The Berlin Wall - my part in its downfall


No part at all of course.  But it was travelling over and under it every day on my journey to work loading lorries with a gang of Turks and Yugoslavs in a Berlin aluminium anodising and assembly plant that helped form my passionate conviction that Liberal values must prevail. It was 1972, I was living in the then Berlin red light district of Potsdamer Strasse.  The factory was in Spandau.  I took the cheapest form of transport which was the East German-run S-Bahn system.  The rails of course took no notice of the above-ground political boundaries.  The Communists weren't going to spend any money if they could help it on the western part of the system, so the tracks were weed-choked, the stations peeling and dilapidated, the trains ancient, many with wooden seats.

They would plunge underground soon after I boarded and almost immediately under the Wall.  The stations beyond were closed and abandoned - perhaps a flickering strip light to show frontier guards on the platform guarding against escape.  Occasionally a flash from the third rail would illumine the darkness of the tunnel and again you would glimpse guards with guns just standing there.  In the middle of the east we changed trains at Friedrichstrasse and came to the surface where an outpost of the Berlin Wall ran down the middle of the station. 

On one side trains headed east into the DDR (the German "Democratic" Republic) and on to Poland and the Soviet Union.  On our side they headed west, with another soldier with a gun silhouetted against the great arch of glass defining the western end of the train shed. We then ran west between high fences and guard towers through East Berlin, clanking over the minefields and killing strip and then over the Wall proper behind the then empty Reichstag building and so back into the west.  I did that journey every day in both directions for several months - it could not help but have an impact on an 18 year old country boy.

In the north of the city there was a set of tracks where the western and eastern systems converged with just a high fence between them.  Often trains ran in parallel and I would gaze across at the other passengers and wonder what they were thinking looking at me. Wider afield, the wall ran obscenely across countryside and you would hear dogs barking beyond and sometimes the sound of human activity.  The closed frontier crossings at key bridges were particularly thought-provoking.  On one occasion on my way to Dresden I had to use Checkpoint Charlie in darkness in the very early morning.  In fact I spent quite a lot of time exploring both East Berlin and wider in the DDR but that is another story.

My Berlin experience convinced me that politics mattered.  What I saw was the result of military action driven by political leaders and people's lives could be changed irrevocably depending on where they lived.  I went to university knowing I had to be involved in some way.  Although I thought I was probably a Liberal without quite knowing what that meant, I joined all three main political clubs at university.  Albeit the smallest, the Liberals were the only ones who addressed the issues of liberty so starkly highlighted by that grim length of concrete wall, and my future political course was set. Twenty years on the commemoration of the fall of the Wall remains a real cause of celebration.


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