When Springsteen Rocked East Berlin

In July 1988, just sixteen months before the Berlin Wall fell, Bruce Springsteen gave a memorable concert in East Berlin. An informative new book by Erik Kirschbaum, Rocking the Wall. Bruce Springsteen: The Berlin Concert that Changed the World (New York: Berlinica, 2013), discusses the event.  Here is my recent review of the study:

In Within Walls: Private Life in the German Democratic Republic (Oxford University Press, 2010), historian Paul Betts shows that the private sphere assumed far more political importance in East Germany than scholars have thought. No one can deny the Communist regime’s “will to total power” or its ability to repress and infiltrate civil society. Yet throughout the state’s history, individuals dug in their gardens, socialized with friends, and listened to Western rock music. Beyond their personal meaning, argues Betts, these practices gained significance as political capital, especially in the 1980s.

Betts and others have started a scholarly fire that promises to consume much of post-Wall historiography’s emphasis on GDR “totalitarianism.” Although Erik Kirschbaum’s study is not an academic monograph, his book adds fuel to the blaze. In ten engagingly written chapters, Kirschbaum, an American journalist based in Germany for the past quarter century (and UW-Madison graduate in history and German), takes the reader through the dramatic events that brought American rock icon Bruce Springsteen to East Berlin on July 19, 1988. The concert drew more than 300,000 fans (some say 500,000) and was the largest gathering in the Republic’s history. Kirschbaum conducted interviews with Springsteen’s longtime manager Jon Landau as well as with Free German Youth (FDJ) leaders who got state approval for the concert. In addition, he did interviews with many East Germans who attended the concert and still have powerful memories of the event.

Kirschbaum often refers to the regime as “totalitarian,” but so much of his evidence argues against that concept. He shows that East German authorities felt increasingly pressured during the 1980s to address restive youth’s thirst for rock music from the West. The crowds streaming into East Berlin to see Springsteen’s performance made that thirst manifest. But the evidence becomes even more convincing when we learn that many concertgoers—to Springsteen’s amazement and delight—sang along to tunes like Badlands, Chimes of Freedom (a Dylan classic), and Dancing in the Dark during the four-hour event. East German fans knew their rock lyrics far better than they knew their Das Kapital.

Kirschbaum recounts how both Landau and Springsteen sensed that the seemingly granite-hard foundation of East German authoritarianism was crumbling in July 1988. Most of the fans interviewed by the author recall feeling that too. They responded gleefully when Springsteen interrupted his marathon performance to give a short speech auf Deutsch. Springsteen expressed hope that all “barriers” would be torn down in the future. (A mini-drama preceded the speech: FDJ authorities feared that using the word “walls,” as the original text read, would cause trouble with political authorities, so Landau replaced it with “barriers” just minutes before Springsteen was to read his statement.) Sixteen months later, the Wall came down and the process of reunification began. Kirschbaum is careful not to assign Springsteen’s memorable concert too much weight in the downfall of the regime. But he also writes, “the roots of the East German revolution can clearly be traced to extraordinary moments like Springsteen’s rock concert” (136). His evidence puts him on safe ground to make that argument.

General readers, rock music fans, historians and the history-minded will find something of value in this crisply written and entertaining study that reminds us once again how powerful cultural expression can be, especially in dictatorial regimes whose goal is to control the most intimate spaces of people’s lives. The East German regime fell well short of its authoritarian goal, and Springsteen and his E-Street Band can rightly claim to have made the failure more obvious to hundreds of thousands of young people who rocked the night of July 19, 1988 away.

Published in: Max Kade Institute Friends Newsletter, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Fall 2013): 7, 11.