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Seymour Gris: Springsteen in East Berlin

The Boss hit the GDR in a massive 1988 concert in East Berlin. But how influential really was this massive rock spectacle? Probably more so than anything ever said by US president Ronald Reagan.

Image for Seymour Gris: Springsteen in East Berlin
Photo by MDR/DOKfilm/Thomas Uhlemann

Last year the Hoff parachuted in to defend fragments of the Berlin Wall, but what is little known is that another US star, The Boss, actually played a part in cracking open that brutal slab of concrete a quarter of a decade ago. A massive, four-hour concert Bruce Springsteen played in Berlin-Weißensee surely helped shift the tide of history towards the peaceful revolution that toppled the East German state. On July 19, 1988, less than a year and a half before Berliners poured across Bornholmer Brücke from Prenzlauer Berg into Wedding, an estimated 300,000 Ossis saw Springsteen live in a field in Weißensee  (and millions more on TV)  an event described in great detail in a recently published book by Berlin-based Reuters journalist Erik Kirschbaum titled Rocking the Wall.

To be honest, I’m not the greatest of Springsteen fans  and he’ll never be en vogue with the Berlin hipster set  but the book gives a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the bizarre phenomenon of an American rock star playing to an ecstatic crowd in a socialist country during the Cold War. Kirschbaum’s extensive reporting draws from interviews with organisers, drivers and interpreters, eyewitness accounts as well as Stasi files on the event. Taking advantage of the somewhat more open atmosphere in late 1980s GDR, the FDJ communist youth organisation invited Springsteen to play, without knowing that New Jersey’s beloved son himself had hoped to perform in East Berlin since he first visited in the early 1980s.

The FDJ were able to get the show approved by East German higher-ups by billing it as a solidarity concert for Nicaragua, unbeknownst to Springsteen until shortly before the concert. When he found out, he told the promoters he didn’t want to be used for propaganda purposes, and amazingly they agreed to remove all the “Konzert für Nicaragua” banners from the stage.

One hundred and sixty thousand tickets were printed  and all of them sold. Thousands of people just photocopied the tickets and got in. But tens of thousands more just showed up at the venue with the hope they could somehow make it to the show. Pressure at the gates was so high that the FDJ finally just opened the concert to all: a dress rehearsal for November 9, 1989 if there ever was one.

Pink Floyd, Michael Jackson and of course David Bowie all played shows near the Wall in West Berlin with speakers pointing East  but none of them had the balls to actually play in the East. More than just that, Springsteen opened up his concert with a short provocative speech in German, with a unambiguous message:

Es ist schön in Ost-Berlin zu sein. Ich bin nicht für oder gegen eine Regierung. Ich bin gekommen, um Rock ‘n’ Roll für euch zu spielen in der Hoffnung, dass eines Tages alle Barrieren abgerissen werden.

“It’s great to be in East Berlin, I’m not for or against any government. I came here to play rock ‘n’ roll for you, in the hope that one day all barriers will be torn down.”

These few words delivered in passionate New Jersey rasp probably had more impact on the people of the GDR than Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall!” ever did.

Check out Erik Kirschbaum’s Rocking the Wall here.