Erik Kirschbaum’s book on a 1988 concert in East Berlin explores the soft power of hard rock. It was the actions of East German officials, not the Boss’s words or music, that had the real impact.

Rocking the Wall: Bruce Springsteen: The Untold Story of a Concert in East Berlin That Changed the World

Erik Kirschbaum. New York: Berlinica Publishing, 2013. $11.95. 144 pp. 

On 19 July 1988, New Jersey-born musician Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band played a 32-song concert in East Berlin’s Weissensee district. The concert is a fond memory for the hundreds of thousands of East Germans who attended or watched its broadcast, and an urban legend to many of Springsteen’s devoted fans – but it is a less-acknowledged milestone in the Cold War’s long history.

A slender new book gives the concert a fuller journalistic treatment, while perhaps giving too much credit to its role in the Cold War’s end. Erik Kirschbaum, a Berlin-based Reuters reporter, Springsteen fan and believer in the ‘power of rock ‘n’ roll’, admits it was a ‘crazy idea’ to write an entire book about a single rock concert. But he wanted to find out if there had been ‘something really special’ about Springsteen’s 1988 show. Although he does not quite prove a concrete ‘link’ between the show and the ‘shifting sentiment’ that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, his interviews with the concert’s organisers and its attendees provide the book’s real value: it reminds us – amid the current surge of interest in so-called ‘soft power’ – of the small, hard-to-see developments that foretold and, just maybe, helped to usher in the Cold War’s quiet end.

Greetings from Weissensee Park

The success of Springsteen’s 1984 Born in the USA album – which sold 20 million copies and spawned a five-continent tour – had made the singer one of the biggest music stars in the world. In early June 1988, Springsteen arrived in Turin for the start of a 25-show Western European tour to promote his new, more introspective Tunnel of Love album. After a few weeks in Europe, Springsteen turned to his manager and asked, ‘what are the chances of working a show into East Berlin?’ (p. 29).

That was a more complicated question than Springsteen or his manager knew at the time. It was not simply that he was American, but that, since the 1950s, the ruling East German Socialist Unity Party (SED) had decided, as part of its efforts at cultural control, that rock and roll was ‘decadent-negative’. In an early East German dictionary, ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ was defined as ‘an exaggerated form of boogie, it seduces young people to excesses; in West Germany it serves as an instrument for psychological warfare that distracts young people from political issues’ (pp. 44–45).

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John A. Gans Jr is a PhD candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is a New Jersey native and a Springsteen fan.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2013–January 2014

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