How a Bruce Springsteen concert helped bring down the Berlin Wall

It was 25 years ago this weekend that the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. For young East Germans back then, rock music was a big catalyst for change – with no one bigger than Bruce Springsteen. The CBC's Nahlah Ayed writes about the legacy of one epic concert in East Berlin.

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Ronald Galenza and the Berlin Wall were born in the same year. Growing up on the repressive East German side, he was almost destined to rebel.

In a place that walled its people in, shot them if they tried to escape, and tried to control the music to which they listened, Galenza went punk in protest.

He founded the first punk discotheque, and joined a punk band whose name roughly translated to "easily angered." There was nothing lyrical about their music.

"This was punk, not folk music," he said.

Growing up in repressive East Germany, Ronald Galenza gravitated toward rebellious punk and rock 'n' roll music. (Ronald Galenza)

Yet like many East Germans, he was also a devoted fan of rock, increasingly embraced there as a symbol of the freedom they craved.

So when Bruce Springsteen was suddenly booked to play a rare East Berlin concert on July 19, 1988, Galenza still made sure he was there, despite it being organized by the Communist authorities.

"It was really unbelievable," Galenza said. "He came onto the stage and for us really it was a shock...some people really cried because they were there and listening to him."

Rock a 'nefarious cultural weapon'

The concert was allowed in a desperate attempt to pacify East German youth who were increasingly alienated by the policies of the Communist German Democratic Republic.

Just a few months earlier, hundreds of kids who tried to get near the Berlin Wall to listen to rock concerts playing on the other side were beaten. Some were arrested.

So while rock was once frowned upon as a "nefarious cultural weapon," the youth wing of the ruling Communist regime managed to persuade the authorities that a dose of Springsteen could help smooth things over.

Given his popularity, it seemed a reasonable plan. But this concert seemed to achieve the opposite.

Ronald Galenza, who's written books and started a music station since that memorable Springsteen show, wishes today's music had the same political power he heard in artists growing up. (Richard Devey/CBC)

According to the author of a book on the concert, it may have even, along with other factors, led directly to the fall of the Berlin Wall 16 months later.

"Secret opinion polls of East Germany showed that the number of people who wanted to leave East Germany was rising dramatically," says Berlin-based Erik Kirschbaum, a journalist and author of Rocking the Wall.

"There [were] 300,000 young people [at the concert], full of energy, having the time of their lives, getting a taste of freedoms. And after that concert, they wanted more."

Kirschbaum believes Springsteen shaped his message to the crowd from the start.

He points out that the artist started his concert with Badlands, the first time he had done so since his tour started. He then played Born in the U.S.A. — while the crowd sang along — and he then delivered a short speech he'd had translated into German.

"I'm not here for any government," he began. "I've come to play rock and roll for you in the hope that one day, all the barriers will be torn down."

"People went wild," Kirschbaum said in an interview.

"It never happened before," he explained. Many had given iconic speeches on the western side of the wall — including two U.S. presidents — but Springsteen "was inside East Germany and gave this speech. It just blows me away to think about it."

Songs of freedom, everyday life resonated

Following the speech, Springsteen played his version of Bob Dylan's Chimes of Freedom.

"So he was sending all kinds of messages to the young East German people. 'Hey, don't give up.'"

Bruce Springsteen toured in 1988 behind his Tunnel of Love album, but to thousands of East Germans, it was about so much more than his latest release. (Herbert Schulze)

They didn't give up. They had heard the message loud and clear. Perhaps more in the music than even the speech itself, says Galenza.

"It was one piece of the puzzle," he said. "I'd define this concert as one where minds were opened."

"You had everything there. People with long hair, short hair, punks, some hippies, workers, apprentices …  It was a very interesting scene."

Springsteen sang for four hours, an epic show that was also televised.

"He sang about everyday life, normal people like us. We could really relate to that and loved it," said Galenza.

Sixteen months later they began to dismantle the wall.

Shortly afterwards, Galenza became one of the founders of Fritz, a station that caters to youth. The station was born when two stations, from East and West, amalgamated after the wall came down. He's now the head of culture there.

He's written books about youth culture and punk activists, as well as new wave and hip hop scenes in East Germany.

In one, he points out how sensitive the regime had been about any mention of the wall in local music.

"It was never to appear in any text. But it existed just the same … there are various texts about the wall and about being locked in."

That began to change when local bands started to sing in English. Along with the rock music pouring in from Western sources, it was a perfect storm of rebellion that helped propel them to freedom.

Galenza now says music today just isn't what it used to be.

"But back then music had a message. Music had power and a clear political message," he says.

"To me today, music is just entertainment. There's no political power in it anymore."

"Music doesn't play a role in society anymore and I think that's really sad."

Bruce Springsteen played a legendary concert on July 19, 1988, a 32-song marathon in front of about 150,000 fans thirsting for freedom at Berlin's Radrennbahn Weissensee. (Herbert Schulze)


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