Forget What the History Books Say: How David Hasselhoff Broke Down the Berlin Wall

By Aaron Baumgart

“[This] again proves my the­o­ry that Ger­mans love David Has­sel­hoff,” con­cludes Norm Mac­don­ald on his Sat­ur­day Night Live seg­ment “Week­end Update” in the ear­ly 90s. The crowd roars with laugh­ter, the punch­line has become a favorite among them for quite a while. “Those sil­ly Ger­mans,” Macdonald’s eyes seems to say.

Over twen­ty years lat­er, the joke might not be remem­bered but the sen­ti­ment cer­tain­ly per­sists. Many Ger­mans com­plain on their trav­el blogs about get­ting asked about “The Hoff” while trav­el­ing around the USA. Some of them bare­ly know who he is. Indeed, today’s young adults might only faint­ly remem­ber Has­sel­hoff for run­ning around in red shorts, talk­ing to cars, and hav­ing his drunk­en mis­de­meanors cap­tured on cam­era. This has not always been the case.

Dur­ing the 1980s, both of Hasselhoff’s shows, Knight Rid­er and Bay­watch, were large­ly cel­e­brat­ed in Ger­many. That is to say, not only in Ger­many. Bay­watch was export­ed into 144 coun­tries with over a bil­lion peo­ple world­wide sit­ting in front of their TVs every week. His shows fea­tured ele­ments that were excit­ing for Ger­man view­ers: futur­is­tic tech­nol­o­gy and attrac­tive young actors in very lit­tle cloth­ing on sun­ny beach­es. “The Hoff” con­se­quent­ly made his way into Ger­man mag­a­zines for teens – like Bra­vo and Mäd­chen – but so did John Tra­vol­ta and Patrick Swayze. What made Has­sel­hoff so different?

Hasselhoff’s influ­ence on Ger­many and its cap­i­tal Berlin seem to be due to his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stance. In the 1980s, young Euro­peans were strong­ly influ­enced by an anti-Cold War sen­ti­ment which also made its way into pop cul­ture and the music of the time. Songs like “99 Luft­bal­lons” by Nena and “Every­body Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears are just two exam­ples. At the same time, Has­sel­hoff decid­ed to start his singing career. In 1988, he released his sin­gle “Look­ing for Free­dom,” which became an instant hit all around Europe but espe­cial­ly in Switzer­land, Aus­tria, and Ger­many, where it held the No. 1 posi­tion in the charts for 8 weeks.

Hasselhoff’s song was obvi­ous­ly less polit­i­cal­ly charged than the afore­men­tioned songs, but it fea­tured a hap­py upbeat to which peo­ple enjoyed danc­ing. Addi­tion­al­ly, the Ger­man-speak­ing crowd was already famil­iar with the melody. Ger­man music pro­duc­er Jack White had pre­vi­ous­ly released the song in 1978 with folk singer Tony Mar­shall, singing in Ger­man “Auf der Straße nach Süden” (On the Road to the South). This song, too, had been a major hit.

As Has­sel­hoff was the most pop­u­lar and best-sell­ing artist in Ger­many in 1989, Ger­man broad­cast­er ZDF invit­ed him to per­form the song on their New Year’s Eve event at the Bran­den­burg Gate. Has­sel­hoff was eager to accept and per­formed the song in front of an excit­ed crowd of reuni­fi­ca­tion activists, wear­ing a leather jack­et fea­tur­ing blink­ing light­bulbs and a scarf with a piano key­board pattern.

While it is nice to imag­ine that it was Hasselhoff’s voice alone that blew the Berlin Wall away, it is impor­tant to note that it was already being decon­struct­ed at this time. Ear­li­er that year, a series of protests in East Ger­many and East­ern Bloc coun­tries, such as Poland and Hun­gary, had caused a chain reac­tion that had result­ed in the East Ger­man gov­ern­ment open­ing the wall for trav­el­ers. Mere­ly sev­en weeks before the con­cert, on Novem­ber 9, 1989, news out­lets all over the world report­ed that the Berlin Wall had final­ly fall­en. As the images of Has­sel­hoff per­form­ing in front of the Berlin Wall resur­faced with­out con­text in the 90s, paired with the jokes fea­tured on Sat­ur­day Night Live, many inter­na­tion­al view­ers began to think – or at least hope – that it was “The Hoff” him­self who inspired the East Ger­mans to stand up to their regime.

Pho­to Cred­it: A. Baumgart

Con­sid­er­ing that Hasselhoff’s per­for­mance took place 30 years ago, many would imag­ine that Hasselhoff’s pop­u­lar­i­ty in Ger­many, espe­cial­ly among younger Ger­mans, has dimin­ished. One hos­tel in Berlin, how­ev­er, is on a mis­sion to pre­serve Hasselhoff’s lega­cy. The first and so far only David Has­sel­hoff Muse­um in the world opened in the base­ment of the pop­u­lar hos­tel, The Cir­cus, in 2015 in order to “pay homage to the man who brought down the wall with his voice and this epic scarf,” as the own­ers write on their home­page. At first only a giant por­trait of “The Hoff” had attract­ed tourists to take self­ies; then the hos­tel start­ed to col­lect knick-knacks depict­ing Hasselhoff’s career. Nowa­days, vis­i­tors can mar­vel at var­i­ous props from Bay­watch, like Hasselhoff’s red swim­ming trunks and lifebuoy.

The cen­ter­pieces of the small muse­um are with­out a doubt a piece of the Berlin Wall and the piano-scarf the singer wore dur­ing his per­for­mance on New Year’s Eve 1989. A plaque above the items informs the vis­i­tors that Has­sel­hoff him­self “tore down the Berlin Wall […] free­ing mil­lions of east­ern Euro­peans from com­mu­nism. For­get what the his­to­ry books say.” Despite the good-natured irony of the exhib­it, David Has­sel­hoff, who vis­it­ed the muse­um in 2016, said that he felt very hon­ored. After all, he still laments the fact that he is not men­tioned at the Check­point Char­lie Museum.

Has­sel­hoff, still fond of Ger­many and its cap­i­tal, toured the coun­try in 2018 and is already plan­ning on com­ing back in 2019. Not every­body will under­stand “The Hoff’s” sig­nif­i­cance, some still don’t even know who he is. Yet it is safe to say: Ger­mans love David Has­sel­hoff. Because: Wasn’t he the one who tore down the Berlin Wall with his voice?

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Aaron Baum­gart stud­ies Amer­i­can Stud­ies and Ger­man Lit­er­a­ture at Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty, Berlin. He is par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in fic­tion fea­tur­ing diverse char­ac­ters and cul­tur­al the­o­ries that chal­lenge social norms. In the future, he would like to work as a pub­lish­er in order to bring those texts to a big­ger audience.