Pop stars don’t come more quintessentially British than David Bowie. But during his Berlin years, the English icon left a deep impact on Germany too. When Bowie died exactly six years ago, the German Foreign Office tweeted out its farewells and thanked him ‘for helping to bring down the wall.’ Bowie would have been 75 this weekend, giving Germans cause to reflect on the legacy of a much-loved Cold War hero.
Bowie first moved to Berlin in 1976 to escape his drug addiction while living in Los Angeles. Reflecting on this period later, he admitted ‘it was a dangerous period for me. I was at the end of my tether, physically and emotionally, and had serious doubts about my sanity.’
Berlin seemed to be the answer. Sharing an apartment with Iggy Pop at Hauptstraße 155 in the leafy district of Schöneberg, Bowie slowly began to recover. As he began to take more note of his surroundings again, the unique atmosphere of West Berlin — a capitalist island in the middle of communist East Germany, cut off by deadly walls and fences — began to influence him and his music.
The Hansa Tonstudio, where Bowie was recording at the time lay only a short walk away from the Berlin Wall. When Bowie saw his producer Tony Visconti kiss the German singer Antonia Maass in front of the menacing border, the inspiration for the lyrics of his iconic song Heroes was born:
I, I can remember
Standing, by the wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall
While Bowie stayed in Berlin, two young men, 18-year-old Dietmar Schwietzer and 22-year-old Henri Weise, died trying to cross over into West Germany. The shock and sense of desperation left a deep mark on the singer. When he returned to the city a decade later to give his famous 1987 concert right by the Berlin Wall in front of the Reichstag building, it was extremely emotional for him and his Berlin audiences on both sides of the divide. He later reflected, ‘it was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again.’
Many Germans felt much the same. Bowie had become a part of their history, one that still resonates today. In 2022, Deutsche Post were first out of the blocks to commemorate his 75th birthday, launching commemorative stamps and packaging material — all of which sold out immediately.
The occasion has also revived an ongoing discussion around setting Bowie a permanent memorial for his impact in the German capital. There have been continuous campaigns to rename the Hauptstraße in Schöneberg ‘David-Bowie-Straße’ in his honour. This had previously been legally difficult as people have to be declared dead for at least five years before places can be named after them, but that time has now passed for Bowie. In addition, the local branch of former chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, has advocated to rename a street junction near his former flat ‘David-Bowie-Platz’.
But there has not been universal support for these moves. Objections from residents combined with Berlin’s gender quota for place names and scandals around Bowie’s private life at the time are providing powerful obstacles. In addition, there is currently a debate ranging around the renaming of streets in the context of decolonisation which is taking up much political bandwidth.
When the time comes, and I hope it will, a David-Bowie-Straße or Platz will be a great and poignant addition to Berlin’s historical landscape. The city is visibly marked by the events of the 20th century like few others. You will find it hard to walk around for any distance without stumbling upon a historic street name or a memorial to one of the individuals who shaped the city. The emotional connection between Bowie and Berlin is part of this history and deserves a permanent maker.