The final night of David Hasselhoff’s “30 Years Looking for Freedom” tour through Germany closed where everything began… Berlin.
Inside the Friedrichstadt-Palast, the crowd was an odd mix of Germans, expats and tourists with an energy like nothing I saw in the other concerts where I trailed “The Hoff” this year. The seats in the historic venue wrap around the stage in a way that offered the audience intimacy with the “Knight Rider” star that was only enhanced by the auditorium’s acoustics. The German audience, normally known to be stoic, had turned into a joyful, dancing crowd.
On that night, Hasselhoff, himself, is on fire as well—doing more high kicks than a man his age really should. At one point, I’m seriously concerned he could break a hip.
Like most Americans, I’m puzzled by the German obsession with David Hasselhoff and so, during the final months of my fellowship in Berlin, I took the train to different parts of Germany to investigate. And since we’re celebrating 4th of July this week, it seems like a good time to talk about Germany’s complex history with liberty and its relationship with the United States.
And honestly, though my German colleagues would be mortified by this, my quest to follow him through different parts of Germany told me a lot about the country’s ongoing search for freedom and about the relationship between our two countries. We align so often on values and hopes for the world that it becomes rather jarring when we reach a point where we suddenly don’t seem to understand each other.
We’re at one of those crossroads right now.
There’s a genre of art that gained popularity in Europe following the end of World War II called “Theatre of the Absurd.” The dictionary defines it as a form of drama that emphasizes the absurdity of human existence by employing disjointed, repetitious, and meaningless dialogue, purposeless and confusing situations, and plots that lack realistic or logical development.
I once sat through an absurdist theatre performance where actors uttered the German word “und” (which means “and” in English) for probably five minutes straight. Like literally. Und. Und. Und. Und. Und. Unfamiliar with the genre, I sat frozen. I felt myself internally asking, “And?” Was I supposed to take the performance seriously or, as the Germans around me were doing, laugh? Eventually, I just started laughing because the whole thing was just so insane.
The German obsession with David Hasselhoff can sometimes feel like that same sort of exercise in absurdist theatre. At the first concert, I spent much of the time wondering if this was for real. Am I supposed to laugh? Are the Germans really this devoted to “The Hoff?” Wait. Did I just see a guy in red swim trunks, no shirt and a lifesaving floatie walk by? Is that guy’s jacket covered in Christmas lights?
What is going on?
I think Americans get that Hasselhoff was pretty good in “Knight Rider.” Who didn’t want to have a talking car like KITT when they grew up? And “Baywatch” was pretty entertaining as well.
But a singer?
To me, the answer seems to be that Germany’s relationship with him is less absurdist and more satirically sentimental.
Coming off his fame as Knight Rider in the early 80s, David Hasselhoff had started releasing albums including one called, wait for it, “Night Rocker.” His musical talents didn’t get much notice in the United States — Hasselhoff jokes during his concerts that “Night Rocker” sold five copies in the U.S. But, he learned he was at the top of the charts in Austria when an Austrian woman showed up at his home for an interview.
“Where’s Austria?” Hasselhoff jokes of his response to the interviewer.
That was in 1987. In 1988, he released his follow-up album, “Looking for Freedom,” and several of the songs on that album became hits in Austria and Germany. “Crazy for You” and “On the Wings of Tenderness” climbed the charts. But it’s the title track, which put English lyrics to the tune of German Tony Marshall’s 1978 hit, “Auf der Strasse nach Suden,” that Germans most associate with Hasselhoff.
The release of the song was almost kismet—it came just as change started sweeping through Eastern Europe.
If you ask most Americans, they probably believe President Reagan gave his “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech and the wall almost immediately came down. Actually, Reagan’s speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate was in June 1987. The actual fall of the wall happened two years later in November 1989.
It was caused when an East German government spokesman prematurely announced during a press conference that East Germans could apply for free travel on short notice. The hope among the East German government was that this small freedom would stem the tide of East Germans fleeing the country through Czechoslovakia.
But the law wasn’t complete yet and still wasn’t going to allow completely free travel. The statement shocked journalists and West Berlin’s television station broadcast the news conference. Yet, East Berliners could see this broadcast—and went to the wall to see if they could cross.
Meanwhile, the East German Border patrol guards saw the crowd gathering. Eventually it grew so large that Harald Jäger, the guard in charge of one of the gates, ordered without permission that the gate be opened.
And thus, the Germans tore down the wall all because of a botched press conference, a newscast, and an East German border guard who didn’t want to shoot into the crowd.
Only with the perspective of history can we now understand how terribly different this all could have gone.
In the background of all of this, Hasselhoff’s song was climbing the charts.
On New Year’s Eve, he was invited to sing in the popular countdown television show. The wall still hadn’t been torn down completely. It still stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate. At that moment, history hung in the balance. Germany still didn’t know what its united future looked like or how reunification would progress. The year ahead was full of hope, promise and uncertainty.
Amidst that emotion, dressed in a black jacket that lit up and a keyboard scarf, “The Hoff” stood on a crane overlooking the Brandenburg Gate. He belted out his new hit, “Looking for Freedom,” and the people sitting on top of the wall swayed along to the familiar tune.
I’ve been looking for freedom.
I’ve been looking so long.
I’ve been looking for freedom.
Still the search goes on.
The song became the anthem of the change happening in Germany and was engraved in the collective psyche of the nation as it went through reunification.
If you head downstairs into the basement of the Circus Hostel in Berlin and turn right at the bottom of the stairs, you’ll find the hostel’s own microbrewery. If you turn left, you’ll walk into the David Hasselhoff “museum.”
A large, signed bare-chested mural of Hasselhoff greets visitors as they make their way into the hallway that pays homage to the American actor/singer. CDs, pictures of his performance at the wall, and another signed picture make up the small hallway exhibit.
Next to the picture of Hasselhoff singing at the wall in 1989, a piece of the wall and a keyboard scarf, is a placard that reads:
“Bringing Down the Wall: 1989 David himself tore down the Berlin Wall thereby freeing millions of Eastern Europeans from Communism. Forget what the history books say.”
Hasselhoff’s performance earned him a sort of “Chuck Norris” legacy in Germany. The jokes always end with a punchline of Hasselhoff bringing freedom. For instance, as news of the possible peace agreement between North and South Korea grabbed headlines, a German satirical site wrote that peace was moving quickly because David Hasselhoff was en route to Korea.
The German love of “The Hoff” now seems equal parts love, embarrassment and patriotism–though Germans might cringe at any suggestion of nationalism. It seems one of the few places, like soccer games, where a public love of country is socially acceptable.
Yet, he’s also a product of our transatlantic relationship with Germany. There are some who argue that the best way America yields soft power influence in the world is through exportation of pop culture. The Germans I’ve met seem to echo that. “We saw all the same television shows you did,” one German colleague told me.
But as an American friend in Berlin said to me once—it’s strange what parts of that culture caught on in Germany and what parts didn’t. Every now and again, you bump into one of these incongruities.
Prime example: “The Hoff.”
Americans, especially liberal Americans, perhaps hope Merkel would step into that leadership role. Based on my experience living in Germany, I have a hard time believing that would happen.
Merkel is quite comfortable “leading from behind.” If you watch, she always partners with another country when making international moves. For instance, when trying to persuade Trump to stay in the Iran deal, she followed France’s Emmanuel Macron to Washington to meet with the American president.
She’s a savvy politician, but Germany is facing the same populist challenges as the United States. In the last election, the Alternative fur Deutschland, a far-right, islamophobic party calling for immigration reform, gained seats in parliament for the first time since World War II ended. Merkel held onto her Chancellorship, but only after persuading the Social Democrats (the center-left) to once again form a coalition government with her center-right Christian Democrats “for the good of our country.”
But that took months.
Recently, that precariously held coalition and Merkel’s Chancellorship were put in jeopardy because one of her party’s own partners, the CSU, has been courting right-wing voters by pushing her to stop asylum seekers from coming to Germany if they have registered for asylum in another country. It’s something in stark contrast with the standards of the European Union and the German constitution, which prioritizes the dignity of all human beings.
Meanwhile, the country’s military is riddled with problems and, honestly, Germans don’t really care much about fixing those, or the military at all, for that matter. Germany simply does not have the capability to fill the shoes of the United States military—nor does the public desire to ever see Germany take that role.
“If America does not lead, no one will,” I often heard.
At the Sparkasse Arena in the old East German town of Jena, it doesn’t appear anyone is worried about breaking the social taboo of “wearing the concert t-shirt to the concert.” In fact, the Friday night crowd fully embraces it. Waves of concertgoers brandishing “Knight Rider,” “Baywatch” and “Don’t Hassel the Hoff” t-shirts stream into the arena beaming with pride, or perhaps riding on the delightful buzz of a few pre-concert wegbiers (beers “on the go”).
Jena is a beautiful, small college town in the old East where you can see the traditional German architecture and peacefully pass a spring evening on a sidewalk cafe eating the oft bragged about Thuringer bratwurst. The town is famous for optometry and boasts an optical museum.
Yet in the arena, most of the audience is like me… somewhere in their 30s or 40s, still trying to grab at strands of their youth through an ironic worship of childhood heroes. The absence of colleges students might be explained because the millenials, for the most part, have grown up in a world where Germany has always been united.
It also might explain why the stadium is about three quarters of the way full when the lights dim for this stop on David Hasselhoff’s 30-year anniversary tour.
Blue and red lights shine and clips from “Knight Rider“ play on a screen above the stage.
The crowd cheers and laughs in a haze of beer-fueled, nostalgic delight.
I can hardly believe that not far from here in the old East, the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) made the biggest strides among voters. It’s the area that has seen the least immigration, but on the train, I’ve sometimes seen the U.S. Confederate flag pop up on the country homes. The Nazi flag is banned in Germany, so neo-Nazis often use the Confederate flag instead. Other times, it’s just a confused European who doesn’t understand what it means in American history.
Still, it’s chilling when you see it.
I think in the age of Trump, we often think the United States is in this unique “populist” situation and the rest of the world is laughing at us. And to an extent, from my experience, they are. But I also saw far more sympathetic nods because, honestly, Europe is dealing with its own battle against extremism as it tries to hold the European Union together. We’re all working to remind our neighbors of our values as democratic countries.
Which brings me back to David Hasselhoff.
The third concert I attended was in the old West, in the town of Oberhausen. It’s in the Ruhrgebiet, or as some Germans told me, the West Virginia of Germany. The area used to host a vibrant mining industry and, later, car manufacturing plants, namely an Opel plant (Ford). Across the street from the arena, there’s a park with a collection of old mining equipment as a nod to the area’s history.
Many of those production lines have shut down and the unemployment is higher here than anywhere else in Germany. However, in the maps of the last election, the populists did not grab hold in this area as they did in the old East. Though the AfD did make strides, voters in this area who switched from the two mainstream parties (SPD and CDU/CSU) often chose the pro-business Free Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, Germany’s politicians are still grappling with how to treat their new populist AfD colleagues, unsure whether to treat them with civility when so much of what these people say is against all of the values that Germany established following the war.
But on a spring night in Oberhausen, the crowd is full of 30 to 40 year olds, and sometimes their parents, rocking out to David Hasselhoff. As the chords for “Looking for Freedom” ring out, the crowd loses its collective mind.
It’s hard not to sing along with the lyrics. They’re simple. They’re repetitive. You can understand why the song became popular, especially among kids learning English in Germany.
I’ve been looking for freedom.
I’ve been looking so long.
I’ve been looking for freedom.
Still the search goes on.
The song ends. So does the music.
David Hasselhoff pauses for a moment. All is quiet except the movement of the crowd. The music strikes up again.
I’ve been looking for freedom…
The crowd cheers as the song, and the search, go on.