In 2089, when Germany looks back to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, historians and sociologists will have a different perspective on all the myriad of reasons that helped bring down the iconic symbol of the world's Cold War division. And they will point out that it all started with a rock concert -- by, of all things, an American named Bruce Springsteen.
As incredible as it may sound in 2014, there is considerable evidence that Springsteen unwittingly helped bring the Berlin Wall down with the biggest, most riveting earth-shaking concert in the history of East Germany. At least that's the theory of my book Rocking the Wall -- the Berlin Concert that Changed the World.
It all happened 16 months before the Wall fell in July 1988, and the biggest crowd Springsteen ever played before watched him perform in the East Berlin district of Weissensee on a giant meadow. Springsteen worked his magic there in front of a crowd of 300,000 people -- only half of whom had tickets. The other half simply stormed the gates and got away with it.
Not only did Springsteen have ecstatic East Germans screaming their lungs out while singing "Born in the USA," he also opened his four-hour long concert defiantly with "Badlands," a song that East Germans might have felt referred to their country, and he later played "Chimes of Freedom" right after delivering a courageous short speech calling for the wall to be torn down. For East Germans locked up behind the Berlin Wall it was an unforgettable address and an incredibly liberating moment -- an American rock star telling 300,000 people that he came to play for them in the hope that "one day the barriers will be torn down."
And 16 months later, the Berlin Wall was gone. Mike Spengler, who was a horn player in Springsteen's band, got in touch with me after my book Rocking the Wall first came out just before the 25th anniversary of the concert last year and shared his riveting memories of that historic 1988 concert as well as the two days that the band spent behind the Iron Curtain in East Berlin. So did a U.S. army officer stationed in West Berlin at the time, who saw the East Berlin concert and then predicted to his superiors that the Berlin Wall would fall within 18 months without a shot being fired. He was only two months off the mark. Their observations are now part of a new, updated and expanded book just published by Berlinica in New York that also includes 10 more pictures of the concert.
Springsteen went to East Berlin in 1988 to fulfill a seven-year urge to play for the East Germans who were denied to the freedom to go to West Berlin to see his concert there during The River tour in 1981. He spent an illuminating day as a tourist in East Berlin then during a darker era of the Cold War and the desire to play there wouldn't go away. The hardline Communists ruling East Germany said no at first but seven years later Springsteen finally managed to get approval from the Communist powers in East Berlin while he was in the middle of his Tunnel of Love Tour.
He got a shock, however, a day before the concert when he arrived in East Berlin and discovered that the Communist regime had labeled his show a "Concert for Nicaragua." Springsteen's manager Jon Landau made it clear that he did-not, could-not, would-not, and definitely-will-not-do a concert for Nicaragua. Worried that Landau might cancel the concert, the East Germans quickly tore down the "Nikaragua im Herzen" banners from the stage and concert grounds. But they couldn't change the face of the 150,000 tickets already sold with the slogan "Konzert für Nikaragua" printed on them. So Springsteen decided he would set the record straight from the stage in the middle of his concert.
About an hour into the show, Springsteen pulled a crumpled note out of his pocket with some phonetic German lines written on it to deliver one of the most powerful appeals for freedom made anywhere during the Cold War. The audience was hungry for his message and starved for freedom, and they were fed up with the Stalinist government and its aversion to reforms. He was still annoyed that the local East Berlin organizers tried to put a Communist stamp on his concert when he stepped up to the microphone and said in German: "I'm not here for or against any government. I've come to play rock 'n' roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down."
The crowd roared. Some said that was a message they had waited their entire lives to hear. The 300,000 at the show danced and sang three more hours that night. And they wanted more of the freedom they tasted on that magical night. In the weeks and months that followed, a movement for change in East German gained momentum. Slowly at first but by early 1989 there was no turning back and the peaceful revolution that swept East Germany in the spring, summer and fall of 1989 toppled the Communist regime and then the Wall.
A lot of people thought I was crazy when I first floated this theory that Springsteen's concert on July 19, 1988 was one of the reasons that the Berlin Wall fell 16 months later. But several historians in Germany and elsewhere, who are now taking a deeper look at all the many factors that may have contributed to the revolution in East Germany and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, have cautiously agreed with the notion. Springsteen's landmark concert and his appeal for freedom are now certainly part of that greater examination of why the Berlin Wall suddenly fell on Nov. 9, 1989.
Whether or not you believe that Springsteen's concert really had something to do with the fall of the Wall depends on how much you believe in the power of rock and roll. But I think what is beyond doubt is that the concert is a glorious example of the influence that rock can have on people who are hungry and ready for change.