Saturday, October 26, 2013

Criss-crossing the United States: Erik Kirschbaum on Tour


Erik Kirschbaum in Tucson, Arizona, talking about Rocking the Wall

For the last ten days, I've had the chance to talk to large and small groups of Americans interested in Germany and German expatriates in the United States. It's been great to engage in many exciting and stimulating discussions about my book Rocking the Wall and exploring the question whether Bruce Springsteen's record-breaking four-hour long concert in 1988 East Berlin helped spark the fire that led to the revolution that brought down the Berlin Wall sixteen months later. The grueling eight-city tour also gave me the chance to see what it might be like to be on a rock 'n' roll tour with eight different hotel rooms, four time zones, fifteen flights and nearly forty hours in the air and almost as much time standing in airport security lines—it made me glad that I went into journalism and never even dreamed of becoming a rock star.

The tour to talk about Rocking the Wall, which has been generously sponsored by the American Council on Germany at its Eric M. Warburg Chapters,  included stops in Nashville, Charlotte, Davidson, Madison, Minneapolis, Nashville, Flagstaff, Tucson and Minneapolis/St Paul. The gatherings ranged from about ten people to as many as fifty-five. And most of the people in America who came to the talks—everybody from students to lawyers, accountants, local business leaders interested in all things German and a few German consulate officials—seemed to be really excited by the notion that the power of Springsteen's music may well have helped influence the course of history twenty-five years ago.

The Rocking the Wall tour began on October 16 in Nashville with a 'klein aber fein' luncheon gathering of ten local German professors, students, lawyers and even a retired federal judge that was organized by Douglas Berry, the Nashville ACG chapter leader. I tried to keep my speech short and sweet at about thirty minutes and spent the next forty-five minutes fielding their thoughtful questions. German audiences tend to expect longer speeches while Americans seem to relish the chance to ask questions so it worked out well in Nashville and everyone seemed happy. Douglas, who is also the honorary German Consul in Nashville, said the approach was "just perfect" for American audiences and so the Nashville speech became the basic template for the rest of the tour.

The next stop on October 17 was in Madison, Wisconsin, a return to the college campus on Lake Mendota where I was once an undergraduate student in history and German. It felt a little strange suddenly being a guest speaker in the Van Hise Languages Building that towers over the campus some three decades after I sometimes struggled there to memorize irregular German verbs and the genders of nouns. But any awkward memories quickly vanished thanks to the warm embrace from the German professors, especially Coralee Kluge and Marc Silberman, and their urging to do my talk auf Deutsch because the thirty-five or so students, faculty and alumni at the gather all understood German. So we did it all in German—even though my book is in English (as well as in German). The lecture and discussion, co-sponsored by the Center for German and European Studies at the UW German Dept., was quite lively. There was one graduate student in the audience who had actually been at the 1988 Springsteen concert and he asked some challenging questions and had his doubts about my thesis. Earlier that day in Madison, I gave a forty-five-minute version of the talk to a high school history class at West High that was studying the Cold War and whose teacher had read about my book in a story online. The high school history teacher, David Holtan, had also been at the concert and proudly showed me the 'Konzert fuer Nikaragua' ticket stub. He found the spirit at the concert incredible.

The next stop on October 18 began in Charlotte, North Carolina, where an early morning meeting of about twenty lawyers, accountants, local business leaders and friends of Germany (and a few big Springsteen fans) gathered in the board room of Parker Poe, one of Charlotte's top law firms (with a spectacular view of the fast-growing city), organized by Albert Guarnieri. At noon, I meet a group of about 10 Davidson College "American Pop Culture" students who were fascinated even though they were all born about five years after the concert in the early 1990s. Later in the afternoon, about forty-five students, faculty and the general public came to an hour-long lecture on the concert warmly organized by German professor Caroline Weist.

The fifth stop was in Atlanta on October 20 at the German American Chamber of Commerce. It was exciting to see how many young Germans there are hard at work helping German companies get in-roads into the United States—no wonder half of Germany's GDP is exports. Organized by Martina Stegmeier, the head of the German American Chamber of Commerce in Atlanta, there were about twenty-five local business leaders, German expatriates and even the head of the German consulate gathered in the evening for the chat and to ask engaging questions about the concert. Several German expats had some helpful ideas on how to help more people in the United States hear about the book—always welcome!

The sixth stop was Flagstaff, Arizona on October 21. The indefatigable Helge Jordan, head of the ACG chapter and Germany's honorary consul for Arizona, accompanied me on the forty-eight-hour driving marathon from Phoenix to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and then down to the University of Arizona in Tucson. In Flagstaff there were about fifty German students, faculty and friends of Germany who stayed on the campus late on Tuesday evening for the talk and kept me on my toes with vibrant, probing questions. Organized by German professor Marilya Veteto Reese, the lecture hall was packed, the questions were excellent and the talk was a success—topped off with a superb dinner in downtown Flagstaff with a group of enthused German speakers.

The seventh stop was in Tucson, Arizona—at the southern end of the state and about forty degrees hotter than chilly Flagstaff. Barbara Kosta, the head of the U of A German Dept., didn't seem at all concerned when there were only two young students in the lecture hall about five minutes before the talk was supposed to begin. And she knew the student body well because in the next few minutes the room was full with about forty students and faculty. After a lively discussion, a smaller group tried out a tasty Mexican restaurant nearby and enjoyed the warm evening outdoors under the stars in Tucson.



Erik Kirschbaum and the Tucson Students after the talk

The eighth and final stop was in St. Paul, Minnesota, where there were snowflakes in the air, at the stately Germanic-American Institute building perched high on a high overlooking the city. GAI executive director Aline Anliker and board member R. Don Keysser brought together an eclectic audience of about forty-five—and they kept me talking for more than ninety minutes answering their questions. There were several people in the crowd who had not only read Rocking the Wall already, but brought their copies along for me to sign, which was a special treat. Making the final evening even more special was a guest appearance by a former East German air force officer who had six tickets to the Springsteen concert but had to give his away because he was called into duty on the night of the concert. He lives in Minnesota now, but his recollections of life in Communist East Germany before and after the Springsteen concert helped give the audience a feeling for what life was like under the Communist regime that Springsteen's concert helped bring down.

All in all it was a fantastic (yet draining) fortnight on the road in America, talking about Springsteen's '88 East Berlin concert and the power of rock and roll with Americans and Germans in America—some of whom weren't born until well after the concert happened and some of whom had never before heard about it. It was a great opportunity to meet young and not-so-young Americans and German expatriates who are intensely interested in German and Germany.

- By Erik Kirschbaum



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