East Germany was an unhappy state from which, despite the pervasive supervision of its security service (the Stasi) and its citizen agents, thousands of people risked their lives trying to escape to the West. Not surprisingly East Germany’s Communist regime has had a bad press. It was undeniably nasty and oppressive, and in comparison with West Germany, the East was poor and economically backward.
There were extenuating circumstances. Whereas the victorious Western powers, the US, Britain and France, poured money into the Federal Republic to facilitate economic recovery, the Soviet Union stripped the East of factories and machinery for the benefit of its own war-ravaged economy. Seen from the East, the West offered not only greater freedom, but, perhaps more importantly, opportunity. The more the disparity became apparent, the more eager many were to get out. Eventually, the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 to stem the flow of emigrants. They did not give up. Some tried to scale the wall and were shot by border guards; others tried to tunnel their way out.
Greg Mitchell’s book covers the three years of tunnelling, from 1961-64. Many of the tunnels were actually begun in the West, some by idealists. Two of the most ambitious were financed – and the work filmed – by American television networks. There was idealism in these ventures too, but there was also, of course, a commercial interest; a successful documentary would be profitable, and the TV company would gain prestige as a defender of freedom. The American State Department disapproved of the ventures. Quite reasonably, with the building of the wall having exacerbated East-West tensions, it was nervous of any independent actions that might disturb the uneasy balance of the Cold War. Propaganda and espionage were government business.
Mitchell’s research has been assiduous, and his book is very detailed. In an introduction he writes that “re-created scenes are not imagined but based in most cases on accounts of two or more participants”. He has made use of “lengthy original interviews with nearly all of the key tunnellers, and several of the couriers and escapees”. He has also combed the archives of the Stasi and the American State Department, and has drawn on other contemporary documents. I would guess he gives as authoritative an account of the tunnelling activity as is possible. Nevertheless, the reader is likely to have some reservations, if only because one has the impression that the author accepts memories, sometimes long after the event, a touch uncritically. Some of the scenes are vividly reconstructed, but when you read that someone thought this or that, for example, “had perhaps contemplated going for a long walk or drive with her husband, while the tunnellers made use of their house”, you are likely to wonder just where fact slides into speculation.
But this is still a narrative full of interest and acute observation. Mitchell is, I think, on the whole very scrupulous in his use of evidence, and his mastery of detail is impressive. His publishers have solicited a cornucopia of admiring quotes from other writers, among them Alan Furst. A couple of the puffs compare Mitchell to John Le Carré, unwisely. Despite the wealth of detail, Mitchell’s book has little of Le Carré’s sense of atmosphere, even less of his ability to convey the moral ambiguities of the Cold War. It would be an exaggeration, and therefore unfair, to suggest that he presents us with a simple picture of Goodies and Baddies, but he veers towards this over-simplification.
The line of his narrative is indeed somewhat smothered by detail, fascinating as the detail and his reconstruction of the work and dangers of tunnelling unquestionably are. It would have been a better book if he had more often stepped back to offer an overview. That would have enabled the reader to see this in context, to realise for example that the US State Department’s doubts about the tunnelling were well founded, and to understand that the East German government’s undeniable brutality wasn’t mere viciousness, but was provoked by fear of the West. For the truth of the Cold War was that both sides were afraid.