The story of desperate East Germans crossing over, digging under, and crashing through the Berlin Wall.
Using interviews, recently declassified State Department files, unreleased film footage, and Stasi archives, Mitchell (Atomic Cover-up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and The Greatest Movie Never Made, 2012, etc.) chronicles the Russian determination to stem the tide of refugees. From the late 1940s to 1961, “some 2.8 million East Germans fled to the West,” 20 percent of them through Berlin. In response to a spike of 19,000 per month in 1961, the Berlin Wall was constructed and reinforced until its fall in 1989. The central figure of Mitchell’s story is Harry Seidel, an East German cycling champion who might easily have gone to the Olympics. But he had something else on his mind. Within weeks of the building of the wall, he led his wife and son and two dozen others to freedom. The other main player is the Stasi and their thousands of spies and moles. After people died trying to leap from buildings across the wall, crash through it, or swim the River Spree, Seidel began his first tunnel. He wasn’t the only one working in the West. The Girrmann group, making fake passports and hiding refugees in cars, also began a dig, not knowing of the true identity of their East German messenger, the Stasi spy Siegfried Uhse. The author ably captures the dedication of the men and women trying to get family, friends, and complete strangers to freedom. The introduction of newsmen arranging to film the digging and paying for the privilege might have caused friction among the diggers, except that what little money was given went to supplies for the tunnels. The successes were few and failures frustrating, especially in the wake of the unknown mole, but workers were determined and started a new tunnel as quickly as one closed.
A gripping page-turner that thrills like fiction.