In one of those curious coincidences that seems to happen to me frequently, the morning after we returned from our short break in Berlin BBC Radio 4 broadcast a drama based on the moment in July 1988 when, improbably, Bruce Springsteen performed before an audience of 300,000 people from all over the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in East Berlin in a concert watched live on state television by millions more.

The date was 19 July 1988, just 16 months before the Wall fell. In his entertaining drama Jonathan Myerson told the story of how a small-time promoter named ‘Pony’ persuaded both the Boss and the authorities to stage a gig for hundreds and thousands of youths. It was unclear how many of the characters in the play were fictional, but what is certain is that young activists working for the state-run Free German Youth organisation made a successful approach to Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau.

Springsteen in East Berlin 1988
Bruce Springsteen at the concert in East Berlin in 1988

Myerson’s play had great fun with the notion of hardliners in the Communist Party hierarchy backing the idea of a ‘summer of rock’ to ‘assuage the country’s youth’, who had been beaten back by police from the vicinity of the Berlin Wall in the previous year when they’d tried to hear and catch sight of David Bowie playing just over the Wall in the West, his speakers blasting ‘Heroes’ eastwards.

In Born in the DDR, one of Myerson’s characters is a Stasi major bewildered by the lyrics and iconography of Springsteen’s then-current album, Born in the USA. Members of the FDJ youth group convince him that Springsteen (‘a good German name’) is a proletarian hero, castigating capitalism and the failure of the American dream in lyrics of rich irony.

Springsteen in East Berlin 1988 tickets
Springsteen in East Berlin 1988: ticket and backstage pass

Nevertheless the Communist  party leaders only reluctantly endorsed the plan to allow Springsteen to play in East Berlin, insisting that it must be a concert in aid of the Sandinista revolutionaries in Nicaragua, and that Springsteen must make a donation to the cause.

Myerson conjures some amusing scenes from all this (how far they truly represent what happened, I don’t know): when Landau presents the contractual terms to to the FDJ representatives it insists upon there being no advertising or sponsorship of any kind, so in advance of an inspection of the venue by Landau the East Berliners hurry back to have ‘Concert for Nicaragua’ banners torn down. By that time, however, all the tickets bearing the title ‘Berlin Rock Summer: Concert for Nicaragua’ had been sold.

Springsteen in East Berlin 1988 crowd
The huge audience at Springsteen’s East Berlin concert in July 1988
Springsteen in East Berlin 1988 crowd 3
A ‘Welcome to Berlin’ banner is unfurled in the crowd

Springsteen’s ultimately played a four-hour concert, featuring a total of 32 songs, and East Germans got to sing ‘Born In The USA’ and ‘Chimes of Freedom’ with its line about ‘the city’s melted furnace’ where ‘unexpectedly we watched with faces hidden while the walls were tightening’.

Before he launched into Bob Dylan’s anthem, Springsteen made a passionate speech, delivered in stilted but understandable German. In Myerson’s drama, the FDJ people see the draft of what he is about to say – and are immediately alarmed about the likely response from the Stasi. In Myerson’s telling, Springsteen was about to say, ‘I’m not here for any government. I’ve come to play rock’n’roll for you in the hope that one day all the walls will be torn down’. Terrified that any talk of tearing down walls will result in the concert being halted, they urge an amendment by which Bruce expresses the hope that one day ‘all the barriers will be torn down.’ Certainly, those are the words that he utters on the live recording of the concert.

Enthusiastic crowds at the Bruce Springsteen concert in Berlin-Weissensee in 1988
Enthusiastic crowds at the Bruce Springsteen concert in Berlin-Weissensee in 1988

It seems likely that Myerson based his radio drama on a book about the concert mentioned in an article in the Guardian. The book, by Erik Kirschbaum, is Rocking the Wall: Bruce Springsteen and the Berlin Concert That Changed the World. Drawing on Stasi files, the recollections of those who attended the concert, and concert organizers on both sides of the Berlin Wall, including Jon Landau, Rocking the Wall suggests that the thunderous reaction of East Germans to his speech was so intense that it briefly brought tears to Springsteen’s eyes. Kirschbaum suggests, too, that the concert became the ‘final nail in the coffin’ of the Communist regime and subsequently helped fuel the uprising that brought down the Wall.

That may be an exaggeration, but some historians do believe that Springsteen’s gig, far from appeasing people, simply made them want more. The Guardian quotes Gerd Dietrich, professor of history at Berlin’s Humboldt University, as saying, ‘Springsteen’s concert and speech certainly contributed in a large sense to the events leading up to the fall of the wall. It made people … more eager for more and more change … Springsteen aroused a greater interest in the west. It showed people how locked up they really were.’

Whatever its ultimate significance, for the 300,000 who were there that day or for many of the millions that watched it on East German TV, it was a truly memorable day. A year later the Wall fell. Today, the German Democratic Republic is history, but Springsteen still sings:

Lights out tonight
Trouble in the heartland
Got a head-on collision
Smashin’ in my guts man
I’m caught in a crossfire
That I don’t understand
I don’t give a damn
For the same old played out scenes
I don’t give a damn
For just the in-betweens
Honey I want the heart, I want the soul
I want control right now
Talk about a dream
Try to make it real
You wake up in the night
With a fear so real
Spend your life waiting
For a moment that just don’t come
Well don’t waste your time waiting

Badlands, you gotta live it every day
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay
We’ll keep pushin’ till it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good

You can listen to Born in the DDR on the iPlayer for another 21 days.

Bruce Springsteen, Weissensee, East Berlin 19 July 1988: the entire DDR broadcast

See also

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