Night the Boss rocked the wall

PUBLISHED: 09:00 28 October 2017

Bruce Springsteen on stage

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The East German authorities hoped Bruce Springsteen might help bolster their ailing regime. Instead, as IAN WALKER explains, he doomed it

It was the summer of 1988 and one of the last battles of the Cold War was about to take place in Berlin.

Forty three years of useless division, of hostile, cynical realpolitik and of the draining fear of nuclear war was about to be played out in one huge showdown.

This was the endgame and the gloves were off. Or at least one glove was off – because this battle was to be held between Michael Jackson and Bryan Adams.

For some time, Jackson had been scheduled to perform on June 19, 1988, on the open area in front of the Reichstag in West Berlin. The Berlin Wall ran directly behind the Reichstag, which meant the event was to be held just metres from East Berlin.

Much about this concert was politically provocative. The previous year a series of shows, over three consecutive days, had been held at the same location to celebrate the 750th anniversary of Berlin. That series, which featured a performance by David Bowie, one by Eurythmics and one by Genesis, had been called the Concert for Berlin, the title being essentially a propaganda point. Being held so close to the Wall, the shows were always going to attract an impromptu and unofficial audience from the east of the city.

Indeed, the proximity to the eastern half of the city had not been lost on the 1987 series’ organiser Peter Schwenkow. Ten years earlier, he had been working as a roadie in East Germany when he had a run-in with the authorities after he found himself detained at gunpoint for asking questions about the accidental deaths of two of Tina Tuner’s road crew on an East German highway.

In the excellent book Rocking The Wall by Erik Kirschbaum, Schwenkow is quoted as saying: “I hated the East German authorities after that... Organising a concert years later in front of the Reichstag was one way I was able to annoy them.”

And annoy them he did. A quarter of the loudspeakers for the 1987 concerts had been pointed directly at East Berlin. The concerts were also broadcast on RIAS radio.

This was the broadcasting service established after the Second World War by the United States occupying forces. By 1965, the station, whilst still managed by the Americans, was largely run by West Germans. Its principal role was to broadcast to East Germany and East Berlin. These gigs were going live into East German homes.

It was the Bowie concert on the first night that started all the trouble for the East German authorities. East Berliners had gathered on the streets near the Wall to listen. After hearing Bowie dedicate the song Heroes “to all our friends who are on the other side of the Wall” sections of the crowd moved toward the Brandenburg Gate.

The border guards blocked their progress. Stones were thrown and suddenly the East German authorities were facing open dissent. This defiance grew worse over the next two nights as East German crowds gathered for the concerts by The Eurythmics and Genesis. The rioting intensified and by the third night 158 arrests were made and, most significantly, shouts of Mauer weg! (“the wall must fall”) were heard. The East German authorities, clumsily and stupidly, had somehow managed to turn a crowd of people who wanted to listen to a concert into political dissidents.

Such maladroit handling was hardly a surprise, given the leadership of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Foremost was Erich Honecker. In 1961 he had been the Party Security Secretary and therefore the man tasked with building the Wall. He also was the man responsible for Schießbefehl – the standing order instructing East German border guards to fire at those trying to escape across it. In 1976 Honecker became chairman of the State Council and therefore leader of East Germany. He would remain in charge almost – though not quite – to the last days of the GDR.

The beginning of the end for Honecker’s hardline leadership had come when Mikhail Gorbachev took power in Russia in 1985. In certain fundamental ways Gorbachev understood that the Soviet Union had failed and in an attempt to save his country he introduced a series of political, economic and military reforms. In doing so, he began to dismantle many of the fundamental principles by which the Soviet Union and its satellites operated.

One of these principles was the Brezhnev Doctrine, which stated that: “When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries.” This policy had justified the Soviet suppression of the Prague revolt in 1968; it justified the pressure exerted on Poland in 1980 and 1981 and it justified the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. It was a guarantee of Soviet hegemony and, as such, the communist East German state was guaranteed by the might and backing of the USSR.

And now that backing was gone. Gorbachev himself identified Honecker as one of a Gang of Four (the other three were Bulgaria’s Todor Zhivkov, Czechoslovakia’s Gustáv Husák and Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu) who were in opposition to his plans for reforming the Soviet Union. For that quartet, though, Gorbachev’s reforms represented an even bigger threat than just the demise of the Brezhnev Doctrine. They were also discovering that the new, liberalised USSR of Glasnost and Perestroika was beginning to legitimise dissent in their own countries.

Along with those calls of Mauer weg!, cries of ‘Gorby save us’ and ‘Gorbachev, Gorbachev’ were beginning to be heard from the young people rioting as a Phil Collins-led Genesis played Land of Confusion.

That was 1987. A year on, in the summer of 1988, the stage was set once more. This time, with Michael Jackson about to ascend it. Before the concerts, complaints were made by the fearful East German authorities, who were feeling increasingly besieged.

Compromises were sought but they all failed. The concerts were going to go ahead and no one was in any doubt that they would again act as a focus for young East Berliners’ disaffection with Honecker, communism and East Germany itself.

And then the Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ) had an idea. This was the official youth movement of the GDR, a mixture of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy and the Cub Scout movement – a sort of revolutionary youth club. Their brainwave was to hold another concert in East Berlin on the same night as Jackson’s on the other side of the Wall. The idea was that it would act as a distraction from the West Berlin event, but would also be a safe concession by the authorities to the sort of liberalisation that young East German people were starting to demand. A rock concert was better than a riot.

And it worked; the authorities agreed and Bryan Adams was booked to play a concert in the Weissensee district, well in the heart of East Berlin and away from the Wall.

Everything Bryan did that night, he did for the 120,000 East Germans who attended his concert. There were a few thousand who preferred Jackson and went to eavesdrop on that instead – unlike the West German crowd they were not able to see the man actually moonwalk – but there were no riots and there were no cries of Mauer weg! In the East/West German showdown between their pop proxies, the status quo survived. And for the GDR, that was a victory.

Adams was not the first Western act to play in East Berlin around this time. Bob Dylan had played a short, disappointing and understated concert the year before and Depeche Mode and Joe Cocker had performed earlier in 1988.

Those gigs, along with the bizarre Jacko/Adams concert face-off, gave the East German state breathing space. It briefly looked as though political dissent could be contained by MOR rock ballads and moody synth pop. And if that worked then why not have more? In fact why not go for one of the biggest acts on the planet? Why not go for Springsteen? He was touring in Europe that summer and he was popular in East Germany.

Pop and rock had mostly a twilight status throughout the history of the GDR. Seen as a pernicious American influence, at best it was only ever tolerated. There were quite a few indigenous bands, some of whom managed to achieve a level of success. But, whilst they are of historical interest and certainly deserve kudos because of their very existence, none were very good. They were heavily censored and were unable to exist in a place outside of state control. Occasionally the state would clamp down and acts would find themselves banned or even imprisoned.

But Western music did manage to cross the Iron Curtain. This happened in three ways. Firstly, it was smuggled in. Secondly, it was broadcast by West German radio stations. Sometimes these stations would broadcast entire LPs with no talking and no adverts, just so East German kids could tape them. (East Berliners could also pick up West German television – it was said that you could always tell which way was west in East Berlin just by looking to see which way the TV aerials were pointing). Thirdly, the East German state released selected Western records under licence on the state-run Amiga label – and in 1986 the biggest Amiga release was Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA.

If you are lucky, you can still find copies of one of these Amiga releases of Western records in a Leipzig, Berlin or Dresden flea market. Mostly they are not rare but are of genuine historical interest. Each Amiga record was passed for release by the East German state and some of the reasoning behind the socialist censor’s decision to approve a record found its way onto the sleeve notes.

The sleeve notes for Born in the USA argued (correctly) that Springsteen’s LP was not a chauvinist celebration of America, but was instead, a record coming to terms with America’s troubled past and present.

So the authorities didn’t have a problem with him; he was in Europe; he was popular in East Germany. He was a perfect fit for the FJD’s scheme of propping up a ailing socialist state with pop music.

Springsteen agreed to play. He had been to East Berlin before but only as tourist while on a European tour in 1981. He and guitarist Steve Van Zandt had crossed Checkpoint Charlie for a day trip into the east. Springsteen describes what he saw in his autobiography: “You could feel the boot, the Stasis in the street, and you knew the oppression was real. The power of the wall that split the world in two, its blunt, ugly mesmerising realness, couldn’t be underestimated. It was an offence to humanity; there was something pornographic about it, and once viewed, it held a scent you couldn’t quite get off you. It truly disturbed some of the band”.

East Berlin certainly disturbed Van Zandt, one of Springsteen’s oldest friends and, at the time, guitarist in his E Street Band (he later left and then re-joined). Throughout the 1970s, with his bandana and bangles, he was the archetypal rocker and was in no way a political figure.

After visiting East Berlin he changed. He became politically active. He recorded a series of political LPs and campaigned and worked with other artists on political initiatives – most famously on his Artists Against Apartheid project.

Springsteen in some ways followed his friend’s lead. Politics had been a central part of his music since the LP Darkness on the Edge of Town – but it was a personal, rather intense political sensibility which was wrapped up with his own working class background and his troubled relationship with his father. But – and this may have just been coincidence – after that East Berlin trip, Springsteen, much like Van Zandt, also began to be more explicitly political.

He campaigned more. He toured for Amnesty. He appeared on benefit records. He endorsed or supported Democratic candidates. He championed gay rights. He supported unions. The list goes on. Like Van Zandt (and Geldof, Bono, Peter Gabriel and so many more), in the 1980s Springsteen was seen as a politically-engaged artist.

And the FJD thought they could use Springsteen’s political activism. They told the East German authorities that his concert – to be held on July 19, a month after Jackson and Adams had played – would be billed as a show of solidarity with the people of Nicaragua, where a Cold War conflict saw the US heavily involved. Huge banners were hung from the stage to this effect. Tickets were printed with Konzert für Nicaragua written across the top.

This concert was going to be revenge for those Reichstag Concerts For Berlin. America’s biggest rock star was going right into the heart of communist Europe where he would show his solidarity with the US-oppressed people of Nicaragua.

Except that never happened.

No one had told Springsteen about this Nicaragua angle. Arriving in Berlin the night before the concert he discovered what the organisers had planned. Enraged, Springsteen nearly had the concert pulled. John Landau, his friend and manager, raged at the organisers and insisted the banners were removed. There wasn’t much that could be done about the tickets but it was clear that Springsteen would not allow this concert to be hijacked by somebody else’s political agenda. The banners were taken down. The concert went ahead.

But if the East German authorities felt they had lost control of the concert’s political message about Nicaragua that was nothing compared to what happened on the day. On the day they lost control of everything, as events very quickly spiralled out of their control.

The official attendance figure for the concert was 170,000. The actual figure was higher – perhaps as high as 300,000 (there have even been claims that the gig was attended by half a million people). People came from all over East Germany, traffic was backed up everywhere and roads were brought to a standstill. Most of these people did not have tickets.

The organisers had set aside 20,000 tickets at the venue but this was nowhere near enough. Crowds, aware that there were no more, just surged forward. The barriers were smashed. The people poured in.

This was the important political point of the day. Ordinary East Germans had smashed the barriers. They had defied the authorities. Years later, people who attended the concert remembered this moment – seeing the smashed barriers – as the moment they realised something was changing and that the authorities no longer had authority. It was a portent, a pre-echo, of the events of just over a year later when crowds of East Berliners smashed through the barriers again and crossed the Wall.

Springsteen and the E Street Band were stunned by what they saw that day. They couldn’t see the end of the crowd. But they could see home-made American flags held aloft. For many in the audience this was the first time they had ever seen a real American in the flesh, and there were banners with the names of Springsteen’s songs written on them. And the crowd knew the words to the songs and they sang along. All of this was unexpected.

More expected was that Springsteen and the E Street Band gave their all on stage. It was a typical Springsteen gig – ending in dripping sweat and all energy spent.

Amongst all that intensity there was a political message delivered from the stage. Springsteen made a speech in clumsy broken German in which he said “It’s great to be here in East Berlin. I’m not for or against any government. I came here to play rock’n’roll for you in the hope that one day all barriers will be torn down”. The crowd went mad.

Of course it wasn’t Springsteen or Bowie or Bryan Adams, Michael Jackson or Genesis that brought the Cold War to an end. It was the slow internal collapse of the Soviet Union, of its economic stagnation, of its defeat in Afghanistan and the disaster of Chernobyl that brought it to an end. And it was Gorbachev and the process of Perestroika and Glasnost that managed that ending.

Quite brilliantly, ideas of freedom and independence and liberalism were somehow salvaged from the wreck of the Soviet Union. And this is where these giant concerts by the mega stars of 1980s music enter the historical stage. These concerts were part of that process of freedom and liberalisation. By the end of 1989, Honecker was gone and by 1990 East Germany no longer existed. Communism lost. Rock won.

Ian Walker is a writer and former museum curator based in Munich

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