On This Day | 19 July 1988 : Bruce Springsteen plays East Germany

19 July 1988: On this day in Berlin history, Bruce Springsteen played the largest ever concert in the history of East Germany.

On a dusty field next to a race track in the district of Weissensee, an estimated 300,000 people gathered from all corners of the republic to see “the Boss” play. Although only 160,000 tickets had been sold, the sheer mass of the crowds forced organisers to open the gates, a rare moment of disorder in the strict communist society.

Bruce Springsteen played the Largest concernt in the history of East Germany on 19 July 1988
Bruce Springsteen playing at Weissensee, East Berlin | Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1988-0719-38 / Uhlemann, Thomas / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The concert was approved by East German officials as a way of appeasing a citizenry who were becoming ever more enticed by life beyond the iron curtain. Springsteen was deemed acceptable by the powers that be due to his working class background and his critical stance on US society. Instead of acting as a release valve however, Springsteen’s epic 4-hour performance offered East Germans an invigorating taste of the freedom which lay just out of reach.

Stasi officials, planted among the crowd that day, surely questioned their superiors’ decision to allow the concert when the ecstatic crowd engulfing them began hollering “Born in the U.S.A.” at the top of their lungs. Adding to their concern, the working class hero from New Jersey then pulled a paper from his pocket and began in somewhat wobbly German a short speech which his East German chauffeur had translated for him.

I am not for or against any government,” Springsteen began “I have come to play rock and roll for you in the hope that one day all barriers will be torn down.” As the crowd roared he launched into Chimes of Freedom, a rousing anthem for the downtrodden written by Bob Dylan.

The speech didn’t make it onto the slightly delayed television coverage broadcast, nevertheless these words and the reaction of the crowd must have sent an ominous chill down the spine of the East German leadership.

Some believe Bruce Springsteen’s concert in Weissensee that day was the spark that started the fire which, 16 months later, would engulf the country in revolutionary fervour and bring down the Berlin Wall. More pragmatic observers point to wider political developments, such as growing pressure from West German politicians and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika.

In truth, the fateful events of November 9th, 1989 were a culmination of many things. For those who attended the concert that day though, there’s little doubt that Springsteen’s performance energised their desire for change and spurred them and their compatriots on to the revolution which would change the world.

However you look at it, the legendary concert of July 19th, 1988 is an integral and inspiring part of Berlin’s history.

Chris Cooke - Berlin Tour Guide
This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Chris Cooke. It’s one of four noteworthy events he’s chosen to remember this summer. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

On This Day in 1955 GDR President Wilhelm Pieck Opens Tierpark Berlin

2 July 1955: On this day in Berlin history, Berlin’s second zoo – the Tierpark – was opened in Friedrichsfelde, East Berlin by East German President Wilhelm Pieck.

GDR President Wilhelm Pieck (center with walking stick) ceremoniously opening the new Tierpark with the Friedrichsfelde Palace in the background

With the devastation of the end of the Second World War still fresh on their minds, many East Berliners were eagerly waiting for some kind of positivity to present itself as they continued to clear away debris and mitigate housing shortages. This finally arrived on August 27, 1954 when the Parliament of East Berlin decided on the ambitious plan to build a zoo despite the many hardships that confronted the city at that time. 

When the Allies carved up the city after WWII, Berlin’s original zoo, dating back to the 1840s, had wound up in the British Sector of Occupation and it was becoming a constant thorn in the GDR’s side that their citizens were journeying over to West Berlin when they wanted to visit a zoo. After all, a zoo can somehow be seen as a part of a ‘real’ capital; and since the East German Government had declared East Berlin its de facto capital, what better reason was there for them to erect their own?

Elector Friedrich III of Brandenburg who became King Friedrich I in Prussia in 1701

The plan was quickly put into action and the place chosen for this development was the overgrown Schlosspark Friedrichsfelde, which is about seven miles east of Berlin’s city center. This area’s home to the Friedrichsfelde Palace which was built under the reign of Elector Friedrich III of Brandenburg (who’d later become the first King in Prussia, Friedrich I), as well as the residence of Prince Augustus Ferdinand who was the youngest brother of Frederick the Great. The land offered an exceptionally spacious 410 acres (160 hectares) to work with, dwarfing the 85 acre (35 hectares) zoo in West Berlin. 

Citizens of East Berlin volunteering their time building the Tierpark in early 1955

What’s interesting about the construction of the Tierpark is the fact that it was actually built by the citizens of East Berlin themselves. Because construction workers couldn’t be taken away from important job sites that were essential to post-WWII rebuilding and redevelopment, the East Berlin City Council called on volunteers. Men and women grabbed their shovels and headed up to Friedrichsfelde, sometimes going before or after their ‘real’ jobs to pitch in. Thousands of East Berliners, including pupils and college students, put in over 100,000 working hours of their free time to build the zoo. 

“Kosko”, the female elephant from Vietnam, makes her way into her new home in 1958

After just seven months of construction, the zoo became the new home to some 400 animals when it opened on July 2, 1955. It’d quickly begin to boast the fact that it had more exotic animals than the zoo in West Berlin, thanks to the ‘socialist brother countries’ like China who supplied the alligator, “Mao”, and Vietnam who provided the female elephant, “Kosko”. Tigers and polar bears from the Soviet Union would eventually follow too. 

Today over 9,000 animals live in Tierpark Berlin and over 1.5 million Berliners and tourists visit annually.

James McDonough

This edition of On This Day in Berlin history was contributed by BBS member, Jim McDonough