Disclosure: I do not personally know the author, Greg Mitchell, but I do follow him on Twitter and have had a very few direct exchanges with him. Through one of those, I won a copy of this book. So this was a free copy, but not in any way connected to my reviewing it. I'm not sure Mr. Mitchell is even aware that I occasionally review books at all.
I have read two of his previous books, Hiroshima in America: A Half-Century of Denial, written with Robert Jay Lifton, and Atomic Cover-up: Two Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and the Greatest Movie Never Made.
The Berlin Wall went up a couple months before I turned thirteen, just before I entered the eighth grade. I remember the event dominating the news. Much of my mother's family was German, and from an area that was then in East Germany, so there was a personal, if distant, connection. We watched the news on television every night, and the fifteen-minute broadcast at noon on the local Chicago station. And my parents subscribed to the major pictorial news magazines, Life and Look, which often featured articles about Germany and Berlin, especially after the Wall. I knew about the death of young Peter Fechter, killed trying to escape.
Somewhere in my consciousness all these years was probably a memory, too, of reports of successful escapes, including through tunnels, but it wasn't a memory I could easily call up. Therefore I went into the reading of The Tunnels with only the most essential, but essentially superficial, background information.
The opening chapters of Mitchell's book expand on that background as well as introduce the main characters – the diggers and the refugees. But as the story proceeds, others emerge on the stage – reporters, informants, politicians. The narrative acquires a context beyond the tunnel, beyond the Wall, beyond Berlin.
Without that context, this is a thrilling escape adventure. With that context, this becomes a powerful commentary on the human spirit in its greatest and weakest moments.
During that summer of 1962, when a small group of young men began the tunnel under Bernauerstrasse, international events were heading on a collision course that seemingly had no connection to the dirt and mud and risks.
An NBC news crew had quietly, almost secretly, filmed some of the construction of this tunnel, intending to present the result as a documentary for U.S. television. There was, however, opposition from the government, and by the time the program was scheduled to air in the fall of 1962, political tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were escalating over the deployment of missiles in Cuba. Though there were American forces in West Germany, and even in Berlin – an isolated city surrounded by Soviet-controlled East Germany – Cuba was closer to the U.S. mainland by thousands of miles. And there were those in the administration of John F. Kennedy who were willing to write off Berlin -- in the form of a nuclear war -- in exchange for keeping those missiles out of Cuba.
The governmental machinations exposed in The Tunnels are not pretty. They're a stark contrast to JFK's Ich bin ein Berliner speech of the following June, delivered to 450,000 cheering, adoring Germans.
There is much in The Tunnels that applies to our current international political scene. The book was published in October 2016, on the eve of, well, you know what. And the final pages reference walls in general and in particular. One passage, however, may be more poignant than all the rest.
Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany remains one of America's close allies but its citizens, according to opinion polls, harbor deep ambivalence about the United States. To a significant extent, the country is still divided politically, with a surprising level of anti-democratic feeling (and opposition to new immigrants) in the former East and plenty of left-wing sentiment in the old West. Peter Schneider, a well-known German journalist and author (one of his books is The Wall Jumper) told a New Yorker writer that Americans in the Cold War era "created a model of a savior, ad now we find by looking at you that you are not perfect at all – much less, you are actually corrupt, you are terrible businessmen, you have no ideals anymore."
Angela Merkel, who was born in East Germany, is now sometimes referred to as the leader of the free world, a title formerly claimed by the president of the United States.
The 90-minute documentary produced by NBC and aired in December 1962 went on to win three Emmy awards in May 1963, including Program of the Year, the first documentary to do so. The Tunnel is available online. I watched it just after finishing the book; it is well worth your time.
There are many worthwhile quotes in this book, in addition to the passage I reproduced above, that remain as relevant to 2017 as to 1962. After The Tunnel finally reached American audiences and was deemed "nothing short of a triumph" based on both reviews and ratings,
[Producer Reuven Frank] was troubled that he still didn't understand exactly why the Kennedy administration had fought [the film] with such vehemence. Frank realized, not for the first time but now most profoundly, how painfully vulnerable to pressure the America media remained when it came to the reporting of sensitive issues. "Anyone with half a brain," as he once put it, "can make it impossible," or nearly so.