in a show also broadcast on TV and radio.

“We were interested in opening the country up,” said Claus, 53. “No one thought the Wall would be gone a year later. Anyone in the East or West who said that would have been considered insane. It was a great concert with a special atmosphere.”


Other Americans had spoken out against the Wall in Berlin.

But both presidents John F. Kennedy in 1963 (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) and Ronald Reagan in 1987 (“Tear down this Wall”) gave their addresses in West Berlin.

Springsteen delivered his words in the heart of East Berlin, where Communist East Germany had long portrayed the United States as a decadent and belligerent “class enemy”.

“Springsteen’s concert and speech certainly contributed in a larger sense to the events leading up to the fall of the Wall,” said Gerd Dietrich, a historian at Berlin’s Humboldt University.

“It was a paradoxical situation. Before Springsteen, the FDJ had always cursed Western rock artists like Springsteen. And then all of a sudden they were welcoming him. It looked like they were caving in to the shifting values of young people.”

Dietrich, 63, said Communist party hopes that a small taste of Springsteen might pacify youths backfired. There was even a positive advance review in the Neues Deutschland daily: “He attacks social wrongs and injustices in his homeland.”

“But it didn’t work out as planned,” Dietrich said. “It made people eager for change. The organizers wanted to demonstrate their openness. But Springsteen aroused a greater interest in the West. It showed people how locked up they really were.”

Cherno Jobatey, now a well-known German TV anchorman, was another witness to the East Berlin Springsteen concert, writing about it as a young reporter for the West Germany weekly Die Zeit under a headline “Born in the DDR”.

He wrote Springsteen had longed to put on a concert in East Berlin since he paid a visit there in 1981. Jobatey described a rowdy mood beforehand -- surprising in a country where security police clampdowns were usually quick and ruthless.

Jobatey, 42, reported the crowd erupted when Springsteen called for “the barriers” to be torn down. “There was thunderous applause from the crowd endorsing that proposal,” he wrote.

Jobatey told Reuters recently it was hard to know if Springsteen had helped set in motion the chain of events leading to the Berlin Wall’s fall 16 months later. But he said it was a magical evening just before the upheaval gained momentum.

“The music was great and he showed people a different experience, a different way life, a different world,” Jobatey said. “There was an incredible vibe to it all. It was an amazing thing to experience in the middle of East Berlin.”

He said the concert probably affected East Germany more thoroughly than the 1969 Woodstock Festival did America.

“People didn’t want to leave when it was over,” he said. “The police gave up after a while. I walked back across town for about two hours and everywhere everyone was happy and on a real high. But it didn’t feel like a revolution, just yet anyhow.”


Claus, who organized the concert, acknowledged there was some chaos -- remarkable in a country with such an omniscient and oppressive security apparatus -- as 160,000 people arrived at a venue with a 120,000 capacity; 100,000 tickets were sold.

“We had to take down all the crush barriers, gates and fences to the concert because so many people showed up,” he said. “We had to resort to the best instrument we had: anarchy.”

After Springsteen there were many other Western artists eager to come despite modest fees -- Springsteen tickets were 20 East German marks (or about $1).

“Word of the huge crowd and great enthusiasm in East Berlin spread,” Claus said. “A lot of international stars wanted to come after that. I spent a lot of time working on plans for a U2 concert in East Berlin that we wanted to do in August 1989.”

But the U2 concert never happened. By that point thousands of East Germans were streaming out of the country to the West, the final act that led to the Berlin Wall’s opening on November 9.

“I was trying to organise a parallel East-West concert with U2 in East Berlin and Duran Duran in West Berlin,” Claus said. “But I couldn’t get approval anymore from the higher-ups. They were too afraid. There was so much turmoil by that point.”

Editing by Keith Weir