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.
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.
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.