In June 1987, a concert was held in front of the Reichstag in West Germany’s side of Berlin. The line-up included David Bowie, Eurythmics and Genesis. This was part of Bowie’s The Glass Spider Tour. David Bowie in Berlin always played magnificently. “David Bowie – Heroes” was on his playlist.
In November of 1989, just a few years later, the Berlin Wall fell.
You might be asking why am I trying to connect those. Do you think David Bowie could help tear down the Berlin Wall and subsequently end the USSR?
The fall of the Berlin Wall is one of the most notable and critical events of recent history. It leads to the end of the Soviet Union and, consequently, the end of the Cold War. And the whole event quickly became a symbol of freedom and unification of people for the entire world. But to fully grasp this David Bowie’s concert’s role in all of this, we need to talk about the history of Berlin during and after WWII.
In this post, we will discuss the history of Germany post-war, the socio-economical and political situation in East and West Germany, how all this influenced David Bowie in Berlin Trilogy and how, years later, those songs helped end the Cold War.
Berlin Wall – The beginning of it all
The East went to the Communist Soviet Union, and the remaining West was split between the 3 capitalists: the US, UK and France. The Soviets immediately ban East Germans from leaving East Germany.
“And Berlin?” You might be wondering.
Certainly, Berlin was a total and complete mess! Berlin was situated in the eastern part of Germany, the Soviet part of the country. But, obviously, the Western allies also wanted control over the city because it was the capital.
In short, their solution was to split into 4 sections, just like they broke the whole country: The West was divided between the British, the US and the French, whilst the East was controlled by the USSR.
But when you look at the map, you’ll see that this solution had a major mistake in it. The main problem with this scenario was that East Germans were technically not allowed to go to the West. But in Berlin, people from both sides could roam freely. And more than that, all East Germans could visit West Berlin. And from there, fly over to West Germany.
The Social-Economic differences between both sides
As the capitalist side spent trillions to reform their half of Germany (including West Berlin), build infrastructure, and boost industrial sectors. However, the Soviets didn’t do any of these. They took the remaining industry from the already poor East as war reparations, leaving the whole population in the worst situation.
When I put it like this, I’m painting in your mind a scenario that the East was all evil, when in reality it wasn’t. And I’m not saying that it was a paradise, understood? I’m just saying that there was good and bad points, pros and cons. As most things in life have, correct?
While in the East, the population had access to free healthcare, work and free education, which wasn’t the case in the West.
But on the Westside, there were higher wages, more personal freedom, and the possibility of having a higher quality of living. For example, movies like “Goodbye Lenin“, “Christiane F – Wir kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo” and “The Lives of Others ( Das Leben der Anderen)” can give you a pretty nice idea of what it was like on both sides of Berlin at that time. Above all, how important was Bowie for the German youth, if you allow me to put here some personal opinion.
But in a broad view, in the West, you could have a better life. Obviously, this eventually translated to many East Germans wanting to move to the West over the months and years.
Meanwhile, as tensions between both sides grew, the Soviet Union decided they wanted Berlin for them. Their goal was to starve the West out. Consequentially, that resulted in extreme measures: they decided to cut off all fuel, all land routes, and of course, all food supplies to West Berlin.
For 15 months from, the Western allies dropped off supplies to the Western sector in an event called the Berlin airlift.
Eventually, after months and months of this, the Soviet Government backed off. For their discontent, the worst-case scenario played out; the West part of Germany and Berlin continued to grow in wealth despite the Soviet’s attempt to break their economy. The East, on the other hand, hit economic failure.
And with little-to-no industry, by 1961, a bit less than 1/4 of the East German population had moved to the West looking for work and better opportunities.
In this 20ish%, you can include many educated professors and highly skilled workers in several fields.
So, it was decided by the USSR to close the border between East and West Berlin to prevent further losses and to save the economy.
In short, my friends is how the history of the Berlin Wall starts.
The Soviets began to erect a wall that extended 43 km through the city, splitting up countless friends and family on either side. An additional 112 km was built around the perimeters of Berlin, circling around West Berlin.
Firstly, it started with only a barbed-wire fence. But by 1965, it was replaced by concrete barricades, landmines, land metal spikes, police, watchers and their guard dogs. After the first barricade, a section of land called “The Death Strip”.
The Death Strip was, in most cases, 100 m wide and separated both walls.
Yes, the Berlin Wall should be called “The Berlin Walls”!! To better picture all this, I suggest you read this article about the Inner German Border we wrote a while ago.
This area, the Death Strip, was cleared of houses, hospitals, churches and all sorts of constructions. It was flattened and covered in sand to provide a clear line of sight to 302 watchtowers manned by snipers. Snipers who ordered to shoot anyone attempting to cross. And the sand, my dear reader, isn’t a random detail. The sand was there to leave footprints of eventual deserters of the regime.
A total of 138 people were killed attempting to escape into the West. Over 5000 East Germans successfully escaped the East.
The Wall did stabilize the East German economy. And as the poverty went down, the restrictions were eased, with a few family visits being allowed. Despite this, many people were unhappy with the so-called Communist regime.
And as other Eastern countries turn to democracy in the 1980s, the people took to the street, and mass demonstrations began to happen all over the Eastern part of Germany.
I believe that now we have a little context of the Berlin Wall, the economic situation in both sides of Germany and how unhappy East Germans were.
Let’s have a look at the music side of this article. Let’s talk about David Bowie.
David Bowie in Berlin, Heroes and the Wall
David Bowie was a Berlin fan. We already talked about David Bowie’s years in Berlin. He spent 3 years in Schöneberg flat with Iggy Pop in the late 1970s.
For David Bowie, Berlin was a retreat from his rock star lifestyle. It was a break from it all to get inspiration, peace, and freedom to walk around without being recognized every 5 seconds.
Read more: WHERE WAS LIVING DAVID BOWIE IN BERLIN?
During his time here in Berlin, he wrote and recorded three albums known as the Berlin trilogy. Low, from 1977 was the first. Followed by David Bowie’s Heroes, and finally, we have the Lodger from 1979. David Bowie’s Heroes was recorded in Hansa Tonstudio, or “Hansa Studio by the Wall”, as some called the place.
Fun fact: The building where this studio is, was a former concert hall used by the Gestapo during WWII as a ballroom, and later, it was converted into a recording studio after the war ended. David Bowie Heroes is more about Berlin’s history than many think.
Hansa Studio and the influence its location has
Hansa Studios is located only a few meters from the Berlin Wall (was). Bowie called the studio “the hole by the wall”. And this place and its surroundings had a profound effect on David Bowie Heroes and the rest of the album.
The producer Tony Visconti said,
“Every afternoon, I sit down at the desk, and I see 3 Russian red guards looking at us with their binoculars, with their guns over their shoulders and the barbed wire. I knew that there were mine’s buried in that Wall. And that atmosphere was so provocative, so stimulating and so frightening, that the Band Played with so much energy!”
Visconti is also responsible for inspiring the image of the lovers kissing “by the wall” that Heroes talks about. This iconic song from Bowie is very much about his experience in Berlin. Tony and Antonia Maaß, the album’s backing vocalist, were meeting in secret. They often kissed in front of Bowie as he looked out of the Hansa Studio window toward the Berlin Wall.
This part of the Heroes’ lyrics talks about an anonymous young couple. The reason behind the couple’s anonymity is that the producer was married at the time. On several occasions, Tony thanked Bowie for preserving him and his affair with Maaß.
The Atmosphere of the divided Berlin plays a role
The guitarist Carlos Alomar, who’s working on the album, describes the atmosphere.
“These things hanging in the air and when things get darker physically, you kinda think of darker themes too. Berlin was a rather dark, industrial place to work.”
David Bowie’s Heroes is an album that drew from the Cold War themes of Fear and isolation that hung over the city. And the lyrics tell the Tale of Two Lovers that meet by the Wall and try desperately to find a way to be together.
Although this may have had more personal meaning for David Bowie, it became a symbol of the hopeless separation Berliners felt.
Years later, in 1987, the concert for Berlin was organised. By this time, East Germany was safer and wealthier, but not freer. And East German authorities saw Western music as a threat that could destabilise the East and spark a revolution.
Little did they know that they were right all the way in thinking that. Despite this, a radio station run by the US became very popular in the East of Germany and have permissions to broadcast the entire Glass Spider Tour concert.
As a result of the proximity, East Germans could hear every song from the other side. Kind of when you hear a show from outside the stadium where it is happening. We still don’t know 100% whether the concert was purposefully provocative, however, we can be 90% sure it was.
A few of the organisers say it wasn’t, but Peter Schwenkow confirmed it was retaliation. His words were:
“in 1977, some of the crew members of Tina Turner were killed while in transit East Germany. And a short time later, I was in transit through East Germany. I tried to find out what it happened and was interrogated at gunpoint by East German border guards. Ever since then, I couldn’t stand those guys. So having a concert at the Reichstag was a great attempt to provoke them. It was great fun!”
Six artists were invited to play at this event. On the first night, David Bowie and New Model Army played their shows. Bowie with his symbolic song “Heroes”, New Model Army with “51st State”.
East Berliners crowded along the east side of the Wall to listen. Before playing Heroes, Bowie began by telling the crowd in German,
“We send out wishes to all our friends who are on the other side of the wall”,
sending a clear message that the music was for the East as well West. Later he stated that it was one of the most emotional performances he had ever done. “I was in tears”, he added.
The next night, thousands of East Berliners turned up again to listen to Eurythmics and Bruce Hornsby and The Range. But on the third night, when Genesis and Paul Young played, the police had enough. The police closed a street 400 meters from the Brandenburg Gate, where around 2000 people listened to the concert.
Brutality took over a rather magical music event
The crackdown was beyond violent. We are talking about water cannons, police beating protests, dragging them down the road. Around 200 people were sent to jail.
East and West Berliners were shocked and outraged. The Western media called for the fall of the senseless Wall. The mood in the eastern part of the city began to shift against the State. East Germans felt as if the Government turned a peaceful music concert into a violent political act. The population saw the Wall with a renewed indignation. The Wall started to seem less permanent than when Heroes were written by David Bowie in Berlin a decade before.
And the remaining question remains: Did David Bowie help tear down the Berlin Wall?
The only thing this blog can say is that the German Foreign Ministry endorsed this idea. When David Bowie went back to his galaxy and left us here to perish, they tweeted:
How did the Wall come down?
By 1989, mass demonstrations and protests took over the streets of East Berlin and across East Germany. These were for many reasons, and not only the violent event that broke out when David Bowie played in Berlin. In short, a lot of the anger was about the lack of personal freedom, was for the people’s thirst for democracy and the dismantling of other soviet authoritarians regimes abroad. It was about freedom for all.
And believe it or not, in the end, the Berlin Wall fell down by mistake in communication and bureaucracy inside the Government. A fatal confusion and wrong wording inflamed the already melting pot that was East Berlin.
When the East German authorities try to defuse the tension they saw on the streets, the crowds protesting against the State, the Government decided to take action by making travel to the West easier. And this action wasn’t announced correctly, and the “Effective immediately” said by Gunter Schabowski in a press conference caused a chain reaction.
As a result, a crowd of people rushed and gathered at the Wall, and news reports announced that the gates are now wide open, even though they weren’t. It was all a mistake caused by ineffective communication and bureaucratic processes.
First, the guards in charge of the checkpoints and the Wall tried to allow people through in an orderly fashion. But when it became too many people to handle, the officers were overwhelmed. They had to open the border.
Hundreds of people began to celebrate by dancing near and on the Wall. In that same night, the physical Berlin Wall was brought down in some parts. Until today, you can find pieces of this historical Wall across Berlin.
David Bowie in Berlin on the 6th of June of 89 was the cherry on top of all the instability of the regime
To sum up, we can say that the culprits for the fall of the Wall were political changes by a screwed up announcement and by a shift in public opinion. Changes that were caused by the concert of David Bowie in Berlin, singing the song he wrote inspired by that same Berlin Wall, dedicating it to the East while playing in the West.
In conclusion, it is hard to measure social change, and there is no denial of that. But I like to think that David Bowie and this concert showed both sides that Germany didn’t have to be two.
After all, it is known that music brings people together, right?
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