It was a plan that seemed to defy not just caution but geography: to build a tunnel to help East Germans escape to the west – in cold war Berlin, of all places. To this day the preponderance of Berlin street names ending in “damm” reminds locals that the German capital is mainly built on oozing wet sand that requires effort to be kept in place. There are elevated areas, such as the district of Wedding, where the groundwater level is lower and the earth more firm, but after 1961 that part of the city also happened to be one where houses on either side of the Iron Curtain stood furthest apart, by Bernauer Straße. Tunnelling here underneath the “death strip” – the heavily guarded corridor between the walls – looked like a particularly arduous suicide mission.
And yet, in four months during the summer of 1962, a group of daredevil diggers achieved the seemingly impossible: constructing a 135-metre tunnel that ran between a factory building in the west and a tenement block cellar in the east. In the biggest and most spectacular escape mission since the erection of the wall the year before, 29 men, women and children managed to slip to the other side.
The story of Tunnel 29 – named after the number of people it allowed to escape – has been told and retold. A 1962 NBC documentary that controversially helped fund the tunnellers is said to have changed American attitudes to the East Berliners’ plight. (The film-makers paid the Germans a fee in exchange for letting them film the tunnelling from start to finish, swearing to keep it a secret until the tunnel was complete. The US government postponed the original release, worried it would increase tensions with Russia, but eventually allowed screening to go ahead.) In Germany, there have been memoirs, more documentaries and a 2001 TV drama.
But with her 10-part Radio 4 podcast seriesin 2019, the journalist and broadcaster Helena Merriman found the perfect medium to bring the story to a new audience. She has now followed it up with a book that retains most of the qualities that led her podcast to be downloaded more than 6m times.
For the tunnellers and the escapees, the route to freedom involved a slow crawl through an intensely confined space, less than 3ft by 3ft, and Merriman excels at recreating the physicality of their experiences: the smell of dense clay, the click-clack of a woman walking down the street above in high heels. The constant fear of water rushing in, of Stasi listening devices embedded in the soil, of border guards digging down from the top to meet and greet them with a stick of dynamite.
There is a moment of eerie beauty when one of the exhausted diggers just lies still, “lost in time, the black hole against his feet seeming to lead down into forever”, listening to the wind and “vibrations that seem as though they’re coming from inside the tunnel”.
As the stubborn clay demands sturdier, more expensive tools, the tunnel grows from a private enterprise into a project that is tolerated, if not directly funded, by American journalists, West German political parties, police and the CIA – meaning its discovery would not just have dashed the hopes of the escapees but risked creating a major geopolitical crisis.
Merriman hitches her story to a band of protagonists – digger Joachim Rudolph, wannabe escapees Renate and Wolfdieter Sternheimer, spy Siegfried Uhse – and expertly ups the tempo of perspective changes until the narrative tension is as taut as in a thriller.
Because the publication of Tunnel 29 coincides with the 60th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall, Merriman has front-loaded her book with some broader historical context, and this is where the adaptation from audio to text works least smoothly.
The present tense serves the author well to describe the thud-thwack of the tunnellers, but when it comes to the tick-tock of geopolitics it can have a dulling effect, not least because Merriman’s story of the battle of Berlin, Stalin’s blockade of the city and the Socialist Unity party’s consolidation of power in the east, while expertly summarised, hardly explores uncharted terrain.
In Germany, there has in recent years been a subtle but noticeable shift in how the 40-year division of the country is culturally represented. Not Ostalgie (“nostalgia for the east”) or full-on revisionism, but a creeping feeling that the story of an inevitable triumph of good over evil on its own does not suffice to cover people’s real experiences. Commemorative events in 2019were noticeably more searching than those that preceded it, and films such as Andreas Dresen’s Gundermann (2018) or Netflix’s series (2020) have explored characters who are neither heroes nor villains but both. A new book by the historian Robert Rauh, published in Germany this month, poses the uncomfortable question of whether the building of the Berlin Wall initially had more popular support among East Germany’s population than previously conceded.
Exploring these moral grey zones can, and perhaps should, be narrative nonfiction’s strong suit. Merriman has burrowed her way deep into interviews, news reports and Stasi files to fashion an impressive real life page-turner, but as a book on the enduring legacy of the Berlin Wall, it doesn’t quite manage to break through to the other side.