Bruce Springsteen Plays East Berlin in 1988: I’m Not Here For Any Government. I’ve Come to Play Rock

And you thought Ronald Rea­gan sin­gle-hand­ed­ly brought down the Berlin Wall and end­ed the Cold War with his “Tear Down This Wall Speech” in 1987…. Well, a few oth­er things hap­pened before the wall final­ly came down two years lat­er, includ­ing Mikhail Gorbechev’s reforms, the protests of the East Ger­man peo­ple, and that whole nuclear arms race thing. But if we’re look­ing for anoth­er famous Amer­i­can to cred­it for reuni­fi­ca­tion, we should look to Bruce Spring­steen, who in July of 1988—one year after the aged Gip­per issued his famous com­mand to the Sovi­et President—played an out­door con­cert to 300,000 East Ger­man fans, “while mil­lions more,” reports The Guardian, “watched the shaky and dis­tort­ed trans­mis­sion on state tele­vi­sion.”

Spring­steen played 32 songs in an epic four-hour per­for­mance. But which song was it that sent the Wall crum­bling one year lat­er? Was it, per­haps, “Born in the U.S.A.” (top)—the song about a bit­ter, dis­en­fran­chised Viet­nam vet that the G.O.P. mis­took for a patri­ot­ic anthem?

More like­ly it was his cov­er of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Free­dom” (above). Before that song, writes The Guardian, Spring­steen gives “a pas­sion­ate speech, deliv­ered in a creaky but under­stand­able Ger­man.” “I’m not here for any gov­ern­ment,” he says, “I’ve come to play rock ‘n’ roll for you in the hope that one day all the bar­ri­ers will be torn down.” It could just as well have been “Promised Land” (below) that tore down that wall, or maybe “Cadil­lac Ranch”….

Sure, I’m being face­tious, but the con­cert did have sig­nif­i­cant after­ef­fects. His­to­ri­an Gerd Diet­rich remarks that “Springsteen’s con­cert and speech cer­tain­ly con­tributed in a large sense to the events lead­ing up to the fall of the wall.” Thomas Wilke, an “expert on the impact of rock and pop music in East Ger­many,” com­ments, “there was clear­ly a dif­fer­ent feel­ing and a dif­fer­ent sen­ti­ment in East Ger­many after that con­cert.” The sen­ti­ment, says Diet­rich, was an even greater desire for change. The Spring­steen con­cert “showed peo­ple how locked up they real­ly were.”

In this respect, it had exact­ly the oppo­site effect that the East Ger­man lead­er­ship intend­ed. Evi­dence from the Stasi archives tells us it was sup­posed to “assuage the country’s youth,” who were “still reel­ing” from the beat­ings they’d received from police the pre­vi­ous year when they’d tried to lis­ten in on David Bowie and the Eury­th­mics play­ing just over the Wall in the West. The Spring­steen con­cert, by con­trast, was delib­er­ate­ly sit­u­at­ed “in the depths of East Berlin,” far from the bor­der, to pre­vent “an impromp­tu rev­o­lu­tion.” So much for appease­ment.

So, were Rea­gan and Spring­steen work­ing togeth­er? Unlike­ly. Reagan’s attempt to co-opt “Born in the U.S.A.” for his 1984 re-elec­tion cam­paign may have, in fact, acti­vat­ed Springsteen’s latent lefty consciousness—or at least that’s what Pro­fes­sor Marc Dolan argues in the short video above and in this Politi­co essay. But even if the Pres­i­dent and the Boss took dif­fer­ent routes polit­i­cal­ly, there were “unde­ni­able sim­i­lar­i­ties” between them.

Both men liked to talk a lot to their audi­ences about free­dom, and both tend­ed to define that free­dom in terms of the agency of the indi­vid­ual. Both men instinc­tive­ly dis­trust­ed struc­tures and insti­tu­tions, pre­cise­ly because they saw them as lim­it­ing indi­vid­ual free­dom.

In that respect, they were the per­fect rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the U.S. East Ger­mans imag­ined, whether try­ing to hear Michael Jack­son through a wall of troops sta­tioned in front of the con­crete behe­moth that kept the West out, or wav­ing home­made Amer­i­can flags while Max Wein­berg pound­ed out the rous­ing drum­beat that announces “Born in the U.S.A.” Remem­ber­ing the con­cert years lat­er, Spring­steen said, “Once in a while […] you play a show that ends up stay­ing inside of you, liv­ing with you for the rest of your life. East Berlin in 1988 was cer­tain­ly one of them.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bruce Spring­steen and Pink Floyd Get Their First Schol­ar­ly Jour­nals and Aca­d­e­m­ic Con­fer­ences

Heat Map­ping the Rise of Bruce Spring­steen: How the Boss Went Viral in a Pre-Inter­net Era

Bruce Spring­steen Stumps/Sings for Oba­ma: A Free Six-Song Set

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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