David Hasselhoff’s fame in Germany began with fall of the Berlin Wall

Walk downstairs to the basement of the Circus Hostel in Berlin and you’ll spot it nestled across from the hipster hostel’s microbrewery. A large, autographed, partially bare-chested mural tribute to American actor and singer David Hasselhoff.

It’s the doorway to a cheeky exhibit celebrating Hasselhoff’s fame in Germany and a chance for Americans, familiar with his TV roles on “Baywatch” and “Knight Rider” but probably not his musical career, to find out why he still resonates with the generation of Germans who remember the Mauerfall – the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“We have a steady flow of locals and tourists, from devoted fans to people who just can’t believe it’s real,” Maja Stefanovic, communications director for the Circus, said about the free exhibit when I contacted her by email.

The David Hasselhoff “museum” started in 2007. First, it was just a picture hung by a bartender who loved The Hoff, as devoted fans call him. As the shrine gathered more material, it eventually spilled over into the hallway. 

A wall placard offers a clue to why this tribute to Germans’ love of Hasselhoff has gained such a following. 

Placed next to a display of pictures from the New Year’s Eve after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it reads in the spirit of how an American might tell a Chuck Norris joke.

“Bringing down the Wall: 1989 David as himself tore down the Berlin Wall there by freeing millions of eastern Europeans from communism. Forget what the history books say.”

A large mural of David Hasselhoff greets those who enter The David Hasselhoff Museum at The Circus Hostel in Berlin, Germany

The punchline to any German Hasselhoff joke is always that he ushers in freedom. 

As the Germans say, zum Beispiel (for example): As news of a possible peace agreement between North and South Korea grabbed global headlines in 2018, a German satirical site wrote that peace was moving so quickly because David Hasselhoff was en route to the Korean peninsula.

“To his most loyal fans he is still one of the driving forces behind the people who finally brought down the Wall,” said Stefanovic, who added that of course this is not historically accurate. 

But what is historically accurate is that Hasselhoff’s music, for many Germans, is tied to memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

How The Hoff became a star in Germany

Coming off his fame as TV’s Knight Rider in the early 1980s, Hasselhoff started releasing albums including one called, wait for it, “Night Rocker.”

Hasselhoff’s musical talent didn’t get much notice in the United States — the tour I followed to three German cities in 2018 included him joking that “Night Rocker” sold  five copies in the U.S.

But, he said, he learned he was at the top of the charts in Austria when an Austrian reporter showed up at his home in L.A. for an interview.

“Where’s Austria?” Hasselhoff joked about his response to the interviewer.

 In 1988, he released “Looking for Freedom,” which climbed the charts in Austria and Germany. 

The title track, which put English lyrics to the tune of German singer Tony Marshall’s 1978 hit, “Auf der Straße nach Suden,” is what Germans most associate with Hasselhoff. The song’s release came just as change started sweeping through Eastern Europe.

The fall of the Berlin Wall

President Ronald Reagan’s famous “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech happened in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in June 1987. The wall came down two years later, during President George H.W. Bush’s first year in office.

Its fall was accidental.

On Nov. 9, 1989, under pressure from a growing number of East Germans fleeing to the west through Czechoslovakia, a German Democratic Republic (East German)  spokesman prematurely announced during a press conference that East Germans could apply for free travel on short notice effective immediately.

The East German government hoped that allowing small travel freedoms would stem the tide of fleeing refugees, but it wasn’t supposed to be announced until the next morning.

The proclamation shocked journalists and was broadcast live on television and radio. East Berliners rushed to the wall to see if they could cross.

They were tentative at first, but the crowd steadily grew larger. Eventually it grew so large that Harald Jäger, a guard in charge of one of the gates, ordered without permission that his gate be opened.

Only with the perspective of history can we now understand how terribly different this all could have gone.

Hasselhoff’s New Year’s Eve performance

Perhaps the Hasselhoff legend sprang from the fact that during this time “Looking for Freedom” was climbing the charts in Germany and Austria.

On New Year’s Eve 1989, he was invited to sing on television station ZDF’s popular  countdown show televised live from the heart of Berlin. The wall hadn’t been torn down completely. It still stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate separating east from west.

Germany still didn’t know what its future held. The year ahead was full of hope, promise and uncertainty.

Amid those emotions, dressed in a black jacket with blinking lights and a keyboard scarf, The Hoff stood in the bucket of a crane overlooking the crowd and sang “Looking for Freedom.”

The crowd swayed, sang along and shot fireworks in the air, some narrowly missing Hasselhoff. Many more Germans watched the show from home. His performance became part of the nation’s shared memory of that historic year.

‘Looking for Freedom’ today

No one in the audience at the shows I attended in 2018 seemed worried about breaking the social taboo of “wearing the concert T-shirt to the concert.”

In fact, fans fully embraced it, brandishing “Knight Rider,” “Baywatch” and “Don’t Hassel the Hoff” attire with equal parts pride and jest. Red swim trunks, bare chests and swim buoy accessories peppered the crowd, as did black leather jackets covered in Christmas tree lights.

As it did in 1989, the crowd lost its collective mind when Hasselhoff launched into “Looking for Freedom.”

The chorus is simple. It’s repetitive. It’s catchy. You can quickly understand why the song became popular, especially among German kids learning English in school in the 1990s.

In Jena, a beautiful small college town in former East Germany where I attended a show, the arena was about three-quarters full of people much like me, in their late 30s to mid-40s, still grasping at threads of their youth through an ironic worship of a childhood hero.

The college students were mostly absent. They had no memory of the wall. Germany has been united their entire lives.

Hasselhoff is from their parents’ generation, his music the soundtrack to their memories of this historic moment of change.

You can connect with Arizona Republic Consumer Travel Reporter Melissa Yeager at melissa.yeager@azcentral.com. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram. 

Flashback:  A dozen striking photos show how the Berlin Wall actually fell in 1989

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