Boss' East Berlin Show Strikes Chord 20 Years On

BERLIN -- When Bruce Springsteen spoke out against the Berlin Wall at the biggest concert in East German history in 1988, no one in the crowd of 160,000 imagined that the symbol of the Cold War would soon be history.

But now -- 20 years after the American rock star went behind the Iron Curtain -- organizers, historians and people who witnessed it say his message came at a critical juncture in German history in the run-up to the wall's collapse.

It was not the only show that summer with political fallout. In June, a concert for Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday in London was beamed to millions worldwide. Two years later, he was freed from an apartheid jail and later elected South Africa president.

Springsteen, an influential songwriter and singer whose lyrics are often about people struggling, finally got permission to perform in East Berlin in 1988.

Even though his songs are full of emotion and politics, East Germany had welcomed him as a "hero of the working class." The Communists may have unwittingly created an evening that did more to change East Germany than Woodstock did to the United States.

Annoyed at the billing "Concert for Nicaragua" that Communist East German leaders stamped on his July 19 performance, Springsteen stopped halfway through the three-hour show for a short speech -- in heavily accented German:

"I want to tell you I'm not here for or against any government," Springsteen said, as he pointedly introduced his rendition of the Bob Dylan ballad "Chimes of Freedom."

"I came to play rock 'n' roll for you East Berliners in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down."

The words fed the discontent building in East Germany -- and especially in the city split by the wall, built during the darkest hours of the Cold War in 1961.

The East German organizer said the country's leaders only reluctantly endorsed the plan by the Party's FDJ youth group to let in Springsteen.

"It obviously wasn't easy, and we had to fight hard to get permission but we eventually succeeded," Roland Claus, an ex-FDJ leader and now a member of the parliament, said in an interview.

"The higher-ups understood that rock music was international and that if East Germany wanted to do something to improve the lot of young people, we'd have to try it," he said. "We were proud we got him and had great hopes it'd help modernize East Germany."

Instead, the open-air concert at a cycling arena only seemed to make East Germans long more for the freedoms that Springsteen sang and spoke about in a show also broadcast on TV and radio.

"We were interested in opening the country up," said Claus, 53. "No one thought the wall would be gone a year later. Anyone in the East or West who said that would have been considered insane. It was a great concert with a special atmosphere."

Springsteen delivered his words in the heart of East Berlin, where Communist East Germany had long portrayed the United States as a decadent and belligerent "class enemy."

"Springsteen's concert and speech certainly contributed in a larger sense to the events leading up to the fall of the wall," said Gerd Dietrich, a historian at Berlin's Humboldt University.

"It was a paradoxical situation. Before Springsteen, the FDJ had always cursed Western rock artists like Springsteen. And then all of a sudden they were welcoming him. It looked like they were caving in to the shifting values of young people."

Dietrich, 63, said Communist Party hopes that a small taste of Springsteen might pacify youths backfired. There was even a positive advance review in the Neues Deutschland daily: "He attacks social wrongs and injustices in his homeland."

"But it didn't work out as planned," Dietrich said. "It made people eager for change. The organizers wanted to demonstrate their openness. But Springsteen aroused a greater interest in the West. It showed people how locked up they really were."

Cherno Jobatey, now a well-known German TV anchorman, was another witness to the East Berlin Springsteen concert, writing about it as a reporter for the West Germany weekly Die Zeit under a headline "Born in the DDR."

Jobatey, 42, reported that the crowd erupted when Springsteen called for "the barriers" to be torn down. "There was thunderous applause from the crowd endorsing that proposal," he wrote.

Jobatey said recently that it was hard to know whether Springsteen had helped set in motion the chain of events leading to the Berlin Wall's fall 16 months later. But he said it was a magical evening just before the upheaval gained momentum.

"People didn't want to leave when it was over," he said. "I walked back across town for about two hours and everywhere everyone was happy and on a real high. But it didn't feel like a revolution, just yet anyhow."

Claus, who organized the concert, acknowledged that there was some chaos -- remarkable in a country with such an omniscient and oppressive security apparatus -- as 160,000 people arrived at a venue with a 120,000 capacity; 100,000 tickets were sold.

"We had to take down all the crush barriers, gates and fences to the concert because so many people showed up," he said. "We had to resort to the best instrument we had: anarchy."

After Springsteen there were many other Western artists eager to come.

"Word of the huge crowd and great enthusiasm in East Berlin spread," Claus said. "A lot of international stars wanted to come after that. "I was trying to organize a parallel East-West concert with U2 in East Berlin and Duran Duran in West Berlin," Claus said. "But I couldn't get approval anymore from the higher-ups. They were too afraid. There was so much turmoil by that point."