Let freedom ring: How music helped fell the Berlin Wall

Why We Wrote This

Did rock music cause the Berlin Wall to fall? Perhaps not directly, but as a powerful cultural touchstone, it captured and broadcast the zeitgeist of the time: a shift from complacency to a strong desire for freedom.

R. Norman Matheny/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A man sits astride the Berlin Wall on Nov. 15, 1989. Scenes like this were common in the days after the opening of the wall on Nov. 9, 1989. Music helped capture the spirit of the changing times.

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My wife and I traveled to East Germany several times in the months leading up to what Germans call die Wende (“the turn”) on Nov. 9, 1989, when the wall was opened. Those trips gave us a ground-level view of what day-to-day life was like for many East Germans, and why some of them were increasingly discontented. 

In December 1988, we met a couple in Leipzig, East Germany’s second-largest city. Stephan and Marta were among the 85,000 fans who attended English rocker Joe Cocker’s open-air concert in East Berlin. “It was great!” Stephan exclaimed. “We went with a big group of friends and we all loved every moment of it.”

The euphoria of going to the concert stayed with them for days. “And then something happened,” Marta said. The couple and many of their friends became angry – angry at everything, with no clear justification. 

“It was such a great time” at the concert, Stephan said, “but we realized that it would’ve been so much more fun if we had been able to do it when we were younger.” 

That was when the couple decided to apply to leave. “We don’t want to lose any more of our lives.”

The significance of a shift in thought and how it moves people to act is often only discernible after the fact. That’s why, on this year’s 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I think back to what happened before it fell. And I think of Joe Cocker.

My wife and I traveled to East Germany several times in the 12 months leading up to what Germans call die Wende (“the turn”) on Nov. 9, 1989, when the wall was opened. Those trips gave us a ground-level view of what day-to-day life was like for many East Germans, and why some of them were increasingly discontented. Frustration with the government was subtle, but evident. Many people we met used the same word to describe how they were treated by government officials: Bevormundung meaning “to be spoken to in a condescending way,” to be treated like a child, ignored.

Rock music provided a focal point for the dissatisfaction of younger East Germans, but in unexpected ways.

In December 1988, a year before the wall came down, we met a couple in Leipzig, East Germany’s second-largest city. The two had officially applied to emigrate. We were surprised to learn that it was possible to leave. A treaty from the 1970s “détente” era allowed for free movement of people, at least in theory. In fact, anyone who applied would endure one to three years of harassment from East German bureaucrats before the West German government eventually was allowed to pay a de facto ransom and let the applicant leave. What had motivated this couple to take such a drastic step?

Stephan, Marta, and their 8-year-old son lived in an apartment on a stone-paved city street, in a neighborhood of three-story prewar brick buildings, all of them coated with a layer of brown grime from the soft coal used to heat them. Inside, though, the apartment was clean, tidy, and surprisingly modern. In the living room, Stephan showed us his stereo. It was not as up to date as what a western audiophile might’ve had then, but it was sophisticated enough to show that the owner was serious about music.

The subject of music came up when Stephan and Marta told us about their decision to leave the country. “Do you know Joe Cocker?” they asked. In June the gravel-voiced English rocker had been one of the first big-name western performers to play in East Germany. 

Stephan and Marta were among the 85,000 fans who attended Cocker’s open-air concert in East Berlin. “It was great!” Stephan exclaimed. “We went with a big group of friends and we all loved every moment of it.”

The euphoria of going to the concert stayed with them for a number of days. “And then something happened,” Marta said. Without necessarily talking with each other, the couple and many of their friends became angry – angry at everything, with no clear justification. When they got together to talk about it, the source of their upset became clear. 

“It was such a great time” at the concert, Stephan said, “but we realized that it would’ve been so much more fun if we had been able to do it when we were younger.” 

The concert made them realize that what should have been a normal activity when they were teenagers had been withheld from them until they were in their 30s. “We felt like a lot of our youth had been stolen,” Marta added.

That was when the couple decided to apply to leave. They knew the cost. The moment they submitted the application, everything about their lives in Leipzig would change. Everyone from the police to their employers and relatives would try to talk them out of it – for years. But it no longer mattered: “We don’t want to lose any more of our lives.”

So did rock music cause the Berlin Wall to fall? The answer is probably jein, a combination of ja and nein, or yes and no. Music didn’t bring down the wall, but it definitely signaled that the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times – had changed from complacency with the status quo to a much greater desire for more freedom.

I don’t have any souvenir pieces of the Berlin Wall – we gave those away to nieces and nephews years ago. But the memories of that unusually poignant time come vividly to life each time I hear a recording of Joe Cocker’s raspy voice sing “Unchain My Heart.”

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