Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the opening of the David Bowie exhibition in the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin

Foreign Minister Steinmeier in the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin

Foreign Minister Steinmeier in the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, © Photothek/Grabowsky

19.05.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Mr Oberender,
Mr Boettcher,
Martin Roth,
Ben Becker,
Ladies and gentlemen,

At the press conference this morning I was asked, “Are you really going to David Bowie this afternoon?” Perhaps one or two of you here will have wondered that as well. The fact that Martin Roth and I, both born in 1956, grew up – in both senses of the word – with David Bowie, and were often absolutely fascinated by his records and films probably isn’t enough to justify my presence here today. But there is in fact a political dimension to all this.

In 1977, David Bowie recorded what might be his greatest ever song, “Heroes”, not 200 metres from here, in the legendary Hansa Studios. The windows of the recording studio looked out onto the grey concrete wall which at the time divided the city and the continent.

“Heroes” is a homage to Berlin, which in those days was right at the heart of the Cold War. If Berlin has a soundtrack, then this is the title track.

For that reason alone, it’s high time David Bowie came back. For weeks now fans throughout Germany have been keenly looking forward to this Bowie retrospective from the Victoria and Albert Museum. The exhibition broke box-office records in London. I’d like to congratulate my friend Martin Roth on that. When we last saw each other in London, Martin, the exhibition had already ended, and I just got to see the catalogue, but I was already looking forward to opening the exhibition here in Berlin with you.

Bowie came to Berlin almost forty years ago – long before the city became the booming metropolis it is today, a magnet for young artists from all over the world. He was driven by his fascination with the Berlin of the 1920s, with the Expressionist paintings of Erich Heckel and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and with Marlene Dietrich, whom he worshipped, and in whose last film he appeared during his time here in Berlin.

Above all, however, what David Bowie was looking for in Berlin – and we know this from what he himself has written – was the chance to leave the glamour of Hollywood behind and reinvent himself in a more austere Berlin still bearing the scars of the war. He probably looked for the starkest possible contrast to Sunset Boulevard and that was why he hit on Hauptstrasse here in Berlin-Schöneberg.

Looking back, David Bowie has said that, following years of excess, Berlin was his clinic. The city inspired him to make what might be his greatest ever albums, the famous Berlin Trilogy. In a creative flatshare with the American punk pioneer Iggy Pop, Bowie wrote a hymn to the Berlin S-Bahn in “The Passenger” and developed a whole new musical sound, at least for Bowie fans at the time. Those of us who are older will remember that you could hardly fail to notice that he had also picked something up from the avant-garde of the German music scene of the time, Einstürzende Neubauten for instance, or – closer to home for me in Westphalia – Kraftwerk perhaps. Anyone who has fond memories of the German avant-garde at that time will also find something to like in Bowie’s music. But to my mind, Bowie had a certain something more, something that’s quite useful for diplomacy as well. And I don’t mean the hairstyles or costumes.

No, I mean the curiosity to discover the world through the eyes of others. The belief in the creative power of doubt. The willingness to shake off tired clichés and prejudices. The conviction that borders can be overcome – even if, as was certainly the case in the divided Berlin of the 1970s, it didn’t look likely.

The power these ideas can develop became clear to David Bowie when he came back to Berlin ten years on from “Heroes”. In 1987 he gave a concert in front of the Reichstag. Thousands of fans from East Berlin made their way to the Brandenburg Gate so that they could at least hear him over the Wall. What many people don’t know is that the East German police ranged up with their batons in front of the fans, and it was in 1987, not just in 1989, that Bowie’s fans began to shout “The Wall has to go!”.

Moments like these paved the way for the sweeping changes of 1989, for the peaceful demonstrations on Prague’s Wenceslas Square and in Danzig’s shipyards, outside the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig and on Alexanderplatz here in Berlin. They cleared the path for all those who helped to tear down the Iron Curtain bit by bit.

And that’s another reason why it’s good that David Bowie is back in the city today, 25 years after the fall of the Wall. Quite simply, he belongs here. I hope you all enjoy this spectacular retrospective.

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