In The Tunnels, historian Greg Mitchell uncovers one of the most gripping stories of the Cold War, in which people in West Berlin dug tunnels under the Berlin Wall to help friends and family escape East Germany. American TV broadcasters CBS and NBC partially funded two tunnels and filmed the digging...and then the Kennedy administration and State Department tried to squash the documentaries during the tense months before the Cuban missile crisis came to a head.
Greg Mitchell talked with us about the tunnelers themselves, the behind-the-scenes machinations of the U.S. government, and the parallels to today.
Amazon Book Review: What sparked your interest in this slice of history?
Greg Mitchell: I'm unfortunately old enough to have grown up with [the Berlin Wall] and grown up in the era when it was at the top of the news many nights, and there was the incredible nuclear threat attached to Berlin. A few years ago I saw the film The Lives of Others, which became my favorite movie of the last decade. There's a great deal in there about East Germany, suppression, Stasi, and surveillance, and it ends with the fall of the wall. I was primed to learn more. But what really sparked it was that my daughter, her husband, and her three-year-old son moved to Berlin and lived about a mile from where the wall was. My wife and I had never been to Berlin, so we were especially happy to go visit them. On our first visit, we took a walk up to where the first wall memorial is and we were just overwhelmed by what we found there. When I came back to New York, I did more research and found these incredible links to the CBS and NBC films, and the fact that they were suppressed.
This is not the typical escape story, like The Great Escape or Shawshank Redemption. Throughout history, virtually every story of tunnel escapes have been about imprisoned people trying to get out. In this case, the people who dug the tunnels were already in the West.They were digging away from freedom, at incredible risk. Imagine digging several hundred feet under the wall and under the Death Strip with guard towers, snipers, and explosives, and Stasi dropping grenades in tunnels and shooting people when they emerged in the East. These [tunnelers] were people who didn't have to do it—who were already free. It's mind-boggling when you think about it. The book is about the specifics of the suppression of the tunnel films and the political situation, but the universal story is the drive for freedom and what that's worth risking.
How did you discover so many details about the tunnel diggers and others, such as those installed by the Stasi to betray them?
The entire story is based on first-hand accounts and documents that were never seen or released before. Much to my shock, many of the key tunnelers were still alive. And many of the key escapees and couriers were still alive, still in very good shape, and still living in or near Berlin. So I was able to track them down and interview them. The second leg of the research was that I got incredible information from the State Department, White House, and Kennedy Library directly related to the story, as well as documents from the Stasi archives in Berlin that had never been released before.
The narrative is more like a spy thriller, with accurate historical material. It's not an academic tome; it's not something you'll get bogged down in.
The Kennedy administration worked hard behind the scenes to kill the airing of the tunnel-digging documentaries planned by CBS and NBC. I found it interesting how the State Department danced around not outright asking NBC to suppress their documentary, but obviously the State Department was putting on the pressure to stop it.
Yes, it's almost black comedy. It's clear, privately, that the State Department wants NBC to kill the program themselves, but when the State Department meets with NBC personally, they say It's going to endanger Americans, or The West German government wants you to not do it. Even Dean Rusk himself says that he's not demanding [that the program be killed]: We'll just blast you as disloyal Americans and for endangering lives, but it's up to you. It's not exactly funny but it is funny to read how they're trying to couch it. They're acting like they're asking a favor but they're really making a demand.
The government successfully quashed the CBS documentary but had more trouble with NBC. How do you think the tension between the media and the government in 1962 might be relevant to the tension between the media and the government today? Do you see parallels?
It's funny, because most people—especially those who grew up then or a little later—have this image of John F. Kennedy being very media friendly, and that the media loved him. But in fact he had as many if not more problems with the media as any president. Throughout the book, we see how Kennedy was over and over having issues with the media—tapping a reporter's phone, for example. So the image of Kennedy as media friendly is debunked. As for lessons for today, one is that every president or every serious candidate for president is going to have a love/hate relationship with the media. There's almost no way around it. If even Kennedy could get [into acrimonious situations with the media], than you can see how they're all going to be suspicious of and have major problems with the media. Maybe even threaten to crack down on them. We see [similar things] today, when the government officials say the press is not being patriotic or the press is printing too many leaks, the press is endangering Americans. It's exactly what was going on back then, so I think there's a lot of resonance today with this story from the early sixties.
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