by Katja Hoyer
Monday, 10
January 2022
Off grid
15:00

David Bowie at 75: why Germany will remember him

He is a crucial part of Cold War history
by Katja Hoyer

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.’


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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.

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Matt M
Matt M
10 months ago

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.

And I thought we were bad in Britain.

Eric Salo
Eric Salo
10 months ago

In “Heroes,” Bowie called out the inhumanity of those who perpetuated the Wall – and appealed to us to defeat them: 

  • “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”

The shame on the ‘other side’ was born by a government that confined people like Dietmar Schwietzer and Henri Weise to its borders under pain of death.
Failing to ingrain our culture with contempt for, and the reflex to resist, authorities that oppress their citizens means that shame isn’t confined only to the ‘other side.’
Not only is a Bowie-Straße appropriate in Berlin as an enduring reminder of the wickedness once manifested by the Wall, but it’s also a fitting symbol for every city in every Western democracy.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
10 months ago
Reply to  Eric Salo

Nice comment. And I have always imagined the lyric that goes “for nothing will drive them away” to refer to the all-encompassing surveillance state, such that if one were to rebel, one could only do so just for one day.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
10 months ago

Bowie recovered from his drug addiction living with Iggy Pop?! The man really was superhuman!

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
10 months ago

I suspect Iggy just kept stealing his stash…

Joshua Sterling
Joshua Sterling
10 months ago

What a great piece recognizing the lasting impact of this terrific artist. The world misses Mr. Bowie!

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
10 months ago

I didn’t know the dolphin lyric referred to the escapees swimming across the river.
It would be great to see him honoured by the Germans – and then someone will find his dodgy political pronouncements in the mid-seventies (when he was bouncing around all over the place psychologically) and get him cancelled with the street renamed or his statue torn down. Heyho….

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
10 months ago

Bowie’s sojourn in West Berlin in 1977 or thereabouts might have been in part a wish to seek new musical inspiration. Bowie had achieved the same thing when he had decamped to Philadelphia in 1975 and came up with the groovy Young Americans album: a pretty amazing accomplishment for the Londoner. I suppose the German Foreign office may have wanted to communicate, with one eye on the Brexit referendum later in 2016, how even a Brit can blend in with the locals in Berlin and still stay British while at the same time embellishing the wider pop scene with a dollop of Teutonic pride and defiance, with one eye on the past, the other on the future. It wasn’t a melting pot but an empathy pot. I don’t make sense now, probably.

Anyway, for all the silly, over-the-top praising of Bowie, it’s amazing you never hear his songs played on the radio. It’s as if he’s only a literary figure like Bob Dylan. Only a style icon, a silent movie star of sorts.

Bowie pitched up in Philadelphia and basically put out stuff that said This Is America. From West Berlin, he was as comfortable putting out stuff that said This Is Not America. “Heroes” did not sell so well at the time, I believe. But it was a well-noted song (and album) all the same, at the time.
I don’t know if artists today can retreat so willingly somewhere off the beaten track and away from the internet. It seems quaint today that people back in the day just wanted shot of their nation’s newspapers. Though nobody said that was detox. To make a major cultural or artistic impact, everybody probably thinks now that that’s what tweeting is for. Even artists. In the old days, before mobile phones and the internet, to make an impact you had to simply come up with the goods. The motivation now, however, has long gone.

Is “Heroes” a Cold War pop song? It’s the best one in my opinion. Elton John came up with Nikita in 1987: and could therefore claim to have had a more direct impact than Bowie in “helping bring the wall down.” But in comparing the two singers, Bowie had the intellect (on this score).

Statues and street names seem to be big countries’ problems, or hang-ups. If Bowie were Danish, or Scottish or Icelandic or Irish, he’d probably have long had his statue up or a square named after him (in those countries).

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
10 months ago

Yes, the motivation has long gone, now that all art has been politicised. But where is the wry, sardonic à la Bowie take on things? Where is the entertainment in it? The relief for the listener?

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
10 months ago

What a splendid tribute to a great artist, whose death affected me probably more than any other public figure in recent years. Much appreciated.
Recently I found a number of his Berlin concerts on YouTube. Definitely worth watching if only to witness the close relationship he clearly enjoyed with Berliners.
Also makes a pleasant change for a Brit to be held in relatively high esteem in Germany at the current time.
Not a day passes without one of its newspapers, tabloid or broadsheet, left or right, publishing articles, laced with unabashed Schadenfreude, predicting doom and gloom for “deluded” post-Brexit England, (“Die Briten, die spinnen ja”), a country whose people are all apparently still hankering for a return to Empire.
Hopefully this bout of Anglophobia will pass, and we can renew our friendship.

Last edited 10 months ago by Eddie Johnson