Wednesday, January 18, 2017

by Greg Mitchell 

On August 13, 1961, a barbed wire barrier was put up between East and West Berlin courtesy of Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Thousands of people who worked in the West lost their jobs, their ability to finish their studies, and their freedom to visit family and friends. East Berlin had become a police state. If people tried to leave, they were shot. Regardless, in a couple of days, many East Germans jumped out of windows that were near the border. Some made it; some did not. Plenty were undaunted. By October, the barbed wire was replaced with an eight-foot wall of concrete. It still did not stop the escapees. They could either scale it or blast through it and there were those who were fortunate enough to get to West Berlin.
One year later, three young West German men decided to get their friends, family, and strangers out of the East to freedom in the West by digging tunnels. They risked being caught by the Stasi (secret police), thrown into prison, or executed. To them it was worth it as they were fed up with living under Communist rule.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, two television networks, NBC and CBS, heard about these hidden tunnels and took off for Berlin. Each one of them financed a tunnel (separate from the other) so they would then have the right to film the escapes and show them to the public. 
President John F. Kennedy was not keen on either network to even think of filming something that could cause a confrontation with the Soviet Union. He pressured both NBC and CBS to stop what they were doing and to forget about airing their documentaries.
The Tunnels is a terrific book written by a master storyteller. It's fascinating to read what happened during the Cold War specifically in Berlin and why Khrushchev wanted a wall put up in the first place. JFK was naive, inexperienced, and weak and Khrushchev walked all over him. There's many things that keep you riveted: how the tunnels were dug (what implements they used, how many volunteers helped); the main characters, two of whom consisted of a cyclist who could have been an Olympic champion and ended up being the prime target for arrest and an American student who assisted in the escapes. Of course, the most exciting parts (you're cheering the entire time to yourself) of the book are reading about the people who crawled their way to freedom.  
Author Greg Mitchell was able to interview just about all of the key people who were involved (that's pretty neat!) and was extremely lucky to have access to a large amount of Stasi reports on the tunnels and the specific individuals that not too many people have seen before.
This is a marvelous tale from the beginning to the end.
Very highly recommended.

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