Music History #17: "Heroes"
Written by David Bowie and Brian Eno (1977)
Performed by David Bowie
In the summer of 1977, David Bowie was living in Berlin and working on a new album. One evening, he saw his producer Tony Visconti sitting on a bench near the Berlin Wall with a young German woman. “Tony was married at the time,” Bowie recalled, “I think the marriage was in the last few months, and it was very touching because I could see that he was very much in love with this girl. It was that relationship which sort of motivated the song.”
The song, “Heroes,” about a love that defies borders, was the title track of a landmark Bowie record, part of what later came to be called “the Berlin trilogy.” Bowie’s relationship with the Berlin Wall took an even more poignant turn in 1987, when he performed “Heroes” on a stage near the west side of the wall. He remembered, “There were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert, where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again. When we did 'Heroes' it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer.”
Note: On January 8, Bowie’s 66th birthday, he surprised the world by announcing his first new album in ten years. The lead-off single, “Where Are We Now?” has several lyrical references to the streets and sites of Berlin, fueling speculation that the album, due in March, may pick up the thread of the trilogy.
On August 13, 1961, the Communist government of East Germany ordered workers to begin building a wall through Berlin. Within two weeks, the wall had blocked nearly a hundred miles of border between the East and West sections of the city. Made of barbed wire, it was christened by the East German leaders as an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” that would shield its population from the corrupting capitalist influences of West Germany.
But there was a more pressing—though unspoken—reason for the wall. Since 1949, over 3 million East Germans had given up on Communism and defected to the west side of Berlin in search of better lives. Despite the propaganda about anti-fascism, the wall was essentially built to plug that population leak. In time it would come to represent something bigger—the Cold War wedge between Western nations and Eastern Bloc countries.
How did East and West Germany become divided in the first place? With the defeat of the Nazis and the Axis powers at the end of World War II, Allied leaders met to determine Germany’s future. Shortly after, the country was split into four separate zones. The eastern part went to the Soviet Union, while the west was occupied by the United States, Great Britain, and France.
But the modern city of Berlin was an uneasy fit for the Russians. Leader Nikita Krushchev later complained that it “stuck like a bone in the Soviet throat.” As early as 1948, a Soviet blockade aimed to starve the western influence out of the city. The response by the United States and its allies was the “Berlin Airlift,” where planes flying overhead supplied sectors of the city with over two million tons of food, fuel, and goods. The Soviets called off their blockade the following year.
A decade later, as Russia continued to watch the best minds—engineers, doctors, teachers—flee East Berlin, they made noise again about ousting the Western occupiers. Conferences, summits and negotiations between Russia and the Allied countries followed, but led nowhere. Then, in 1961, after mass defections (in the first 12 days of August, over 18,000 East Germans crossed over), Krushchev authorized the government to shut down the border for good.
Checkpoints and Death Strips
Before the wall was built, Berliners from both sides could move around the city freely, to shop and go to movies and so on. Trains and subways regularly crossed the border. After the wall was up, that freedom disappeared. There were only three passages through the border: Checkpoint Charlie, Checkpoint Bravo, and Checkpoint Alpha. Patrolled by East German soldiers, these checkpoints were mainly for diplomats and officials, who were thoroughly screened and questioned. It was nearly impossible for ordinary citizens to pass through these checkpoints.
But the checkpoints didn’t stop defectors from finding ways through, under and over the wall. As time passed, East Germany bolstered the crude barbed wire wall with one made of concrete—12-foot tall, 4-foot wide and topped with a pipe that made climbing over it nearly impossible. And for those still brave enough to attempt escape, they had to deal with the so-called “Death Strips.” In front of the wall on the East German side, there were strips of soft sand (to show footprints), floodlights, attack dogs, trip-wire machine guns, and soldiers instructed to shoot escapees on sight. From 1961 to 1989, around 170 people were killed trying to defect. But over 5000 succeeded in crossing the border (by means of everything from hot air balloons to underground sewer pipes).
Tear Down This Wall!
In 1987, President Reagan gave a speech in Berlin where he famously urged Russian leader Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” It was an important moment in Cold War history, and as a verbal gauntlet, played a part in bringing about the end of the division between East and West Berlin.
That end came on November 9, 1989, when the East German government announced that “permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints.” The wall was inundated with people from both sides, crossing over freely, hugging, kissing, and singing in celebration. Some brought hammers and picks, chipping away at the wall. All those pieces eventually became collectible items. East and West Germany reunified into a single state a year later.