1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Cold War Kids

Jefferson ChaseJuly 4, 2007

Twenty years ago this summer, young East Berliners clashed with police while trying to listen in on a rock concert in the west. It was a sign that the GDR, which disapproved of such fun, would soon be history.

Crowd in front of the Reichstag
60,000 West Berliners packed the square in front of the Reichstag for BowieImage: AP

It's difficult to imagine in 2007 that Phil Collins was ever cool -- much less that he might have played a small role in the fall of the Berlin Wall. But then again, in 1987, few would have dared predict that the end of communist East Germany was nigh.

On June 8 of that year, the band Genesis -- Collins' troop of art-rockers-turned-pop-stars -- headlined the final night of the "Concert for Berlin," a three-day open-air festival staged in front of the Reichstag. The stage was only a stone's throw from, and well within earshot of, the other side of the Berlin Wall.

East Germans in front of the Brandeburg Gate
East Berliners could only gaze from a distance and fumeImage: AP

As had been the case the previous two nights, which had featured David Bowie and Eurythmics, some 2,000 East Berliners headed to the border at the Brandenburg Gate to get a listen. Few got there.

"The police had cordoned off the street at the Russian Embassy (about a quarter-mile from the Wall)," eyewitness Tina Krone said. "They kept arresting people, dragging them along the surface of the street. It was like a horror movie. We were enraged."

As many as 200 people were taken into custody in what amounted to a small pitched battle between the cops and the kids. And the frustrated East Berliners, as gleefully noted by West German media, began chanting "The wall must fall!" and "Gorby get us out!"

Land of Confusion

Berlin Wall
The Wall couldn't keep East Germans from listening to Western musicImage: AP

The communist party leadership of the GDR had always feared that rock music would incite the country's entertainment-starved youth to rebel. Confronted with the "Concert for Berlin," the stern guardians of socialist morality were determined to keep young East Berliners away from what they say as a decadent influence.

Olof Pock, a picture editor for DW-WORLD.DE who was fifteen years old at the time, climbed up on an East Berlin rooftop to listen to Eurythmics.

"At the end of the concert, the police began to herd people back from the Wall," Pock remembered. "They completely overreacted. They were beating kids with billy clubs."

People climbing the Wall
By 1989 East Germans could get all the Genesis they wantedImage: AP

East Berliners were well informed about the concert by the radio station that sponsored it, RIAS 2. RIAS, which stood for Radio in the American Sector, convinced the musicians, despite the possibility of home taping, to allow the shows to be simulcast to all parts of the divided city.

"The mood was one of enjoying forbidden fruit," Pock said. "We knew that this was somehow being done for our benefit."

The west was very aware how hungry East German kids were for popular music from their capitalist "enemies." RIAS 2 had been specially formed as a music-oriented station broadcasting to all of Berlin and the surrounding area.

Sweet Dreams are Made of This

These aging English gentlemen played a role in Cold War historyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

So was the Reichstag concert a conscious act of provocation? Were some of the loudspeakers, as would later be alleged, aimed directly across the wall?

Christoph Lanz, today managing director of DW-TV, was deputy head of programming at RIAS 2 and the emcee at the concerts. He says they were not.

"I would have seen them, if they were," Lanz said. "We were surprised when we heard about the reaction in the east. I mean, we rocked the GDR!"

GDR borders guards with body
GDR border guards killed some 190 people who tried to flee to the WestImage: dpa

But what people could see on or in front of the stage didn't tell the whole story. Peter Schwenkow, the promoter and producer of the concert, says that at least a quarter of the speakers were indeed pointed at the eastern part of the city -- as an act of revenge.

"In 1977, some crew members of Tina Turner were killed while in transit through East Germany," Schwenkow said. "A short time later, while in transit myself, I tried to find out what had happened and was interrogated at gunpoint by East German border guards. Ever since then I couldn't stand those guys. Holding a show at the Reichstag was an attempt to provoke them. It was great fun."

Both Lanz and Schwenkow look back with obvious pride and nostalgia on an event that called forth resentment and resistance to a repressive state.

"On the afternoon before the Genesis concert, I visited a friend of mine in East Berlin," Lanz recalled. "When it was time for me to leave, he said with teary eyes how much he wished he could go with me. All he wanted to do was go hear a concert. I still get goose bumps when I think of that."


Bowie singing
Bowie, a former Berlin resident, maintained close ties to the cityImage: AP

In the wake of the concert, the GDR realized it had made a mistake.

"It was the nervous reaction of a one-party state that was in over its head," said Rainer Börner, an East Berlin music producer and cultural secretary for the GDR's main youth organization. "Some of us realized we had to increase what we were offering."

In 1989 Bruce Springsteen was booked to play a gig in East Berlin -- after organizers found a location far enough away form the Wall to assuage fears that the music might inspire concert-goers to try to flee the GDR en masse. But it was too little, too late.

Wall today
Today remnants of the Wall have become places to chillImage: AP

"We saw what had happened in 1987 on western TV," Börner remembered. "It just increased our frustration that we weren't allowed to do what we wanted."

"It was one stone in a whole mosaic," concurred Pock.

On November 9, 1989, masses of East Germans did precisely what the GDR leadership had feared they would be incited to do by the music of Genesis. They headed to the Wall to cross a border that was soon to be history.