The Tunnels

Title:                      The Tunnels

Author:                 Greg Mitchell

Mitchell, Greg (2016). The Tunnels: Escapes Under The Berlin Wall And The Historic Films The JFK White House Tried to Kill. New York: Crown Publishing

LCCN:    2016013452

DD900 .M58 2016

Scope and content

  • “A thrilling Cold War narrative exploring two harrowing attempts to rescue East Germans by tunneling beneath the Berlin Wall, the U.S. television networks who financed and filmed them, and the Kennedy administration’s unprecedented attempt to suppress both films. In the summer of 1962, one year after East German Communists built the Berlin Wall, a group of daring young West Germans came up with a plan. They would risk prison, Stasi torture, even death to liberate friends, lovers, and strangers in East Berlin by digging tunnels under the Wall. Among the tunnelers and escape helpers were a legendary cyclist, an American student from Stanford, and an engineer who would later help build the tunnel under the English Channel. Then two U.S. television networks, NBC and CBS, heard about the secret projects, and raced to be first to air a spectacular ‘inside tunnel’ special on the human will for freedom. The networks funded two separate tunnels in return for exclusive rights to film the escapes. In response, President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, wary of anything that might raise tensions and force a military confrontation with the Soviets, maneuvered to quash both documentaries. Unfolding week by week, sometimes hour by hour, Greg Mitchell’s riveting narrative deftly cuts back and forth from one extraordinary character to another. There’s the tunneler who had already served four years in the East German gulag; the Stasi informer who betrays the ‘CBS tunnel’; the young East Berliner who escapes with her baby, then marries one of the tunnelers; and broadcast legend Daniel Schorr, who battled unsuccessfully to save his film from White House interference and remained bitter about it to the end of his life. Looming over all is John F. Kennedy, who was ambivalent about–even hostile toward–the escape operations. Kennedy confessed to Dean Rusk: ‘We don’t care about East Berlin.’ Based on extensive access to the Stasi archives, long-secret U.S. documents, and new interviews with tunnelers and refugees, The Tunnels provides both rich history and high suspense. Award-winning journalist Mitchell captures the hopes and fears of everyday Berliners; the chilling reach of the Stasi secret police; U.S. networks prepared to ‘pay for play’ yet willing to cave to official pressure; and a White House and State Department eager to suppress historic coverage. The result is ‘breaking history,’ a propulsive read whose themes reverberate even today”– Provided by publisher.


  • The Cyclist — Two Italians and a German — The Recruits — The President — The Correspondent — The Leaks — Schorr and the Secretary — Kiefholz Strasse — Interrogations — The Intruder — The Martyr — Coming Up Short — Schonholzer Strasse — Underground Film — Threats — The Buried Tunnel — Sabotage — Coming Up for Air — Epilogue — Cast of Characters.


Date Posted:      December 1, 2016

Review by Nicholas Kulish [1]

Television viewers expecting the usual programming on NBC on Dec. 10, 1962, were greeted instead with a 90-minute documentary film depicting in startling detail the escape of 29 East Germans who had fled through a tunnel under the Berlin Wall.

It was hardly an accident that the network ended up with such great footage. NBC had financed the project, giving the students who led the excavation the equivalent in today’s dollars of about $150,000 in exchange for exclusive rights to film them digging their way from a former swizzle-stick factory in West Berlin into the Communist east. The broadcast was sponsored by Gulf Oil.

The Kennedy administration had opposed airing the documentary. On top of the safety concerns and ethical questions raised by the payments, the White House argued that NBC was dangerously heightening tensions between the two superpowers at the peak of Cold War anxiety. As Bobby Kennedy, the president’s brother and attorney general, summed it up, “That was a terrible thing you people did, buying that tunnel.”

But for the NBC correspondent Piers Anderton, the subject was irresistible and the peril integral to the drama. “This was history in the making,” Greg Mitchell writes in The Tunnels, “cinéma vérité, danger at every turn, day after day, happening right in front of the camera’s eye—one might call it something new for TV, a reality show filmed at the front line of the Cold War.”

The book chronicles the mad moment between the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis over a year later, when residents of the divided German capital were gripped by an obsession with tunneling. After the East German government decided to block the flow of refugees streaming into West Germany with barbed wire and concrete, people jumped from windows and roofs, crawled under the wires, climbed over the barriers and crashed through checkpoints behind the wheels of trucks. As border guards shot to kill, the need for new approaches became apparent.

One obvious solution was to go under instead of over or through the wall. According to Mitchell, work began on roughly 75 tunnels, of which fewer than 20 were successful. But those few successes were touted in the press with photos and testimonials, stoking a sensation. NBC and CBS competed to see which would be the first to film a tunnel for their news programs, even as Hollywood beat them to the punch with a feature film called “Escape From East Berlin.”

MGM built a plaster replica of the wall in West Berlin that was 300 yards long and became a tourist attraction. Knowing that filming near the real wall would draw the attention of East German sentries, the filmmakers used them as unwitting extras. A crew recorded the guards flashing their spotlights across the border. “Talk about realism!” the director Robert Siodmak exclaimed.

Mitchell, the author of several books on politics and history, could have written a light riff with such strange, satire-ready material, but he has chosen a serious approach. Lengthy forays into transcripts of President Kennedy’s deliberations with his advisers provide context but drag in places, as do accounts of the drudgery of long hours in damp underground passageways.

But Mitchell quickly wins the reader back with his tense descriptions. The most dramatic are the moments when the diggers were about to find out if they had blindly burrowed up to the right basement floor and succeeded in keeping their plots a secret, or were about to stare down the barrels of border guards’ rifles and long prison terms—or even death.

In spite of the financial support of the television network, the NBC tunnelers—led by three students, a German and two Italians—nearly didn’t make it. Boulders blocked their path, forcing exhausting detours; two different leaks nearly ruined their underground passageway with floods; and they risked exposure at every turn by a Stasi agent, Siegfried Uhse, who had infiltrated one of the main groups in West Berlin dedicated to rescues.

The greatest strength of The Tunnels is in the details, the hand-cranked World War II-era field telephones the diggers used to communicate underground; a joking sign on the ceiling of the tunnel that read “Achtung! You are now leaving the American sector!” Uhse had been caught by the East Germans smuggling 112 cigarettes—fewer than six packs—but that was all the leverage the Stasi needed to turn him into an informant of devastating effectiveness.

Days after finishing the book I could not escape one of Mitchell’s images—of a hat with a small hole in it landing softly on the Western side of the border while its owner’s dead body fell back into the East, waiting for the guards to hurry it out of sight. For those who see walls as the answer to policy problems, this book serves as a stark reminder that barriers can never cut people off entirely but only succeed in driving them underground.

[1] Nicholas Kulish, New York Times Book Review, Downloaded November 29, 2016 A version of this review appears in print on November 20, 2016, on page BR10 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “Escape From East Berlin.” Nicholas Kulish, formerly the Berlin bureau chief for The Times, is now a correspondent in New York. He is the author of the novel Last One In and a co-author of the nonfiction book The Eternal Nazi.

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