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Rocking the Wall

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BBC/Corbis
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On Sunday the world will remember a startling event.  Twenty-five years ago, East Germany announced it would no longer stop its people from passing through a wall that had divided Germany for a generation. 

Historians point to the impending collapse of the Soviet Union, supposing the new leader of that country, Mikael Gorbachov, would no longer  support East German leaders, but there’s another theory going around – a claim that rock and roll music helped topple the wall.

In 1987, David Bowie kicked off a three-day  rock concert that would also feature Genesis and the Eurhythmics.  It took place in West Berlin, near a 12-foot-high wall separating  West Germany from the German Democratic Republic or GDR.  On the east side of the wall, several thousand people assembled to listen, according to University of Virginia Professor Grace Elizabeth Hale.

“The GDR police were nervous, and they began to attack the people who were there listening to the music, and it might have been because those listeners were reportedly chanting ‘Down the wall.’”

This crowd of rock fans had been schooled for years by Radio in the American Sector – an enterprise founded by the U.S. government.  Berlin-based Journalist Erik Kirschbaum says many young people were devoted listeners, and the East German secret police knew it.

“They weren’t listening to the garbage in East German, and RIAS would play rock music all night long I think they would play albums without commercial interruption so people could record them.You could look at the antennas on peoples’ roofs. They were always pointed west.”

Faced with the prospect of youthful unrest, the East German government decided to sponsor their own rock concerts, far from the wall. Officials reasoned that musicians like the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen were actually allies.

“These were working class musicians, and  they were expressing a critique of western capitalism in their music.”

The Rolling Stones refused an invitation.  Bob Dylan came, but rock fan Rainer Hasters recalls Dylan was a dud, playing for no more than an hour.

“Like Bob Dylan, grouchy coming on stage.  While the crowd was still applauding he had left already.”

Then, Bruce Springsteen agreed to play – something he had hoped to do for years.

The concert went on for hours, with Springsteen performing 32 songs.  Because western rock stars were playing lots of benefit concerts, the sponsor of this event thought it would do likewise.  Noting the anniversary of a revolution in Nicaragua – a political ally of East Germany – they branded this a concert for Nicaragua.  Springsteen wasn’t consulted, but mid-way through his performance, he set the record straight.  He had written a short speech in English, had his German driver translate the words and write them out phonetically:

“Ich bin gekommen um rock ‘n roll gespielen.”

The boss made it clear he was not there to play for any government. He had come to share music in the hopes that barriers between people would come down.  Erik Kirschbaum says Springsteen wanted to say walls, but his manager insisted on subtlety.

“Who knows what would have happened?  They might have pulled the plug, There might have been violence.  There might have been a lot of trouble, and Springsteen’s manager told me, ‘We didn’t go there to start a revolution.  We didn’t want to cause trouble., but we were upset that they called it ‘Concert for Nicaragua,’ so Bruce just wanted to set the record straight why he was there, and he got away from it.”

And 16 months later, the wall came down.  So can we say that rock and roll was responsible. Grace Hale is hesitant.

“The music played a role in bolstering morale, in helping people to imagine that the world could change, and helping people imagine that they could unite with other people, but in terms of bringing down the wall, you have to have oppositional politics to take those feelings of connection and drive them somewhere.”

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But Rainer Hasters, who was in his 20’s at the time, gives the music more credit. “It’s not only the political facts on the evening news, but it’s also the atmosphere and the mood which is transported by the music. If you hear ten years, ‘We are longing for freedom’ and so on and so forth, of course that does something to the young people.”

And Erik Kirschbaum felt so strongly about the subject that he wrote a book on Springsteen’s performance – Rocking the Wall:  The Berlin Concert That Changed the World.

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.