From the very onset of The Tunnels by Greg Mitchell, history begs to come out of the darkness from obscurity. Mitchell displays an almost intimate relationship with the story’s characters that would become uncommon heroes of the Cold War. The Tunnels begins with the infamous day, just a short time after midnight on August 13th, 1961, that the Berlin Wall, a “25 mile wall erected by the communist”, would go into place and separate West and East Berlin, deep in the heart of East Germany.
The Tunnelers and Challenges
From potential Olympiads, to Technical University students in West Berlin, to blue collar workers with loved ones in the east all helped escape through tunnels possible. While reading Mitchell’s book it strikes me that this period of time was unprecedented in that never before have such a large amount of people both young and old opposed the fascism of the Eastern powers.
Among other things, The Tunnels documents the interesting challenges that tunnelers faced including cold and damp environment, in addition to, avoiding water sheds, leaking pipes, and inevitable floods. There was always an immediate threat of being caught and tortured or killed by East German Stasi operatives. Other common challenges included hauling and disposing of dirt and the very real threat of the tunnels caving in on themselves. Likewise financing was needed in order to pay for supports for the tunnel and equipment to dig, pump air and water, and communicate in the tunnel.
The John F. Kennedy Administration
This book also sheds a completely new light on the JFK administration. One that blemishes an already rocky international/foreign policy. The domestic policy that “even the privileged rights of the First Amendment must yield to the public’s need for national security” arrives as a secondary plot. In fact, much of the first 4 chapters are caulked full of facts and daily communications within the Kennedy administration. This seems natural considering “reports on Berlin often dominated the [president’s] intelligence check list” during 1961. Kennedy and his administration went to great lengths to monitor the press for leaks and shut down coverage of escape tunnels to prevent the perceived threat of an international incident.
Mitchell, through impeccable research, uncovers many “dramatic flights” from East Germany including perhaps the most famous tunnel: NBC’s tunnel emanating from the cellar of a West Berlin swizzle stick factory. Other attempts to navigate the wall to freedom included the tunnel at Keifholz Strasse which was a crude tunnel built originally by cyclist Henry Siedel (it would be his second tunnel). A particularly interesting tale from other escapes, was a group of 14 East Berliners who chartered a boat tour of the Landwehr canal, got the Capitan and engineer drunk, and piloted the boot into West Berlin under a barrage of East Berlin gun fire.
Even still The Tunnels describes other attempts to usurp the wall through explosions via a West Berlin police officer Hans-Jochim Lazai on May 26th, 1961. Also discussed, is the shooting of Private Peter Goring (21 year old East German solider) during the escape of Wilfried Tews that started the propaganda war between East and West Berlin.
Some parts of this true account carry all the suspense and thrill of a fictional spy novel and others sadly tragic. I literally had a hard time putting this fascinating tale of human tragedy and triumph down. It pours out many new questions about this precarious time in history and implants in the reader a yearning to devour more content on the subject. Overall, Greg Mitchell’s The Tunnel, offers a dazzling 360 degree view of the political, emotional, and human landscape of the early days of the berlin wall; A shocking glimpse into the Berliners who would fight imperialistic fascism even if it killed them. Cover to cover, the book is exciting and filled with interesting and mostly unknown behind the scene exchanges: from the Berlin Wall to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Within this book contains a remarkable amount of lore and history surrounding the Berlin Wall. It further reminds us reminds us that government attempts to manipulate or repress information from the press is nothing novel or new.