Springsteen & The Wall

Paul Scraton on Bruce Springsteen’s 1988 East Germany concert…

At almost fifteen years old, Peter didn’t dream of seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert. He liked some of the songs he’d heard, but as he sat poised by his tape recorder in East Berlin waiting for the RIAS broadcasts from the other side of the Wall, his preferred artists were Peter Gabriel and Michael Jackson. The station Rundfunk im amerikanischen SektorRadio in the American Sector–would play albums in their entirety, uninterrupted, for exactly people like Peter to record.

But not dreaming about concerts wasn’t only a matter of musical taste. “To see Bruce Springsteen wasn’t a dream for me,” says Peter today, because in the GDR “you didn’t dream of things, you didn’t wish for things, that had no possibility of coming true.” His words sound, ironically, like a line plucked from a Springsteen song.

Klaus, on the other hand, was a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. “I was back then,” he says, “and I still am today.” He knew all the songs, and the opportunity to see Springsteen and the E Street Band live in concert was something Klaus had long hoped for—when the chance came there was no question as to whether he would be there.

Klaus’s eyes light up as he remembers the day. 19th July 1988. Thirty degrees. A summer evening of the kind Bruce sings about, only this was not New Jersey but Berlin-Weißensee, and not a grand U.S. Stadium but Weißensee’s former race track that was about to play host to the single biggest gathering of people in the GDR to that point—a crowd not matched in size until the following year, when mass demonstrations would lead to the end of the German Democratic Republic.

Records show that some 160,000 tickets were printed for the concert, though it seems likely that there were many more in attendance. In his book Bruce Springsteen: Rocking the Wall, Erik Kirschbaum estimates the true figure as at least 300,000. Search for a recording of the concert today and aerial footage shows simply a mass of people.

Klaus had no ticket for the event, “but even in the GDR, there was a black market”. He paid twice the face value for a ticket that cost 20 Marks, and that he thinks he still has somewhere, complete with the faded picture of Springsteen, logos of the FDJ (the official youth movement of the GDR) and the ruling SED (Socialist Unity Party), and the slogan: Konzert für Nikaragua (Concert for Nicaragua).

Doors were to open at 4pm, and the concert would start at 7pm. Peter, who was not yet fifteen, still cannot believe his parents let him go. “You wouldn’t do that today,” he says, but back then it was clear that now only would it be safe, but “that Springsteen wouldn’t ever be coming back.” In their recollections, both Peter and Klaus speak of the crowds on the long walk from the closest public transport to the venue; masses and masses of people, many of whom didn’t have tickets but were determined to see or hear the concert no matter what.

As the pressure built up outside the venue’s entrance long before the concert was due to start, the gates were opened early, at around 2pm. Later they would be abandoned entirely as security fences were tipped over by the crowd. “And then we were in,” grins Klaus. “The next job was to find a beer, and then find the best spot to see the concert. Of course, there was no chance to get close to the stage.”

Somewhere else in the crowd, Peter and his friends were waiting for the concert to start. He didn’t know many songs and he was a long way from the stage, but ultimately it wouldn’t matter. “It was music,” he says. “Different music. Something from the real world out there that had somehow dropped in through a hole in the space-time continuum, through a crack in the matrix, and had landed in East Berlin.”

The first song of the four-hour set was Badlands, a song that hadn’t previously opened any show on Springsteen’s mammoth Tunnel of Love world tour, and clearly a carefully considered choice. A song about escape and freedom, performed by one of America’s biggest rock stars at a concert promoted by the GDR’s own socialist youth organisation. No wonder the 14-year-old Peter found it all a little hard to take in. How had it come to this?

In the summer of 1987 a series of concerts were held in West Berlin, hard up against the Wall close to the Reichstag. David Bowie, Genesis and the Eurythmics performed to crowds of West Berliners and—via loud-speakers that had been pointed in the direction of the other side—to East Berliners who had gathered to listen. The GDR police dispersed the crowds with brutal force, events that were recorded by Western television crews on Unter den Linden on the other side of the Wall. 

Erik Kirschbaum quotes the-then cultural secretary of the FDJ Rainer Börner, who told him the subsequent East German concerts were “an overly nervous reaction of a one-party state that was in over its head. Some of us realised we had to start offering something more.” By 1987 dissatisfaction in the German Democratic Republic had risen to peak levels, especially among young people. The FDJ boasted a membership of over two million people between the ages of 14 and 25, some 80% of the total, and the SED’s head honchos hit upon the idea that, in lieu of any significant political change, they could use rock music to mollify the youth.

In the autumn of 1987, Klaus had caught the S-Bahn with his friends to go to Treptower Park and see an underwhelming Bob Dylan perform in front of a crowd of 90,000, many of whom found it hard to believe that their calls for an encore were falling on deaf ears – in fact, Dylan had already left the venue. Still, it was a start. The following summer, as new open air concerts by the Reichstag were planned, including a Michael Jackson show on the 19th June, the FDJ began to organise their counter-programme in Weißensee—far from the Berlin Wall—that would hopefully draw attention away, and prevent a repeat of the scenes that had taken place the summer before. 

Hence as Jackson took to the stage on one side of the Wall, Bryan Adams played for 120,000 people in Weißensee. A few weeks earlier, Joe Cocker had played some of the biggest concerts of his career, in East Berlin and in Dresden. But there was still a feeling that for the FDJ to really compete with what was happening in West Berlin, they needed someone even bigger…

Springsteen was in the middle of his major world tour with the E Street Band, and unbeknownst to the organising committee from the FDJ, had instructed his manager Jon Landau to look into the prospect of an East Berlin concert only a week or so before the Bryan Adams show. The FDJ sent a fax to Springsteen’s people, believing it to be a shot in the dark. When they got an almost immediate positive reply, they suddenly realised that to make this work they didn’t only need to persuade Springsteen to come, but the GDR authorities to allow it. 

Weissensee Race Track in 1955. Image by Heinz Funck, courtesy of Wikipedia / Creative Commons.

The hastily arranged concert was approved as a benefit gig for Nicaraguan solidarity. The other issue was the matter of the artists’ fee. Due to the scarcity of hard currency in the GDR, musicians who came to play in East Berlin or the GDR were often paid in grand pianos or Meissen porcelain, but the word came from Bruce’s people that they were willing to basically play for free. The date of the 19th July 1988 was set, and the concert—the biggest in the history of the GDR, the Woodstock or Glastonbury of East Berlin—was publicly announced just three weeks before. 

It almost didn’t happen. On the 18th July, Springsteen and his band travelled through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin to their digs, the Grand Hotel on the junction of Unter den Linden and Friedrichstraße. In the lobby, meeting some members of the FDJ’s cultural committee, the fact that the concert had been promoted as being in solidarity with Nicaragua came to Springsteen and his management’s attention. They had not agreed to this.

In the discussions that followed it was made clear that, although they could do nothing about the 160,000 tickets that had already been printed, all other references to Nicaragua had to be removed from the concert site. Some of the East German organisers were puzzled: surely this was just like doing a concert in the U.S. that was sponsored by Pepsi? That may be true, clarified Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau, but they wouldn’t have agreed to that in the States either.

After a member of Springsteen’s team had organised some hastily-engaged scaffolders to go to Weißensee and remove all the Nicaragua banners and posters, the concert was back on again, and the next day the band joined what ended up being hte biggest traffic jam in the history of the GDR, as they tried to make their way from the centre of the city to the old race track.

By 4pm, some three hours before the show, around  50,000 people were already there, waiting and basking in the summer sunshine. The GDR television station broadcast the concert in its entirety, including interviews with the audience and Springsteen himself, during a short interval in the four-hour set. As the start time approached, the television journalist asked a group of young people why it was so important for them to be there. “Who knows,” the young man said, “when he’ll come again.”

Despite not knowing many of the songs, somehow Peter and his friends sang along. “We waved lighters. We held each other on our shoulders. Thinking about it now, I cannot describe the concert exactly. Not in any detail. I can only try and bring back those feelings. There was a sense of togetherness in the crowd that was the complete opposite of when we were forced to take part in the May Day demonstrations, which  were also supposed to do just that. It was powerful. It was exhilarating. It came with a lot of adrenaline, and I remember afterwards, everyone was saying: ‘how could that have happened?’”

Watching the footage now, the event does seem utterly remarkable, even surreal, not least because of the numerous home-made American flags among the banners in the crowd. And Springsteen had not only come for what was, at that point in his career, the biggest single concert he had ever played, he had asked his driver to help him translate a short speech, which he wrote down phonetically and delivered from the stage: 

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 nice to be in East Berlin. I’m not for or against any government. I came to play rock and roll for you, in the hope that one day all barriers will be torn down)

The original version of that speech had the word ‘walls’ but panicked member of Bruce’s entourage managed to change it to ‘barriers’ just before, to avoid causing a major incident for their East German colleagues who would not want to hear  Springsteen calling for walls to be torn down from a stage in Weißensee. As it was, the message was clear enough, not least as the band started into Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom as Springsteen delivered those final words.

For the writer Erik Kirschbaum, there is no doubt as to the importance of this moment: “Because it was so short, it may be one of the most under-appreciated anti-Wall speeches ever made. But considering that it was delivered inside East Germany, it probably did more to shake the Cold War barrier than all the anti-Wall speeches in West Berlin combined.”

Indeed, despite Springsteen’s last-minute word swap, there was some nervousness backstage, especially as Egon Krenz, then a high-ranking member of the central committee of the Socialist Unity Party had just arrived to see how it was all going. But they needn’t have worried. Krenz agreed with Springsteen. After all, who didn’t want to see barriers between people torn down? Sixteen months later, with Krenz now the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party amidst the largest demonstrations for change the GDR had ever seen, he would be powerless to stop the actual fall of the Berlin Wall on the 9 November, as the barrier between the two sides of the city was indeed torn down. 

What role did the concert of the 19 July 1988 at the old race track in Weißensee play in the events that followed? At the time, Peter and his friends were clear that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event. “We thought – yes, it is great we could be there, but it will never happen again,” he says. “We could all see that they couldn’t control that many people. They knew that if it was one of their GDR bands, like the Puhdys, only a tenth of the people would come. Yes, we thought it was good we could be there but it wouldn’t be repeated. It was closed off once more, the opening in the space-time continuum, and we were on one side and Springsteen was on the other, and it would stay that way forever.”

Perhaps what Peter felt and observed is the point. The desire for change was already there, the Springsteen concert simply a manifestation—via the sheer number of people who turned out, the atmosphere of togetherness that was greater than any political rally—of what was already threatening to boil over. It’s always important with stories like the collapse of the GDR and the fall of the Berlin Wall not to assign too much credit to individuals and especially outside actors—even if it is Bruce Springsteen. But perhaps there is something in the fact that it was him and his songs that were performed over those four hours in Weißensee.

As a fan of his music, I’ve long thought about what it is about Springsteen that touches so many of us who do not share the background of his characters. Maybe it is simply that, at different moments, we can all understand their yearnings and dreams, their feelings of being trapped by life, caught in a system beyond our control. As hundreds of thousands of people walked home from the old race track in Weißensee, they were like the crowds leaving Springsteen concerts around the world, or indeed concerts by any artist who provokes a connection with their audience, the songs ringing in their ears. It is the power of the communal experience, whether in New Jersey or Tokyo, Sheffield or East Berlin. 

In an interview with MTV in 1984, when asked about what the message of his music was, Bruce Springsteen replied with a single line: “The only message, really, is don’t sell yourself short.” Bruce Springsteen didn’t bring down the Berlin Wall. But for one long summer evening in East Berlin, his concert gave some 300,000 people the feeling of how things might be different. And soon they would be. 

Thanks to Peter and Klaus for sharing their Bruce Springsteen memories for this piece. There is no better place to read the full story of the concert at Weißensee than Erik Kirschbaum’s excellent book, Bruce Springsteen: Rocking the Wall, which is published by Berlinica

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