Review: The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall-and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill by Greg Mitchell

The deepest impression this book had on me was the reminder, perhaps the confrontation with the reality, of the soulless repression of Soviet-style communism in the mid-20th century. Mitchell’s narration and his description are not particularly enthralling, but his matter-of-fact manner of laying out the details of the tunnel missions of the early 1960s makes clear the circumstances that saw so many hundreds risk death in order to seek a better life.

In a contemporary context, it’s impossible not to reflect on the irony of a miles-long wall built 55 years ago essentially to imprison an entire population compared to the mythical wall envisioned along our own southern border intended essentially to keep an entire population out.  There are many differences between the two situations, of course, but you still can’t help thinking about how eager the West Berliners were to help any East Berliners flee who wanted to; the American masses not only aren’t sympathetic to Mexicans fleeing poverty and uncertainty but want to keep them there.

But such reflections are secondary to the overriding images of young people – men and women in their 20s and 30s – departing from their studies or giving up massive portions of their time to endure the back-breaking work of digging uncertain tunnels they estimated but in the end could only hope would poke out in some East Berlin basement from which they could operate to sneak out a handful or two of would-be refugees. A certain specter of profit motive hovers over some of the operations, but it’s clear that the people risking arrest or death to do this work weren’t in it for the paltry sums of money television networks were willing to pay for the rights to film them.

That’s right, the news operations of both CBS and NBC offered to pay, and in some cases paid, significant sums for the rights to film the tunnel diggers and to be on hand when refugees first emerged into freedom.  There are so many issues to wrestle with here – national security matters involving American news organizations secretly proceeding with efforts that complicated international tensions with the potential of nuclear holocaust hanging in the balance; ethical questions about a news organization possibly encouraging tunnelers by paying them, rather than dispassionately simply observing and recording their work; news judgments that were prepared to film refugees and diggers without their knowledge or permission, despite threats of harm to the subjects or their families; the role of competition among news businesses; the influence of the government to interfere with activities of the press; and much more. On that latter point, one is especially impressed by the degree to which the oft-venerated JFK implemented practices – such as secretly recording Oval Office meetings and taking steps to restrict the press – that would later be reviled when undertaken by Richard Nixon.

Considering the potential for drama, The Tunnels is surprisingly dry.  Mitchell appears to be a meticulous reporter when it comes to collecting and presenting specific details about the political environment of the time and the basic conditions of the various tunnel efforts.  But he seems not particularly interested in pursuing the various ironies or delving very deeply into the personalities of the characters who play key roles in all this drama.  In that sense, the book seems to miss an opportunity to be a riveting human story. But it is excellent journalism and purposefully detailed history. It is in the end an informative and thought-provoking tale.