The first I heard of the whole thing was in a taxi in Berlin. After a captivating Springsteen concert in 2002 in the capital, I allowed myself to be driven home, tired but satisfied.
[…] I just wanted to relax and allow the concert to linger in my thoughts.
But that simply didn’t work. The taxi driver talked at me on and on and spoke about the concert that had taken place more than a decade before. Springsteen, yes, I saw him give the best concert of all time in July 1988. In East Berlin! The “Boss” didn’t just rock the foundations of the GDR with his performance in front of 300,000 people. 300,000! No, he shook the whole communist system, said the long-haired and bearded driver with total conviction. “Yes”, I answered him flatly. “Springsteen concerts are always super events. The man simply has a way of taking the masses along on a journey. I’ve seen him in concert quite a few times.” “No, no, no” - the taxi driver was now not only enthusiastic, but also a little bit angry. “You don’t understand, it wasn’t just any old good concert”, he insisted and turned to face me. Then he explained further: 300,000 people saw it live, millions on TV, the whole country was up in arms. He turned his head to me once again and with garlic breath said to me gravely, “It was the most unbelievable thing that had ever happened in the GDR”. For millions of people who grew up in the 60s, Springsteen’s music was like the soundtrack of their lives. His lyrics from over four decades are anchored in the collective memory of a whole generation, such as: ‘It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we’re young, cuz tramps like us, baby, we were born to run” from Born to Run, or: “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive” from Badlands. The limitless enthusiasm of that Berlin taxi driver was infectious and I began to ask myself: Did something really quite special take place on that summer’s evening in 1988 in communist East Berlin? Something that had more meaning than just a good Springsteen concert?
The more I learned about this concert, the stronger the chains that bound me to this story became. For example, when I heard for the first time that Springsteen had the courage to give a short speech about the wall, I was amazed- in East Berlin! I was also fascinated to learn that 300,00 people - neither before or after had there ever been more people at a Springsteen concert - had set out to experience the American rock star live, alongside the millions of people watching on television. Of course, I was moved and excited when I found out how tens of thousands of people had simply stormed the fences to get onto the event grounds. All of this in reclusive, authoritarian East Berlin, the “capital of the GDR”.
Bruce Springsteen’s anti Berlin wall speech in East Berlin
If you ask Bruce Springsteen fan Erik Kirschbaum, correspondent for the news agency Reuters, about the legendary Bruce Springsteen concert in East Berlin in 1988, he regrets not being there himself. Yet, if you read his book “Rocking the Wall - Bruce Springsteen”, you feel as if he was right there. To do this, Kirschbaum has collected the impressions of over 50 contemporary witnesses and worked through the more than 80 pages of comprehensive Stasi report about the concert and numerous articles from this time.
Out of this has come a book which grippingly tells the German-German history leading up to the fall of the wall and made this musician the voice of the GDR youth. As the concert was registered as a solidarity concert for Nicaragua, Springsteen gave a speech in German, because he didn’t want to allow himself to be instrumentalist by politics:
‘ “It is lovely being in East Berlin”, he called to the people in German. His German chauffeur had noted down the correct pronunciation for him, just as Kennedy had done 25 years before him. “I am not for or against either government”, said Springsteen. “I just came to play Rock’n’Roll for you in the hope that, one day, all barriers will be torn down.” Hundreds of thousands of people broke out into frantic cheering at this. ‘
Instead of the expected 160,000 spectators, more than 500,000 people turned up in the end at the race track arena in Weißensee. The event organizer FDJ at some point had a barrier fence put up to avoid a possible mass panic. This was because the entirety of the GDR youth had travelled to East Berlin to experience Springsteen live - from Leipzig, Dresden, Magdeburg, Cottbus, Karl-Marx-Stadt, Neubrandenburg, Potsdam, Halle, Erfurt, Jena, Suhl, Rostock and Schwerin. Nobody knew at that time how the democratic efforts in the Eastern block would develop. Indeed, the FDJ intended that young people would no longer apply for exit visas, however the opposite was true. The lackadaisical security checks and the fact that Springsteen was allowed to play what he wanted taught the spectators and the world that even in the GDR, anything is possible and that the GDR citizens could personally dare to want more without being prosecuted by the Stasi. Erik Kirschbaum highlights this discrepancy between intention and effect of the concert organized by the GDR leadership in his book: because although the four-hour concert by Bruce Springsteen was not one of his best performances, it was certainly among his most important appearances.
Chapter 1: KING OF THE WORLD
Chapter 2: DREAMS IN THE WALL CITY
Chapter 3: LOST CHILDREN
Chapter 4: OVER SEVEN BRIDGES
Chapter 5: SPECIAL TRAIN TO PANKOW
Chapter 6: I’M INTO BERLIN
Chapter 7: VÖLKER, LISTEN TO THE SIGNALS
Chapter 8: HISTORY IS MADE!
Chapter 9: AT THE WINDOW
Chapter 10: A HELL OF A LONG TIME AGO
Erik Kirschbaum is an American journalist and author who has lived in Germany since 1989 where he writes for Reuters, the Los Angeles Times and other publications as a foreign correspondent for sport, politics, the economy, film and renewable energy. Since 1989, the native New Yorker has authored articles from more than 30 countries.