Songs Against Stalin: How Rock And Roll Helped The Berlin Wall Fall

In November of 1991, the Berlin Wall, separating the East and West zones of the city, fell, torn apart, demolished and obliterated by swarms of citizens from either side of the city who took to the crumbling, pitted mortar with chisels, picks and sledgehammers. It has since become one of the 20th century, and history’s most enduring images, the visual representation of the destruction of one of the most tangible symbols of oppression, the rallying cry in the face of tyrants and despots.


Erected practically overnight on the 13th of August of 1961, the Berlin Wall was the ultimate show of force by the (rather misleadingly named) German Democratic Republic, the Communist sector of Berlin that sought to isolate its population of close to 16.11 million citizens from their democratic, capitalistic Western counterparts. Families were torn apart, lives crushed, thousands forcibly confined to Communist rule. Those who tried to make a wild bid for freedom would usually be shot to death by the border guards that lined the wall. At least 140 souls were murdered.


The legacy of the USSR, which had risen more powerful than ever like a fetid plague from the necrotic ashes of the Third Reich's defeat, a regime that screeched words like 'class traitor' 'bourgeois capitalist' and 'people's revolution' to mask a reign of terror that tortured, executed, starved, purged and ethnically cleansed the population of Russia and its satellite states, the Berlin Wall stood for thirty years, its dreary, grey surface scarred with graffiti barring the population of East Berlin from any access to the luxuries the West was so privileged to have.


Huddled under the shadow of the Cold War, as both the USA and USSR amassed nuclear stockpiles and children huddled under school-desks in practice drills, anticipating the ever-present threat of searing nuclear holocaust, East Berlin rapidly became a hotbed for disillusionment, bitterness, resentment and disenchantment with the supposed 'socialist paradise' to flourish- especially when a golden promise of the American Dream hovered so close, yet so far out of their reach.


Rock and Roll has always been about rebellion, every since Elvis Presley exploded onto television, inciting a wildfire of teenage liberation to rage rampant across the world, ever since Little Richard howled the war-cry "a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop,a-lop-bam-boom" across the airwaves, it has throughout history been a tool for the voices of the enraged, the indignant and the frustrated (no surprise considering its undeniable roots in African-American folk music). For the Communist government of East Germany, such riotous, rebellious music was anathema to their vision of a socialist utopia: rock and roll was branded as “decadent", "counter-propaganda" and seen as risking reducing the youth into recalcitrant, apathetic or even murderous delinquents.


Yet mere laws were not enough to dissuade the Communist youth, who since the stilyagi counter-cultures emergence in the late 1940s harboured desires to access and enjoy the commodities and adolescent trends of the West (despite the government also denouncing the stilyagi as effeminate, laughable figures of derision in state propaganda). Elements of censored culture found their way into the hands of the East Berliners, and among these, was music.


American artists had rarely played in Eastern Bloc territories- Elton John broke the mould in 1979 after storming the USSR, a ground-breaking moment regarding the thawing of tensions between both East and West- but their music nevertheless struck a chord with the people of Eastern Berlin. Punk had proved popular among the burgeoning underground scene, with the Ramones even bringing their 'Blitzkrieg Pop' to the city in the early 1970s (bass player Dee Dee Ramone grew up in Berlin).

In 1977, whilst living in Germany with proto-punk legend Iggy Pop in Schonenberg, David Bowie, having discarded the glittering carapace of his alter ego Ziggy Stardust years prior, released the monumental epic ‘Heroes.' Penned after witnessing a couple kissing under the shadow of the Wall from the windows of his Hansa Studio, the song is a soaring, heart-rending triumph, an exaltation of the power of love and the common man staring down the barrel of dictatorship, of the bravery of rebellion in the simplest, purest way: to show passion, care, to dare to be happy.


In 1987, a decade later, the English rocker played a concert in West Berlin- so loud, that an enormous crowd amassed on the other side of the Wall to sing along. Though playing alongside artists including Genesis and the Eurythmics, it was Bowie's anthemic single that led to the crowd breaking out into chants of "Gorby (Gorbachev) get us out!" and "the wall must fall!" An enraged East German police brutally beat back the crowd, but the damage had already been done.



Following the Starman, came The Boss, as Bruce Springsteen, blue-collared poet from the backstreets of New Jersey, drew crowds of 160,000 during his July 19, 1988 concert in East Berlin- though in a stunning act of rebellion, a further 100,000 people stormed the gates, ignoring the threat of force from the police. Springsteen's concert was an incendiary tribute that lent a voice through song to the millions of disaffected, blasting 'Born In The USA' to the cheering mobs, as well as a rendition of Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom." At the concert's apex Springsteen famously declared:


"I've come to play rock 'n' roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down."


Ultimately of course, rock and roll was not the main cause of the Berlin Wall’s fall. Far from it. The praise for that goes to the people of East and West Berlin, who fought and stood their ground under the yoke of Communist repression, who yearned for a freedom they deserved yet had never been granted. As the foundations of the Soviet Union cracked and shattered in the wake of Perestroika, after the death of Stalin sent ripples across Europe, rock and roll was simply another nail in the coffin of the USSR, a coup de grace sang by a million throats, to punch through the receiver of a hundred pirate radios, chords and drums beating the tattoo to which the youth of Eastern Berlin marched to tear down an Iron Curtain stiff with rust.


"And the shame, was on the other side

Oh we can beat them, forever and ever

Then we could be heroes

Just for one day”

David Bowie.


Pablo L, Year 13

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