In 1961, the world watched as tensions flared and the Berlin Wall went up, trapping East Germans inside a Communist regime. What was less well-known, at least initially, was what was happening under that wall. Away from the clamor of public demonstrations, West Germans and defectors engaged in clandestine efforts to build tunnels and help East Germans escape.
In his book, “The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill,” Greg Mitchell takes us inside the tunnels and introduces us to the heroes who risked their lives digging escape routes and leading harrowing runs to freedom.
Mitchell notes that tunneling was hard labor, like “grave digging horizontally.” It took days to make even negligible progress, and most tunnels caved in or flooded, or were found by East Germans, before they were finished. The best tunnelers were strong and athletic, people such as champion German cyclist Harry Seidel. His cycling career ended when he refused to join the ruling Communist party in East Germany, and his resentment helped fuel his successful tunneling efforts.
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Mitchell also sheds new light on the relationship between President John F. Kennedy and members of the media who were desperately trying to capture and broadcast the work being done in the tunnels. The American public was eating up in-depth news reporting and prime-time documentaries by the major television networks. When reporters discovered the tunnels, it set off a race to film them as well as an effort by the president to block the coverage. Kennedy, who feared anything that could escalate tensions with the Soviet Union, would go so far as tapping the phone of a New York Times reporter, Mitchell writes.
Mitchell has written nearly a dozen books, including “The Campaign of the Century,” winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize, and “Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady,” a New York Times Notable Book. For his latest book, he spent time visiting with many of those who worked in or escaped through the tunnels, and he also pored over recently declassified White House, State Department and CIA files.
While the events Mitchell highlights happened more than half a century ago, readers likely will identify with some familiar themes in this book — talk of building a wall, a refugee crisis, rocky relations with Russia and a president often at odds with the media.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. An interview with Mitchell airs next weekend. Previous shows are online and available for podcast at http://boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner.