IIt was a plan that seemed to defy not only caution but also geography: to build a tunnel to help East Germans escape west – into Cold War Berlin, from all places. To this day, the preponderance of Berlin street names ending in “damm” remind locals that the German capital is mostly built on wet, oozing sand that requires effort to stay put. There are some raised areas, like the district of Wedding, where the groundwater level is lower and the land is firmer, but after 1961 this part of the city was also where the houses on either side of the Iron Curtain were the most distant from each other, by Bernauer Strae. Digging a tunnel here under the “death strip” – the heavily guarded corridor between the walls – looked like a particularly arduous suicide mission.
And yet, in four months in the summer of 1962, a group of reckless diggers achieved the impossible: construct a 135-meter tunnel that ran between a factory building in the west and a cellar of a building in ballast. In the biggest and most spectacular escape mission since the wall was erected the year before, 29 men, women and children managed to get to the other side.
The story of Tunnel 29 – named for the number of people it escaped – has been told and repeated. A 1962 NBC documentary that controversially contributed to the financing of tunnel boring machines is said to have changed Americans’ attitude towards the plight of East Berliners. (The filmmakers paid a fee to the Germans in exchange for allowing them to film the tunnel from start to finish, vowing to keep it a secret until the tunnel was completed. The US government postponed the initial release, fearing that This did not aggravate tensions with Russia, but ultimately cleared the screening.) In Germany, there were memoirs, more documentaries, and a television drama from 2001.
But with its 10-part Radio 4 podcast series Tunnel 29 in 2019, journalist and host Helena Merriman found the perfect medium to bring the story to a new audience. She’s now followed it up with a book that retains most of the qualities that led to her podcast being downloaded over 6 million times.
For TBMs and escapees, the road to freedom involved a slow crawl through an intensely confined space, less than 3 feet by 3 feet, and Merriman excels at recreating the physicality of their experiences: the smell of dense clay. , the sofa bed of a woman walking down the street above in high heels. The constant fear of rushing water, of Stasi listening devices stuck in the ground, border guards digging from above to meet and greet them with a stick of dynamite.
There is a strangely beautiful moment where one of the exhausted diggers stands still, “lost in time, the black hole against his feet seeming to lead to eternity,” listening to the wind and “vibrations that seem like if they were coming from inside the tunnel ”.
While stubborn clay demands tougher and more expensive tools, the tunnel is shifting from a private company to a project tolerated, if not directly funded, by American journalists, West German political parties, the police and the CIA – meaning that its discovery would not only have dashed the hopes of the escapees but risked creating a major geopolitical crisis.
Merriman associates his story with a group of protagonists – digger Joachim Rudolph, aspiring escapees Renate and Wolfdieter Sternheimer, spy Siegfried Uhse – and skillfully ramps up the tempo of perspective shifts until the narrative tension is as tense as in a thriller.
Because the publication of Tunnel 29 coincides with the 60th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall, Merriman has put his book forward with a broader historical context, and this is where the adaptation of audio to text works least well.
The present tense serves the author well to describe the thud of diggers, but when it comes to the ticking of geopolitics it can have a dull effect, not least because Merriman’s story of the Battle of Berlin , Stalin’s blockade of the city and the consolidation of power of the Socialist Unity Party in the east, although expertly summed up, hardly explores uncharted territory.
In Germany, there has been a subtle but noticeable change in the way the country’s 40-year-old divide in recent years is culturally represented. Not Ostalgia (“Nostalgia for the east”) or full-fledged revisionism, but a creeping feeling that the story of an inevitable triumph of good over evil alone is not enough to cover people’s real experiences. The commemorative events in 2019 around the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall were significantly more sought after than those that preceded it, and films like that of Andreas Dresen Gundermann (2018) or the Netflix series A perfect crime (2020) explored characters who are neither heroes nor villains but both. A new book by historian Robert Rauh, published in Germany this month, asks the uncomfortable question whether the construction of the Berlin Wall initially had more popular support among the people of East Germany than it did. it had not been admitted before.
Exploring these moral gray areas can, and perhaps should, be the strong point of narrative non-fiction. Merriman has worked his way through interviews, reporting and Stasi files to create an impressive real-life page turn, but as a book about the lasting legacy of the Berlin Wall it fails. quite to pass to the other side. .