David Bowie was an extraordinary talent. His songwriting helped define a generation and it is not too much to say he changed the face of popular music, and through that the very world we live in.
But what is less well known is that Bowie also had a direct impact on the Cold War. In one moment, his actions and the impact he had changed the face of that cruelest and most distorted of conflicts. He showed the world that the voice of the people could defy their tyrannical rulers, and that human togetherness could shine through all adversity.
How did one man, one entertainer, make heroes of a divided people?
Just For One Day
The year was 1987, the Bowie’s Glass Spider tour was a huge success. He had never tried anything with as many tour dates, and nothing before matched the spectacle of it: this was Bowie’s most ambitious, and most expensive tour to date.
One of the key venues for this tour was Berlin, but this is not the Berlin we know today. In 1987 Berlin was still a city divided, with Soviet-bloc East Berlin divided from the liberal (and free) West Berlin by that most famous symbol of political oppression: the Berlin Wall.
Berlin of course is situated in the far east of Germany, close to the Polish border and far from the rest of West Germany. West Berlin was at this time an island of democracy surrounded by communism.
Bowie himself had lived in Berlin for three years during the 1970s (with Iggy Pop, amazingly) and he knew the city well. He knew its people, and he had seen first-hand the cruelty of the Berlin Wall.
His 1987 concert was held near the Reichstag building, very close to the wall itself. And during the show, Bowie sang his famous song written about the Berlin Wall and the triumph of love over hatred: Heroes.
The concert was spectacular, and so loud that it could easily be heard from East Berlin. During the performance, an enormous crowd of East Berliners gathered on their side of the wall, as close as they could get to the concert. And they started singing.
The West Berliners could hear the singing from the East Berliners, and joined them in singing the words of the song. And together they found common ground in Bowie’s song and showed the world again they were the same people, and what united them could outshine this oppressive construct which divided them.
It was rumored that the tour organizers had tweaked the speaker set up for the concert so that it could be more clearly heard in East Berlin. In this show of unity, the people on both sides of the Wall sent a powerful message: they were one.
Bowie had called out to those in East Berlin before starting the song. He sang out “We sent our best wishes to all of our friends who are on the other side of the wall” and recalled later that the atmosphere had been uniquely charged during that moment, and that this was one of the most emotional performances of his career.
After the concert, there was a riot in East Berlin, as 200 people charged the wall, trying to escape. And in that striking out against oppression, something changed in the political narrative.
One week later US President Ronald Reagan visited West Berlin, and in a speech he directly addressed his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, calling on him to “tear down this wall”. Bowie had hardened the resolve of a nation to become whole again.
One the day of Bowie’s death in 2016, the German foreign ministry posted a message on Twitter. They confirmed that this concert, and this song, was a pivotal moment in the journey to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
And all that followed, from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the end of the Cold War, belonged to this moment with a divided people singing as one.
Top Image: David Bowie, 1947 – 2016. Source: Vértes György (fotóriporter) / CC BY-SA 4.0.
By Joseph Green