Back to the Wall – Colm Keena on Berlin in 1980

An Irishman’s Diary

One of the decisions I regret making when younger was made in the Friedrichstrasse train station in Berlin, in the summer of 1980, and happened in the blink of an eye.

At the time the great Prussian metropolis was divided by the infamous Berlin Wall or, to put it another way, that part of the city that was under the control of the Federal Republic was surrounded by the territory of the German Democratic Republic, and the latter used walls, fences, and soldiers with guns to stop people moving from the communist East to the decadent West.

To get to Berlin I'd travelled by ferry from Dublin to Holyhead, then by train to the south of England, and then by ferry to Holland, where I'd boarded a night train to take me the approximately 430 miles to my final destination.

The train that met the ferry at the Dutch port had classic mid-century carriages with corridors along one side and sliding doors into compartments, each of which had two banks of seats, with the banks facing each other. The high metal carriages were painted a similar green to that of an Irish postbox.


The train travelled through dark countryside and I dozed off. It was well after midnight when I was woken by the train coming to a halt at the border where West Germany's territory ended. Churchill famously referred in 1946 to an "iron curtain" descending on Europe. My experience of the border between East and West didn't make me think of curtains. Outside the train there were powerful searchlights, tall wire fences, uniformed men with high leather boots, and busy dogs on leashes. It looked like a prison camp on high alert.

I watched as stern-looking border guards searched high and low least something forbidden was being snuck into the workers’ republic on the underside of the night train to Berlin. The uniformed men with the dogs were being watched by uniformed men with guns, and the whole scene felt soaked in the horror of 20th-century European history. Looking out the window was a bit like being gripped to a film you didn’t really want to see.

I’d met some fellow Irish students on the train, and we sat and watched. Soon enough the door of our compartment slid back and some men in uniform stepped into the small space between our knees. They asked – demanded – to see our papers, which they studied grumpily before shoving them back into our hands. It was hard not to feel that smiling might be an offence that would see you being hauled off the train.

In those days the rate of pay in a German factory was such that you could easily save enough in the summer months to pay your Irish university fees for the coming year, and even have some money left over for a quick holiday. I got a well-paid job in a metal smelting factory in a prewar industrial estate somewhere in suburban Berlin, and a place to stay in the trendy Kreuzberg district.

To get to work I got an underground train that passed beneath East Berlin on its way to my huge red-bricked factory. There was an eerie moment on every trip when the train would slow as it passed through a blocked-up station that was under the Communist-controlled part of the city. The air disturbed by the train would cause old newspaper pages that had been left on the dusty station platform to shift, and if you looked closely you could see, or you could imagine you could see, the eyes of the soldiers who watched the trains through slits in the blocked-up exits from the platform.

I wasn't long in Berlin when I learned it was possible to buy a one-day permit to visit the East. I was more into reading Christopher Isherwood novels set in Weimar Berlin, than seeing the contemporary city under communism, but, nevertheless, I decided one day that I really should go and have a look. So I went to the crossing point at Friedrichstrasse station, walked along an underground passageway, and came up onto a platform that was in the Communist East, where you purchased your permit (with West German money).

There were a lot of men in uniforms, and when you looked up you could see more of them peering down at you from observation platforms high above, their eyes hidden by the shadows of the visors on their policemen’s caps.

Man, I thought, this is really uncool.

So I turned around and went back to jazz and café-soaked West Berlin, and never got to see communist Europe.