David Bowie: How one man’s music united East and West when nothing else could

Max Gwynne - New Writer

Tributes are laid to David Bowie in New York City | Image: David Shankbone

The recent death of one of music’s greatest talents has sent shockwaves around the world. People from across the globe are in mourning for 69 year old David Jones (Bowie) who sadly lost his battle with cancer on Monday January 11th. It would of course be no understatement to say that Bowie was an incredible talent and the face of an extraordinary and revolutionary movement in both global music and art. But people don’t realise how political he was, say close friends and family. He was political, but not in the conventional sense. He was a huge figure of freedom, whether it was concerning sexuality or expression. He was simply iconoclastic, breaking new ground all the time.

However, people have underestimated the role he played in bringing hope, joy and optimism to the people of Berlin, and indeed Germany, as a whole at a time when the Cold War was at its epoch. At the forefront of sending condolences out regarding Bowie’s death has been the German government whose Foreign Office, in complete respect, tweeted at 10:41am the message: “Goodbye David Bowie. You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall” and whose capital city mayor, Michael Muller, paid tribute to the Brixton born star calling the song ‘Heroes’ “the hymn of our then-divided city and its longing for freedom”.

Bowie moved to West Berlin at the height of the Cold War in 1976 where he shared a flat with fellow musical talent Iggy Pop in the Schoneberg district, whilst recording new material in his record studio in Kruezberg. People would frequently see him in cafes, record shops and on his bicycle and would gladly leave him be to enjoy the city. A city he was very much inspired by, and whose people were very much inspired by him and felt honoured by his living in their city. He immersed himself into the German culture and art movement, which served to spark his most creative years. During which time he would revolutionise German music into a new age of punk and ‘new wave’ and released 3 of his greatest albums: ‘Low’, ’Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’. It was ‘Heroes’ that riddled with Cold War themes and lyrics revolving around fear and isolation. It is the story of two lovers, from East and West who meet at the wall and try, beyond all doubts to find a way to be and love together.

He would return in June 1987 to perform live at the Reichstag/ Bundestag in which both sides, East and West, revelled in his music. His rendition of Heroes was ‘one of his most emotional performances he’d ever done’. But in this momentary event, Bowie manage to unite both sides and the moment exist, as most Germans today see it as having helped change history and easy tensions between East and West.

Image credits: Lear21/WMC
The fall of the Berlin Wall | Image credits: Lear21/WMC

It must be remembered that these were times when the Soviet East Berlin had become markedly safer than it had been, but remained imprisoned. Rock music and all Western based music was treated with contempt and as a destabilising, corruptive source.

The Wall may have divided the people, but it couldn’t divide the airwaves. Those East Berliners who couldn’t listen to the concert live tuned in to the radio for a rare treat in with the Soviets permitted the concert to be aired across their city. In the final hours of the concert, Soviet troops had grown irate at the concert and those East Berliners continuing to show interest in the Western event. Riot squads were ordered out to disperse the crowd by force. The Soviets were spooked. East Berliners were inflamed at their response and public opinion of the Soviet regime had reached fever pitch. As a side note, it was only a week later that US President Ronald Reagan famously demanded Mr Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”.

Without doubt, Bowie’s performance and indeed the wider concert served to drastically change and perceptions around the wall which had existed for over two decades. It was seen with renewed anger, by both sides, and the wall was to fall just two years afterwards. Of course, this could not have happened without the sweeping reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, the disarray of other Eastern European Soviet satellite states and the movement of disgruntled East German citizens. Bowie’s performance did not decide Berlin’s fate, but it did play a vital role in bringing hope and optimism to the people of both sides of the wall and brought them together at a time when nothing else could manage it. And for that very reason, the people of Germany were andcontinue to be especially grateful to the man, the legend and the hero that was ‘David Bowie’.

I, I can remember (I remember)
Standing, by the wall (By the wall)
And the guns, shot above our heads (Over our heads)
And we kissed; as though nothing could fall (Nothing could fall)
And the shame was on the other side; oh we could beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be Heroes just for one day

(Lyrics from David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’)

About Max Gwynne 4 Articles
Max is a graduate of History and International Relations and currently looking to do a Masters Degree in IR. His particular areas interest include British and American Political History and hopes to one day write a book (or several) on his political inspiration, US President John F. Kennedy. Follow Max on Twitter @MPG23