Never been to Berlin. Did not speak more than a few words of German beyond the phrase made famous by John F. Kennedy: Ich bin ein Berliner. Didn’t know much, really, about escapes at the Berlin Wall in the 1960s, or the chain of events that led to its fall in 1988. So how did I end up spending more than two years digging under the Wall — that is, researching a book titled The Tunnels?
Since the early 1980s, I had written many books whose subjects were clearly chosen by design, sometimes years in the making or at least months marinating. But this one was different. I don’t know whether to be proud or embarrassed that it came about by pure chance, thanks to my daughter, and a sunny day.
Although I am, sadly, old enough to recall growing up in the 1950s and 1960s with Berlin as an almost daily hot topic in the news, I was never obsessed with the Wall. My generation, after all, had racial segregation, nuclear war, Vietnam, and Nixon to contend with here at home. This began to change for me just in the past decade. The German film, an Oscar winner, The Lives of Others, explored the horrors of living in East Berlin behind the Wall, focusing on the Stasi-enabled police state. It became one of my favorite movies of recent years. Then I co-produced an acclaimed film documentary, Following the Ninth, exploring the political and cultural impact of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. One of its five segments featured an appealing young woman who grew up in the shadow of the Wall.
So I might have been slightly primed, but while looking for a new book idea this never crossed my mind. What I needed was an intimate encounter. That came after my daughter, who had just gotten her Ph.D. in London, unexpectedly moved to Berlin with her husband and their three-year-old son. They happened to take a flat in the old East Berlin, near Alexanderplatz, about a mile from one of the most famous Wall neighborhoods along Bernauer Strasse. On our first ever visit to Berlin, however, my wife and I had trouble encountering any remnants or legacy of the Wall — the barrier was torn down so quickly and completely, and there is no major museum to visit.
On our final day, however, we decided to stroll to the most extensive Wall memorial site which runs for several blocks along Bernauer, even though it was barely mentioned in our guide book and very poorly described. Fortunately it was a bright, sunny, day in May and it did not rain — or my life might be quite different today.
Exploring that site, which includes patches of the Wall and the “death strip” that discouraged escapes, we agreed it was one of the most moving, tasteful, and overwhelming historical sites we had ever experienced. And I was most struck by the stories of attempted escapes by East Germans under the Wall, some successful, others ending in tragedy. What was most incredible about the tunnels was that, almost unique in history, they were dug not from imprisonment to freedom but in the opposite direction. — from west to east. Students in West Berlin excavated the caverns to spring friends, lovers, and family members, even strangers, from the East. Almost on the spot I decided to explore all types escapes, over a wider period, for a possible book, when I returned to New York.
When I did that, however, I found that chronicling the many attempted flights from the East would be daunting, especially from 4000 miles away, and with no German language skills to conduct interviews or read a single document. But I discovered something else: there was an amazing, long forgotten American media angle to this subject. And I had been a media writer for many years, along with serving as editor of Editor & Publisher for many years not long ago.
It seems that NBC had aired a film covering the digging of one particular tunnel in 1962 which sparked controversy but ended up winning three Emmys and now considered a landmark in television history. (I may have even watched it when I was in my early teens.) What few know today is that the Kennedy White House and State Department tried to bully NBC into canceling the show, for reasons still murky. They did succeed in causing a postponement. That got my attention, as well as offering an exciting American focus for my narrative.
Researching further, I found that NBC wasn’t alone in funding and attempting to film a dig under the Wall. CBS tried to do it a few weeks earlier, and the correspondent was none other than the legendary Daniel Schorr. His program never did make it on the air, killed by his boss under pressure from the Kennedy team. But why? State Department and CIA documents and cables had just been declassified — another lucky break for me — and they were riveting.
Suddenly my amorphous “Berlin Wall Escape” book had come into clear focus. I might be able to explore this deeply — with a sharp American angle — by organizing it around those two tunnels and those two controversial network projects. But how could I accomplish that from so far away, and as a non-German speaker? Would I be able to make substantial use of the Stasi archives and other sources in that country? Were any of the key tunnelers and escapees still alive and willing to talk?
Another lucky break: My daughter, like her dad, does not speak any Deutsch — but her husband, Stephane Henaut, is half-German and, of course, fluent. So over many months he was able to help set up meetings with the key tunnelers and escapees (another bit of luck: most were still alive and living in or near Berlin), accompany me on interviews to serve as interpreter, then translate the tapes at home. Just as important: he was able to provide translations of hundreds of pages of Stasi documents and chapters from German language books.
And that former East Berlin woman featured in my Beethoven documentary? Turns out she’s now living in Los Angeles — and she translated hundreds of other pages of Stasi docs and pages from books, conducted a couple of key interviews with Germans from afar, and provided almost daily fact-checking.
There’s the expression, it’s better to be lucky than good. I hope both may apply to The Tunnels. Now I’m again searching for another book idea but, who knows, it may, once again, come to me when I’m not looking.
Greg Mitchell’s THE TUNNELS: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill will be published by Crown on October 18.
This post is contributed as Guest post by Greg Mitchell