Bruce Springsteen isn’t called ‘The Boss’ for nothing. Whist he’s well known for his everyman, blue-collared nature, and penchant for an anthem, there’s one thing that people forget about the New Jersey native. He might have helped to bring the Berlin Wall down. Yes, you heard me. Bruce Springsteen might have done his bit to help bring down the historical symbol of division in Europe.
Although this point is slightly tenuous, over the course of this piece you’ll be able to make your own mind up over whether he did his bit in inspiring political and cultural change in East Germany.
Many American factors have been credited with helping to hasten the toppling of the bricks of Communism. Whether it be hailing Reagan’s ‘Tear Down This Wall’ speech of 1987, crediting the universal appeal of ‘American-style democracy’ or even the rumour that the CIA possibly wrote The Scorpions’ hit ‘Wind of Change’, the list is endless.
The majority of these can be dismissed when you note some of the key features that came from within the Eastern Bloc that actually had a substantial influence on The Wall coming down, such as Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika reforms or the fact that the system was failing, and people wanted change. However, when it comes to Bruce Springsteen’s minor role, they might well be right.
Although it was massive news at the time, it seems to have been forgotten that in July 1988, Springsteen delivered an outdoor concert to 300,000 fans in East Berlin whilst millions more watched the grainy state television broadcast at home on their televisions.
Incredibly, Springsteen played for four hours and stormed through 32 songs. Misguided conservative commentators have claimed that it was his ironic anti-Vietnam hit ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ that helped to light the fire of democracy in the bellies of all those watching, when actually, as opendemocracy points out, it may well have been his cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Chimes of Freedom’.
Prior to jumping into the career-defining rendition, Springsteen gave a passionate speech in fairly rudimentary German, but the message was clear. “I’m not here for any government,” he said passionately. “I’ve come to play rock ‘n’ roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down.”
Of the show’s aftereffects, Historian Gerd Dietrich claims that “Springsteen’s concert and speech certainly contributed in a large sense to the events leading up to the fall of the wall.”
Expanding on this sentiment is Thomas Wilke, an expert on the impact of rock and pop in East Germany. He said: “There was clearly a different feeling and a different sentiment in East Germany after that concert.” Following Wilke, Dietrich also said that Springsteen’s mammoth show helped to inspire an even greater appetite for political change. He claims that it “showed people how locked up they really were.”
It is argued that the Springsteen show had the opposite effect to what the Eats German authorities wanted. According to reports in the archives of the East German police, the Stasi, the concert was actually intended to “assuage” the youth of the country, who were “still reeling” from the severe beatings that had been handed to them from the police the year before for trying to listen in on David Bowie and the Eurythmics when they played just over The Wall in West Berlin. Waging a PR war, the Springsteen show was purposely held “in the depths of East Berlin” far from The Wall to prevent “an impromptu revolution.”
History can be extremely peculiar. I don’t know what the East German authorities imagined would happen when they booked the bastion of freedom Bruce Springsteen, but one thing is clear, regardless of how minor Springsteen’s role may have been in the grand scheme of things, they underestimated the power of music. It played a defining role in toppling the Berlin Wall and the whole of the Eastern Bloc, and we mustn’t forget it.
Looking back, Springsteen said: “Once in a while […] you play a show that ends up staying inside of you, living with you for the rest of your life. East Berlin in 1988 was certainly one of them.”
Watch Springsteen perform ‘Chimes of Freedom’ below.