September 13, 2017

55 Years Ago: Preparing for Tunnel Breakthrough

replica tunnel color

“Replica of entrance to NBC tunnel near Bernauer Strasse”

While The Tunnels covers numerous excavations and other incredibly bold and daring escape operations at and under the Berlin Wall in 1962,  it focuses on two major operations–and U.S. media projects.  The first, in August ended in disaster, and with the Kennedy administration shutting down Daniel Schorr’s attempt to film it for CBS.  The second tunnel breakthrough took place on September 14, and was filmed by NBC, with its exclusive also drawing serious attempts at White House and State Department suppression.

Below we present an exclusive excerpt from the book, which picks up the story on this date in 1962, on the eve of that attempted escape (and filming).  The young diggers had planned to break through in the basement of a tenement three blocks beyond the Berlin Wall but due to a water leak/flood in their 380-foot long cavern they now had to scramble to come up in an unknown cellar one block closer.  (For reviews and overview of the book, go here,  published in hardcover last October and coming in paper next month.) 

*

September 13, Thursday (one day until breakthrough). After breakfast, Mimmo and girlfriend Ellen took a tram to Bernauer Strasse for a visit to what might be called their “ground zero.” Mimmo pointed to the window high in the sky where he or a comrade would hang the white or red sheet out the window of the NBC flat.   Then they climbed to that apartment for a look across the Wall–and at the battered tenement at 7 Schonholzer. Ellen returned to her room for more studying.

Hasso Herschel, meanwhile, led a team of diggers in preparing for the breakthrough. Shoveling and using a pick, they had the difficult task of digging upward for several feet, and at a 45 degree angle, until they hit something solid. Which they did, with a loud clank, and considerable relief. So now they were all set for the final push the following day. One problem: They were not certain the building they were actually under was 7 Schonholzer. Another: For all they knew, the Stasi had been tipped off (if not by Claus Sturmer, by someone else) and armed agents were already waiting for them on the other side of that cellar floor.

While this was transpiring, the tunnel originators met with key associates to go over assignments for the following day. Their fellow diggers, who still knew nothing about the breakthrough, would be told to come to the factory in late afternoon for a “special meeting.” There they would be assigned to posts inside the tunnel, spaced every few yards, to help usher escapees along the way. Some would be stationed in “cut-outs” where any refugee (some would be infants) on the verge of panic or having second thoughts, could be pulled off the center planks for a few moments, allowing others to crawl past. Some of the tunnel organizers would remain back at the basement in the West to greet the escapees and get them on the van to their new life.

But who would conduct the absurdly risky breakthrough and then wait in the 7 Schonholzer cellar, perhaps for hours, for refugees to arrive in small groups? At a meeting of the top echelon, Joachim Rudolph felt deep ambivalence, the memory of his near-death experience in the Sendlers’ cottage still fresh in his mind. So he was relieved, but hardly surprised, when Herschel again volunteered to lead the team into the East. This gave Hasso the authority to pick his mates. He wanted Rudolph and old friend Uli Pfeifer by his side. Hasso knew he could count on them. They had refused to panic in the Kiefholz operation, passing a very strenuous real-life test.

But Pfeifer was out of the question. His mother, after hearing about Kiefholz, had made Hasso promise not to put her boy in that kind of danger again.   So Hasso selected another tunnel veteran, Joachim Neumann. As one of the originators, Gigi Spina exercised his right to join them.   (Wolf Schrodter’s recent surgery would limit him to a supporting role on escape day.) Then they decided which weapons each would carry.

One more person needed to be contacted about the operation. Though some now regretted making that promise back in the spring, they had little choice but to invite on this adventure, however briefly, the son of the man who had donated so much lumber to the project. The kid had alarmed them with his naivete and foolhardy behavior on his latest visit, when he had waved around a shotgun–and displayed sticks of dynamite–as if ready to lead a one-man insurrection in the East. Gigi Spina considered him a “fanatic” and told him, “Man, you are crazy!”   But that lumber had saved them thousands of DMs, and a promise was a promise. They would have to allow him to enter the basement in the East for a few, hopefully quiet, moments before shooing him back to the West.

When Hasso’s sister Anita arrived at her friend Detta’s, husband and infant in tow, she vowed not to repeat the night before the Kiefholz tunnel escape, when they partied and overslept the next morning. Since she was barely even speaking to her husband these days, Anita was hardly in the mood, anyway.

That evening, Gigi visited Mimmo and Ellen over on Ansbacher Strasse. He revealed that Claus Sturmer had been ordered not to leave the swizzle stick factory that night, and would be kept under guard going forward. In about twenty-four hours, if they pulled off their miracle, he would be allowed to send a courier to his wife in the East.

===

Reuven Frank at NBC in New York had received the long-awaited call from Piers Anderton: Time to get to Berlin, post-haste. He knew it could only mean one thing, but he couldn’t guess how long he might have to stay. Delays, given what had happened so far, might push the climax back days or weeks.   Well, at least he would be nearby to offer advice–and try to keep his own staffers out of trouble, if possible. He ordered one of his top film editors, Gerald Polikoff, to cancel what he was doing and join him on a flight across the ocean. This made Polikoff only the fifth person in the RCA building to know about the project.

Landing at Tegel Airport in West Berlin after a twelve-hour journey, they were retrieved by Anderton, Stindt and cameraman Harry Thoess. Frank was informed, “They go through tomorrow night–the tunnel’s finished.” Then they drove Frank past the swizzle stick factory on Bernauer Strasse for his first glimpse of the tunnel’s home base. Frank noted that the previous year he had stood just a block away with David Brinkley the morning the Wall went up.

That afternoon the three NBC staffers started showing him some of the twenty hours of Dehmel footage. It amounted to about 12,000 feet in all, developed in high secrecy by a film processor in Berlin who happened to be a friend of Stindt’s late father.  Frank, in their office on the fashionable Kurfurstendamm, was impressed by the footage Anderton had assembled from his early visits to various escape sites, from sewers to checkpoints to early tunnels. But he was stunned when he saw some of the Dehmels’ film from the Bernauer tunnel, going back to its first weeks. Anderton identified the key characters: “the Italians,” someone named “Hasso,” and a “Wolf.” Then there was “home movie” footage shot by Sesta on visits to the Schmidts.

Frank was thrilled. He recognized that this went far beyond what he had expected for a wide-ranging documentary on a full year of Berlin escapes. This was infinitely more extraordinary. Most TV coverage was mere “news,” minutes or days after the fact, and sometimes you had to be lucky to get even that. This was history in the making, cinema verite, danger at every turn, happening right in front of the camera’s eye–one might call it something new for TV, a “reality show.” Frank knew journalists who had spent a lifetime without achieving this, and now, he felt, NBC had practically stumbled into it.

(For reviews and overview of the book, go here.  Click on button on right side of page to purchase.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

September 3, 2017

Reviews and Praise for The Tunnels

See below for praise from The New York Times Book Review,  Washington Post and many others (from Frederick Forsyth to Bill Moyers), for The Tunnels:  Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill (Crown).   Optioned for a movie with Paul Greengrass attached as director.  Featured interviews with NPR’s Scott Simon and on C-SPAN’s Book TV.  Order and read more by clicking cover at right or go straight to Amazon.  For another brief summary, go here.

“The greatest strength of The Tunnels is in the details….Days after finishing the book I could not escape one of Mitchell’s images–of a hat with a small hole in it landing softly on the Western side of the border while its owner’s dead body fell back into the East, waiting for the guards to hurry it out of sight. For those who see walls as the answer to policy problems, this book serves as a stark reminder that barriers can never cut people off entirely but only succeed in driving them underground.” — The New York Times Book Review

“Shows the trade-off behind the scenes at one of the most pivotal moments in the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union…A fascinating and complex picture of the interplay between politics and media in the Cold War era.” – Washington Post

“A terrific new book about a heretofore obscure episode regarding the wall in 1962. A must for all the JFK fans.”
—Charles P. Pierce, ESQUIRE

“Greg Mitchell has written a riveting story focusing on one of the most powerful documentaries ever broadcast on television – NBC’s The TunnelThose of us who saw it that December night in 1962 have never forgotten the experience.   Now Mitchell, an exemplary journalist, goes beyond what the cameras saw, deep into the political dynamics of Cold War Berlin.  John le Carre couldn’t have done it better.”  Bill Moyers

“Every hour of my year in East Berlin–1963/64–the escape tunnels beneath our feet were being dug. This is their story: those who dug them, those who used them and those who betrayed them to the Stasi. Fascinating – and it is all true.” — Frederick Forsyth, author The Odessa File and Day of the Jackal

‘Engaging…Mitchell’s interviews with the tunnelers, couriers and escapees put a human face on this dramatic experience. The airless heat inside the tunnels is palpable; so, too, are the tunnelers’ dismay, exhaustion and fear as they hear border guards above them and cope with flooding along their routes. These are heart-racing tales, and Mitchell — author of several books on U.S. politics and history — narrates them with emotion and evocative detail….The intense drama and risks involved for the tunnelers and the escapees offer a compelling context for today’s refu­gee crisis.”–Washington Post Book World

The Tunnels is one of the great untold stories of the Cold War. Brilliantly researched and told with great flair, Greg Mitchell’s non-fiction narrative reads like the best spy thriller, something John le Carre might have imagined. Easily the best book I’ve read all year.” —Alex Kershaw, author of Avenue of Spies and The Liberator

“When you have read the last page of Greg Mitchell’s The Tunnels you will close the book—but not until then.” —Alan Furst, author of A Hero of France and Night Soldiers

“Fascinating and deeply researched…a welcome reminder of the ingenuity and courage that people can display when politics and walls separate them from loved ones and a better life.” — Christian Science Monitor

“Thrilling and meticulously documented…Mitchell masterfully guides the reader through a labyrinth of details, intertwining the narratives to show how the tunnelers, the NBC crew (led by correspondent Piers Anderton) and the politicians played their parts on the stage of history.”  — Dallas Morning News

“Another one for the ages… this account of the tunnels under the Berlin Wall and the efforts by mainstream media to document and even fund their development (squashed by JFK, no less) is quite riveting.”— INC, John Brandon

“A story with so much inherent drama it sounds far-fetched even for a Hollywood thriller….Mitchell tells a kaleidoscopic cold war story from 1962, recreating a world seemingly on the edge of a third world war. ” —The Guardian.

“A gripping, blow-by-blow account….Mitchell’s tense, fascinating account reveals how the U.S. undermined a freedom struggle for the sake of diplomacy.”  Publishers Weekly, starred review.

“Mitchell deftly navigates the mad months of 1961-62 when East Berlin was trying to wall off the West, Cuba was turning deep Red, John Kennedy was getting his presidential sea legs, and the world seemed bound for hell in a nuclear handbasket….Mitchell closes his energetic and illuminating narrative by noting that, after jousting with NBC and CBS, Kennedy ordered up Project Mockingbird, a domestic CIA program aimed at reporters and foreshadowing so many other aspects of the American future.” — American History magazine

“A gripping page-turner that thrills like fiction.” Kirkus Reviews.

“This is not just an exciting escape narrative, but also an extraordinarily revealing political thriller, centering on ruthless government attempts to control what the public gets to see.  Mitchell presents us with a radically changed perspective on one of the Cold War’s most dramatic episodes. His latest book is both priceless as history and just about impossible to beat for sheer narrative grip. Hats off to the author for this rare achievement.”  –Frederick Taylor, author of The Berlin Wall and Dresden

“Eye-opening and an exhilarating read. Not knowing who made it out of the East, and who was arrested, or worse, kept me glued to this book until the last page. The involvement of the Stasi, two American TV networks and America’s State Department contribute to the historical perspective of this important work.”–Tony Mendez, author of Argo

“Enormously dramatic and extremely insightful.” — John Batchelor,  Westwood One radio

“Mitchell excels at describing the idealistic men and women who built the passageways that brought scores of refugees to safety, revealing the wall’s symbolic importance and how it endured throughout the Cold War. He provides interviews with many important players who contribute to the fast-paced narrative.”  –Library Journal, September 2016

“Greg Mitchell is the best kind of historian, a true storyteller. The Tunnels is a gripping tale about heroic individuals defying an authoritarian state at a critical moment in the Cold War. A brilliantly told thriller—but all true.” —Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Good Spy and American Prometheus

The Tunnels uncovers an unexplored underworld of Cold War intrigue. As nuclear tensions grip Berlin, a whole realm of heroes and villains, of plot and counterplot, unfolds beneath the surface of the city. True historical drama.”  —Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler and The Shakespeare Wars

“A compelling look at a wrenching chapter of the Cold War that chronicles the desperate flights for freedom beneath the streets of post-war Berlin and the costs that politics extracted in lives.” —Barry Meier, author of Missing Man

“Mitchell’s account of the daring attempts at escape makes for a page-turner; the book reads like a spy thriller.  The book is well researched and documented. Interviews with both tunnelers and escapees, recently declassified State Department files, network film archives and Stasi archives provide a strong foundation for this chronicle of Cold War intrigue.” — The Missourian

“A narrative full of interest and acute observation.”  The Scotsman magazine

August 15, 2017

The NBC Newsman Who Tossed His Emmy in the Trash

piers with emmy

In the months after the Berlin Wall emerged in August, 1961, dividing the city, the two leading American TV networks, NBC and CBS, engaged in a race to be first to film young men in the West digging incredibly risky tunnels under the Wall to bring out lovers, family members and friends from the East.   This untold story is at the center of my new book, The Tunnels, just published by Crown NBC got there first, in June 1962, but Daniel Schorr at CBS stumbled onto another tunnel project a little later and was poised to scoop his rival–until the Kennedy White House and State Department bullied his boss into canceling his coverage, as I reveal via newly-declassified official documents and interviews.  Schorr remained angry about this for the rest of his life.

NBC’s filming went on, despite official warnings and at great risk, and in September the tunnel it funded brought 29 to freedom in the West in a mind-boggling escape.   I tell this story week-by-week, including the threat posed by a young Stasi secret police informer.  Then, the same scenario (via official documents):  the Kennedy administration tried to get the network to axe its 90-minute prime time special.  Again, the purported reason was that glorifying a mass escape might enrage the Soviets and spark a superpower confrontation.

It looked like the White House succeeded, as NBC postponed the airing.  The film’s producer, Reuven Frank, wrote out his resignation.  But the network quietly put it on the air two months later–and it would end up winning three Emmys, including “Program of the Year,” and to this day remains a landmark in the history of television.  Frank went on to become president of NBC News but the correspondent, Piers Anderton, would later throw his Emmy in the trash.

Anderton, who had reported with distinction for the network for half a decade,  had been at odds with the State Department all year, as I show in the book via new documents and an exclusive interview with his widow, reporting on dangerous (and unreported) dangers for the U.S. in Germany.   One State official even raised the issue: was he really pro-American or not?

One month after The Tunnel finally aired he went public with some of the administration’s attempts to manage the news.  A short time later, NBC transferred him to what was then a  backwater in network coverage, India.   Anderton remained angry about the near-cancellation of the tunnel program.  After he won his Emmy, according to his widow, he placed it not on his mantelpiece but on a shelf in the bathroom.

A few years later, when the couple moved to England, he tossed it in the trash.

You can read more about this exciting story in this rave review for the book last week in The New York Times  or in my recent interview with NPR’s Scott Simon.  You can easily order the book from Amazon or from independent booksellers via this page.

July 30, 2017

When Springsteen and Bowie Helped Bring Down the Berlin Wall

One sang “Heroes,” the other “Chimes of Freedom.”

In researching my new book The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill (Crown), I was surprised to learn the small but important role two rock stars played in the lead up to the tearing down of the Wall in 1989.  I explore this near the end of the book, which until then focuses on the incredibly risky tunnels excavated by young West Germans to bring out friends, lovers, family members, even strangers, from the repressive East–and the filming of these amazing adventures by CBS and NBC, which were suppressed forever, or for a time, by the Kennedy administration.  You can read more about the book or order by clicking on the cover at right or going here.  Needless to say, this would make a terrific Christmas gift for any Bruce or Bowie fan.

U2 made perhaps the most famous rock video set in Berlin at the close of the Cold War with their classic “One,” but did David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen help bring down the Berlin Wall? When Bowie died this past January, the German Foreign Office tweeted: “Good-bye, David Bowie. You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall. “ A book published in 2013 bears the title, Rocking the Wall: Bruce Springsteen—The Berlin Concert That Changed the World. Springsteen’s new memoir offers his full account for the first time.

Rocking the Wall. Bruce Springsteen: The Berlin Concert That Cha

It surprises many to learn that rock stars from the USA were even allowed to play in East Germany while the Wall stood. But the Communist leaders, noting the tremendous build-up of anger and tension among their young people at that time during the Gorbachev “glasnost” era decided to provide what they thought was a “safety valve” by allowing major rock concerts starting in 1987.

Another reason was that concerts by top stars such as David Bowie had been taking place just over the Wall in the West and tens of thousands of kids in the East were flocking to the barrier just to listen—and clashes with the police had taken place.

Bowie’s appearance in June, 1987 was remarkable on several levels. The stage was set up in West Berlin with the old Reichstag building as a backdrop, and very close to the Wall. Bowie, unlike most Western performers, had a fitting song for the occasion, “Heroes,” written a few years earlier and purportedly inspired, during the period he lived in Berlin, by his observations of young people along the Wall, even shots fired “over our heads,” referring to dramatic escape attempts at the Wall, the subject of my new book, The Tunnels. You can watch the performance on YouTube, and here is how Bowie described singing “Heroes” in a 2003 interview:

“It was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever done. I was in tears….And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert where the Wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. When we did ‘Heroes’ it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer. However well we do it these days, it’s almost like walking through it compared to that night, because it meant so much more. That’s the town where it was written, and that’s the particular situation that it was written about.”

David-Bowie-played-a-West-Berlin-concert-in-the-summer-of-1987-that-actually-helped-bring-down-the-Berlin-Wall.

By then, Bob Dylan had been invited by a youth arm of the Communist Party to play in Treptower Park on September 17, 1987, along with his touring mates Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Roger McGuinn. Protests were building against the regime, and the Wall, and officials hoped to defuse some of it with a few signs of openness.

Naturally, the notorious Stasi secret police were on top of it. Their six-page preview, as I reveal in my book, was filed under “Robert Zimmerman, No. HA XX 17578.” It mainly covered logistics and security (no secret bugging of Bob, apparently) and the dispersal of 81,000 tickets—with at least one-third going to party officials and their pals. The Stasi didn’t seem too worried that Bob, then in a down period in his career, would prove to be a rabble-rouser, as he was merely “an old master of rock” with no particular “resonance” with the youth of the day. In fact, the crowd, they predicted, would be mainly those middle aged or older. The Stasi expected Dylan to act in a “disciplined” way and not cause undo “emotions” among the crowd.

In the end, it played out pretty much the way they anticipated. Dylan, by most accounts, gave a rather lackluster performance—his norm for that time—with a couple of Christian tunes mixed in with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Rainy Day Women” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” He did not speak a single word from the stage, it was reported.

But that was surely not the case the following July when Bruce Springsteen arrived to play to his biggest crowd ever—more than 200,000, far more than what Dylan drew. He opened, pointedly, with “Badlands,” and the highlight of his show was a song that Dylan didn’t choose to sing: “Chimes of Freedom” (you can easily find it on You Tube). Springsteen’s nearly four-hour show was beamed to millions beyond the concert grounds via state television and many middle-aged Germans, interviewed for my book, told me they still fondly recall attending or watching the performance.

“It was a nail in the coffin for East Germany,” one fan told The Guardian years later.

As he vividly recounts in his new Born to Run memoir, Springsteen, with band mate Steve Van Zandt, had visited East Berlin several years while on tour. “You could feel the boot,” he recalls. The Wall he found almost “pornographic.” The experience helped shock the then-apolitical Van Zandt into decades of activism. “The power of the wall that split the world in two, its blunt, ugly, mesmerizing realness, couldn’t be underestimated,” Bruce writes. “It was an offense to humanity.”

When Bruce returned for his epic 1988 show, he unhappily discovered that the state was billing it as a “concert for the Sandinistas,” the pro-Communist Nicaraguans. Bruce delivered an impassioned speech in grade school but effective enough German: “I’m not here for any government. I’ve come to play rock ‘n’ roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down.” East German officials backstage had somehow learned about Bruce’s original statement, which included the explosive word “walls” instead of “barriers,” but his manager, Jon Landau, convinced him at the last minute to make that change.

“Chimes of Freedom” followed immediately and included the key reference to “while the walls were tightening.”

The following day, Bruce and band “partied,” as he writes, at the East Berlin consulate and then headed back to the West for a show before merely 17,000, which “felt a lot less dramatic than what we’d just experienced.” Referring to the “stakes” in rock ‘n roll he declares: “The higher they’re pushed, the deeper and more thrilling the moment becomes. In East Germany in 1988, the center of the table was loaded down with a winner-take-all bounty that would explode into the liberating destruction of the Berlin Wall by the people of Germany.”

A German historian, Gerd Dietrich, would comment, “Springsteen’s concert and speech certainly contributed in a large sense to the events leading up to the fall of the wall. It made people … more eager for more and more change … Springsteen aroused a greater interest in the west. It showed people how locked up they really were.”

And Springsteen would later reflect: “Once in a while you play a place, you play a show that ends up staying inside of you, living with you for the rest of your life,” he said. “East Berlin in 1988 was certainly one of them.”  As my own book makes clear.

To read more about or order The Tunnels click on the cover above right or go here.  It’s been hailed by The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post and NPR’s Scott Simon, and others ranging from Frederick Forsyth to Bill Moyers.

July 11, 2017

Putin and the Fall of the Wall

putin kgb,jpg

Russia’s strong man, Vladimir Putin, is even more in the news this week with revelations, in the Washington Post and The New York Times, that his country was determined to help Donald Trump win the 2016 election, and moved to support this via hacked emails and other methods, or so CIA sources claim.  A full-tilt probe is forthcoming.  But for now, consider this bit of Putin history.

In my new book, The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill, I explore what happened when the wall finally fell in 1989.    For one thing:  emboldened East Germans ransacked offices of the notorious Stasi secret police (whose informers play a key role in my book).  This has had important favorable consequences down to this day, as files retrieved (the ones not shredded) allowed citizens to discover who was spying and informing on them for decades.  And writers such as myself have been able to draw on these files for books and articles.

The story of what Putin–then a high-level KGB spy official in Dresden–did when the Wall fell has emerged in recent years, including his own tale (meant to place him in a heroic context) of holding off the ransacking mobs with a pistol.  Here’s one link.   And the Daily Beast had a longer take, including the image of Putin burning files himself in a stove.  My book explains the full significance of the liberation of the files–and of East Germany.

“Putin succeeded in persuading the crowd to fall back.” State TV has in the past described how Mr Putin brandished a pistol in front of the crowd and used his fluent German to make it clear he was prepared to use it.

“This is Soviet territory and you’re standing on our border,” he was quoted as saying. “I’m serious when I say that I will shoot trespassers.” A witness was quoted as saying that Mr Putin issued the threat with his trademark assurance.

July 1, 2017

The First-Strike Nuclear Option–From JFK to Trump

jfk trump

The Cuban Missile Crisis in the autumn of 1962 was almost as much about Berlin as it was Cuba. There’s a fair amount in the narrative of my new book The Tunnels about the crisis, and how JFK handled it, as it almost overlapped with his (and Dean Rusk’s) attempt to kill the landmark NBC special on an escape tunnel under the Wall.

I have never been a Kennedy fan boy (any of them) but not a hater, either. And I must say, as much as I have been exposed to the missile crisis, going back to living through it as a kid, that in perusing all of the transcripts of meetings related to it for the book my admiration for JFK grew a good deal. He was, indeed, often the “coolest man in the room,” as I write.  And in the excerpt below you will see how he prevented a march toward possible nuclear war in one key meeting.

But first:  This brings to mind the key, if to many not-very-well-understood, fact that America still has a “first-use” policy on the use of nuclear weapons.  That is, it is our official stance that we will attack with nuclear weapons if need be in response to a “conventional” attack or even threat.  As I write this, the U.S., under new President Trump, has just put Iran “on notice” about any future provocations.  This invites the question, “or what”?   Since Iran does not have nuclear weapons, and we do, you might see where this is heading.

I have studied and written about the arms race and our first use  (and “first-use”) of nuclear weapons against Japan since the early 1980s when I was editor of Nuclear Times.    I’ve written two books about this since (one with Robert Jay Lifton, Hiroshima in America, and Atomic Cover-up) and hundreds of articles.    It’s important to understand that the U.S. has maintained its first-use policy to this day even as everything president and most other sane beings vow that these weapons are “too horrible to use.”  Yet we still have the first-strike policy, and  thousands of warheads, despite occasional calls for a “no-first-use” policy.

Every president, indeed nearly every top U.S. official and most in the media, have always defended the “first-strike” bombing of civilian centers in Japan.  A line against using the weapons has been drawn–in the sand.  Indeed, various polls have shown that many, perhaps most, Americans back a first-strike under many conditions.

I have spent half a lifetime warning about this. And Donald Trump now has the nuclear codes–and a bullying, hair-trigger, temperament.  With all due respect to all of the other very important issues raised by #Resistance protesters:  this one dwarfs them all, and there’s so little to do about it now.  Even if Trump is driven from office, his successor will have the same codes and power, if perhaps a cooler head.   So read the excerpt below and imagine Trump in that room in place of JFK.   From The Tunnels:

By nightfall on October 18 President Kennedy thought his executive committee, or ExComm, had reached a consensus on blockading Cuba without firing a shot in anger, but the next day this began to unravel. An early morning meeting with the Joint Chiefs, who still strongly advocated a preemptive U.S. strike, tested JFK’s resolve. McGeorge Bundy had shifted to that shoot-first position overnight and it seemed that everyone’s emotions were dangerously fluid.

The President continued to play the Berlin card. Any attack on Cuba, he maintained, would give the Soviets “a clear line to take Berlin….We would be regarded as the trigger-happy Americans who lost Berlin.” European allies would be livid—they cared passionately about Berlin and their own security but didn’t “give a damn” about Cuba. And if the Soviets moved on Berlin this would leave him “only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons—which is a hell of an alternative—and begin a nuclear exchange….When we recognize the importance of Berlin to Europe, and recognize the importance of our allies to us, that’s what has made this thing be a dilemma for three days….” Remember, he added, the “argument for the [Cuba] blockade was that what we want to do is to avoid, if we can, nuclear war….”

Rarely have three words—if we can—signified so much.

General Curtis LeMay, the most hot-blooded hawk of all—one of his nicknames was “The Mad Bomber”—opposed a blockade on grounds that it would “lead right into war.” He also called it “weak” and compared it to “the appeasement at Munich.” He wanted a full bombing assault as soon as possible. LeMay addressed Kennedy, “You’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time.”

Kennedy, angry, asked LeMay to repeat that. Then JFK replied with a laugh, “You’re in there with me!”

After the meeting Kennedy, always skeptical of advice from the military, said to an aide, referring to LeMay and his ilk, “These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor. If we listen to them, and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”

Still, the press and the public were kept in the dark. A Pentagon spokesman stated in response to a media query, “The Pentagon has no information indicating the presence of offensive weapons in Cuba.”

June 14, 2017

Schorr Patrol: When CBS Legend Lost His Tunnel Scoop

Daniel Schorr

Daniel Schorr was a constant in my media life, starting in the late-1950s (when I was a mere callow youth) with his CBS reports from Moscow, and  onward as he made his way to Germany, then back to the USA where he made Nixon’s “Enemies List” and responded with some of the most acclaimed Watergate coverage.  In the mid-1970s he got into trouble for reporting on a secret CIA probe, eventually lost his CBS position, but ended up as an influential NPR commentator for many years, steadily moving to the Left, though never by rote.  I met him only once, for a drink, to discuss the Hiroshima book I wrote with Robert Jay Lifton in 1995.

Imagine my delight, when it turned out that he would play a central role in my The Tunnels book.   The book focuses on two crazy tunnels dug under the Berlin Wall by students in West Berlin in 1962, aiming to free friends, family or lovers in the East.   The one funded by NBC has drawn very modest attention  in books until now.   The CBS tunnel, with Dan Schorr at the fore, has barely been mentioned  at all.

So I was happy to find more than two years ago that several dozen State Department and CIA cables and documents (some shared with the JFK White House) had recently been declassified and revealed, for the first time, the shocking maneuvers that brought pressure on CBS and Schorr, leading to the complete suppression of his planned August 13, 1962, special.

Schorr was even summoned by his boss, Blair Clark (later chairman of Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 run for president and then editor of The Nation), who had just received orders from Secretary of State Dean Rusk,  to a secure phone line in Berlin.  Clark was in Rusk’s office at midnight in D.C.; it was 6 a.m. in Berlin,  the morning of the planned tunnel escape at Kiefholz Strasse in East Berlin.   Schorr was told to withdraw his cameraman, and himself.  He protested to no avail.

And he remained bitter about it for the rest of the life.   The tunnel escape would go on, to a mind-boggling climax.

 

 

May 9, 2017

The Murder of Peter Fechter and the End of the Wall

East German Police Carry Youth's Body

Fifty-four years ago, almost exactly one year after the emergence of the Berlin Wall, an 18-year-old East German youth named Peter Fechter attempted, with a friend, to escape to the West in broad daylight not far from Checkpoint Charlie. The friend made it over the barrier but Fechter was shot by East German guards and collapsed at its base.

Despite his cries for help, no one came to his assistance–not the guards who shot him, nor the West German police and American soldiers on the other side of the Wall. A frantic call was placed to the White House. Crowds gathered on both sides and urged action, to no avail. Finally, after about fifty minutes, under a cloud of tear gas, the guards retrieved the limp body of the boy and carried him to a car–not even an ambulance–for transfer to a hospital.

Two hours later, an East German in a high apartment held a sign to a window to inform the large, angry crowd now gathering in the West: “He is dead.”

The murder of Fechter drew international attention, as I explore in my new book, The Tunnels.  The worst riots in West Berlin since the division of the city then broke out and continued for four days. Many of them were, shockingly, anti-American in character. Fechter seemed to symbolize the entire tragedy of Berlin, the helplessness felt in both East and West, the inability of the Americans to help those trapped in the East. A photo of him being carried away by four guards, taken by Wolfgang Bera, made the front pages of newspapers around the globe and quickly became iconic (that’s it above, now credited to Getty Images).  Fechter would remain the martyr of the Cold War, until and beyond the fall of the Wall in 1989.

The Wall began to crumble 27 years later.   Egon Bahr, one of the top aides to Willy Brandt when he was mayor of West Berlin and then leader of West Germany, declared that the end of the Wall, and the division of Germany, began on the day Peter Fechter died.  You could draw “a direct line” from that moment to the end of the Wall, he said.  Such was its symbolic power, angry legacy and stirring inspiration for change, two decades in the making.

My  book The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill, is dedicated to Peter Fechter and it tells much more of this story.  His death also inspired the other young men digging the main escape tunnel nearby (funded by NBC) featured in the book.  Below, my photo of the Fechter memorial in Berlin today.  The cobblestone line near the bottom shows the path of the Wall, with the sad, red, circle marking the spot where Fechter fell.    You can read much more and order the book by clicking this link or the cover at the upper right of this page.

Fechter memorial street

April 30, 2017

Bill Moyers on The Tunnels

270px-MoyersPress-small

When I set out to fully research my new book, The Tunnels:  Escapes Under the Berlins Wall and the Historic Films JFK Tried to Kill, I knew that John F. Kennedy would play a key role in it.   I would eventually confirm, via thousands of documents from the Kennedy era (some recently declassified) that his Secretary of State Dean Rusk directed, and JFK approved, attempts to suppress CBS and NBC television specials on daring escapes under the Berlin Wall in 1962.  I also knew that very few former members of the Kennedy administration were still living.

Of course,  I wished to speak with Bill Moyers, in vintage photo above, who was deputy director of JFK’s Peace Corps before becoming more famous as President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary and then, of course, as one of the greatest TV news/commentary figures of our time.    Bill would tell me that he was out of the loop on the suppression in question, but provided some vivid memories of watching the NBC special that eventually emerged, calling it the most moving TV film he had seen to that point.   [For how JFK killed Daniel Schorr’s CBS special, go here.]

When my book was finished,  my publisher sent Moyers the galleys for a possible blurb, always an iffy proposition, but Bill would respond with a  lengthy and enthusiastic offering.    Since then the book has earned raves from  The New York Times, the Washington Post and from many others.  (You can order the book easily here,  or via Amazon.  And note how that  documentary–you can watch it here— helped shape his career:

Greg Mitchell has written a riveting story focusing on one of the most powerful documentaries ever broadcast on television – NBC’s “The Tunnel.”  Those of us who saw it that December night in 1962 – 54 years ago — have never forgotten the experience. A real-life documentary had the stuff of great novels — conflict, ,suspense, drama, danger, struggle, and hope. But this story was true, and it was unfolding in black and white on the small screen in our living room, right there in front of us.

To this day I can see in my mind’s eye those desperate Germans – desperate for freedom – making their escape from the police state that was East Germany to safety in the west. After the film ended my fingernails had left deep marks in the heels of my hands from the sheer tension of watching. “The Tunnel” was the only documentary to receive the Emmy award as Program of the Year and the one that would inspire many of us from that era who went into documentary work ourselves.

There was of course more to the story than the film could convey, and now Greg Mitchell – an exemplary journalist in his own right – has brought to life the long forgotten dynamics of history surrounding “The Tunnel. ” John le Carre couldn’t have done it better.

The book has been optioned for a movie with Paul Greengrass attached as director.  Featured in interview with NPR’s Scott Simon.  Foreign rights sold for UK, France, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Taiwan, Thailand.  Order and read more at Amazon or by clicking cover at above right on this page which has links to independent bookstores.

“The greatest strength of The Tunnels is in the details….Days after finishing the book I could not escape one of Mitchell’s images–of a hat with a small hole in it landing softly on the Western side of the border while its owner’s dead body fell back into the East, waiting for the guards to hurry it out of sight. For those who see walls as the answer to policy problems, this book serves as a stark reminder that barriers can never cut people off entirely but only succeed in driving them underground.” — The New York Times Book Review

“Shows the trade-off behind the scenes at one of the most pivotal moments in the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union…A fascinating and complex picture of the interplay between politics and media in the Cold War era.” – Washington Post

“Every hour of my year in East Berlin–1963/64–the escape tunnels beneath our feet were being dug. This is their story: those who dug them, those who used them and those who betrayed them to the Stasi. Fascinating – and it is all true.” — Frederick Forsyth, author The Odessa File and Day of the Jackal

‘Engaging…Mitchell’s interviews with the tunnelers, couriers and escapees put a human face on this dramatic experience. The airless heat inside the tunnels is palpable; so, too, are the tunnelers’ dismay, exhaustion and fear as they hear border guards above them and cope with flooding along their routes. These are heart-racing tales, and Mitchell — author of several books on U.S. politics and history — narrates them with emotion and evocative detail….The intense drama and risks involved for the tunnelers and the escapees offer a compelling context for today’s refu­gee crisis.”Washington Post Book World

“Fascinating and deeply researched…a welcome reminder of the ingenuity and courage that people can display when politics and walls separate them from loved ones and a better life.” — Christian Science Monitor

“Thrilling and meticulously documented…Mitchell masterfully guides the reader through a labyrinth of details, intertwining the narratives to show how the tunnelers, the NBC crew (led by correspondent Piers Anderton) and the politicians played their parts on the stage of history.”  — Dallas Morning News

“Terrific book, a must for JFK fans.” — Charles P. Pierce, Esquire.

“Another one for the ages… this account of the tunnels under the Berlin Wall and the efforts by mainstream media to document and even fund their development (squashed by JFK, no less) is quite riveting.”— INC, John Brandon

“A story with so much inherent drama it sounds far-fetched even for a Hollywood thriller….Mitchell tells a kaleidoscopic cold war story from 1962, recreating a world seemingly on the edge of a third world war. ” —The Guardian.

“A gripping, blow-by-blow account….Mitchell’s tense, fascinating account reveals how the U.S. undermined a freedom struggle for the sake of diplomacy.”  Publishers Weekly, starred review.

“Mitchell deftly navigates the mad months of 1961-62 when East Berlin was trying to wall off the West, Cuba was turning deep Red, John Kennedy was getting his presidential sea legs, and the world seemed bound for hell in a nuclear handbasket….Mitchell closes his energetic and illuminating narrative by noting that, after jousting with NBC and CBS, Kennedy ordered up Project Mockingbird, a domestic CIA program aimed at reporters and foreshadowing so many other aspects of the American future.” — American History magazine

The Tunnels is one of the great untold stories of the Cold War. Brilliantly researched and told with great flair, Greg Mitchell’s non-fiction narrative reads like the best spy thriller, something John le Carre might have imagined. Easily the best book I’ve read all year.” —Alex Kershaw, author of Avenue of Spies and The Liberator

“When you have read the last page of Greg Mitchell’s The Tunnels you will close the book—but not until then.” —Alan Furst, author of A Hero of France and Night Soldiers

“A gripping page-turner that thrills like fiction.” Kirkus Reviews.

“This is not just an exciting escape narrative, but also an extraordinarily revealing political thriller, centering on ruthless government attempts to control what the public gets to see.  Mitchell presents us with a radically changed perspective on one of the Cold War’s most dramatic episodes. His latest book is both priceless as history and just about impossible to beat for sheer narrative grip. Hats off to the author for this rare achievement.”  –Frederick Taylor, author of The Berlin Wall and Dresden

“Eye-opening and an exhilarating read. Not knowing who made it out of the East, and who was arrested, or worse, kept me glued to this book until the last page. The involvement of the Stasi, two American TV networks and America’s State Department contribute to the historical perspective of this important work.”–Tony Mendez, author of Argo

“Enormously dramatic and extremely insightful.” — John Batchelor,  Westwood One radio

 

April 3, 2017

Author Interviewed by NPR’s Scott Simon

FRANZKE-3 4

UPDATE:    Readers who enjoyed the review of my book by The New York Times will learn much more about the central “media suppression” angle in my recent interview with NPR’s Scott Simon, below.

Transcript of my Scott Simon interview, October 29, 2016, for NPR’s “Weekend Edition.”  Order “The Tunnels” here.   Early reviews and praise for book here.   Listen to Simon interview here.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Berlin Wall was a barrier, a scar, a cruel concrete and barbed wire boundary that divided a great city, families, east and west, communism and capitalism, tyranny and democracy. People died trying to cross it, climbing and jumping, and others labored to carve out tunnels beneath that wall. Greg Mitchell has written a book about a time in the early 1960s when two groups of diggers built tunnels that were filmed and financed by U.S. television networks, who wanted to turn acts of daring into primetime specials. But when the U.S. government discovered those projects, the Kennedy administration moved to suppress them. His book – “The Tunnels: Escapes Under The Berlin Wall And The Historic Films The JFK White House Tried To Kill.” Greg Mitchell joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

GREG MITCHELL: Oh, thank you, very happy to be here.

SIMON: We think of the Berlin Wall as this coarse, gray symbol of the cruelty of East German communism. But as your book makes plain, the Kennedy administration was kind of happy to see it go up, in a way.

MITCHELL: Berlin, of course, had been divided since the end of the ’40s. And it was a tremendous pressure point between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. So when the wall came, there was, in many quarters, a certain sense of relief because it not only stopped the refugee flow, but it signaled that the Soviets were maybe not going to try to take West Berlin. And it was tough luck for for those in East Berlin.

SIMON: How did there get to be an NBC tunnel and a CBS tunnel anyway?

MITCHELL: Well, this was the golden age of television documentaries, prime-time documentaries. CBS and NBC were in a dogfight for ratings. ABC was still kind of the upstart. So both NBC and CBS were in a battle to become the first to film one of these tunnels from the inside. These tunnel escapes were getting a certain amount of press, and so they wanted to get – be the first to get a scoop. And it turned out that NBC was alerted first in June of 1962 and was able to start filming after they paid – a controversial move – paid thousands of dollars in funds to the tunnel organizers. And meanwhile, Daniel Schorr of – the CBS legend, the later NPR legend…

SIMON: We know the name here, yeah.

MITCHELL: (Laughter) He was a Berlin correspondent for CBS, and so he had put the word out that he wanted to film a tunnel. And on August 1, he was alerted to a smaller tunnel and the promise was to bring over up to 100 escapees. It would have been the biggest escape ever in Berlin. And so he was extremely excited about this and sent a camera man to start filming and was gearing up for an August 7 mass escape that would be one of his most spectacular stories in his entire career.

SIMON: Except he got a call from just about the highest councils.

MITCHELL: Yes, he did. Well, the State Department found out about it. They alerted Dean Rusk, who was the secretary of state, and Dean Rusk immediately ordered them to try to bully Daniel Schorr into not going ahead with this. And the reasoning was that this could be a spectacular incident, whether it was a success or a failure, could set off reverberations with the Soviets, raise tensions is the words they always used to use or endanger lives either in the short run or the long run. And again, in the book, I’m able to detail day by day this operation because of recently declassified documents. You’re right in the room there with Dan Schorr as he’s being (laughter) being pressured by the State Department to drop this project. You can imagine, knowing Dan, how that went down.

SIMON: Oh, no, I’m sure he said what a wonderful idea.

MITCHELL: Right, that’s right.

SIMON: I wish it occurred to me.

MITCHELL: Absolutely.

SIMON: No, Dan was ultimately very resistant, but he didn’t have backup at the home office.

MITCHELL: Right. He was still probably planning to go ahead and then knowing there – they had failed to bully him, the State Department pressured Dan’s boss, Blair Clark, to come to Dean Rusk’s office just before midnight on the eve of the escape where Dean Rusk – and there were three CIA officials in the room – laid down the law. And so Blair Clark, around midnight in Washington, calls Dan Schorr. Dan Schorr has to go to the U.S. mission on a secure line, and there’s his boss on the line saying, you cannot do this. You have to call this off, and of course it turned out, as Schorr well knew, Blair Clark was a very close friend of John F. Kennedy. They’d gone to Harvard together. Dan never quite got over this. Later – even to the end of his life, he was saying how much this still made him angry and that – especially that a friend of the president was able to be told to kill the show and ultimately did it.

SIMON: Yeah. CBS shelved their film. NBC didn’t show it until weeks after the Cuban missile crisis. And however, the escapes went ahead.

MITCHELL: The difference with the NBC tunnel was that our government didn’t know about it, so it went through. Twenty-nine people escaped. NBC was there to film it all. Again, the State Department then found out about it. And we see the pressure on NBC to kill this program. And ultimately they succeeded in having it postponed. And then about seven weeks after it was postponed, NBC kind of slipped it onto the air, and it became a landmark in television history. It won three Emmy Awards, including the – becoming the first documentary to ever win program of the year. But, you know, it came extremely close to not seeing the light of day.

SIMON: Were the CBS and NBC projects responsible? Were they documenting news, or by throwing money around, were they manufacturing it?

MITCHELL: (Laughter) Well, in both cases, the tunnels were underway when the networks found out about them. So you can’t say they were manufacturing the story or the tunnels. In the case of CBS, Dan Schorr found out about it very near the end. That tunnel was going to go ahead no matter what. The NBC tunnel was a little different. And they needed the funds. So NBC did not create that project, but certainly the argument could be made that without the NBC money it never would’ve gone to completion.

SIMON: Greg Mitchell – his book, “The Tunnels.” Thanks so much for being with us.

MITCHELL: Thank you, Scott.

Order “The Tunnels” above right, or here.  Early reviews here.

“Shows the trade-off behind the scenes at one of the most pivotal moments in the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union…A fascinating and complex picture of the interplay between politics and media in the Cold War era.” – Washington Post

“Fascinating and deeply researched…a welcome reminder of the ingenuity and courage that people can display when politics and walls separate them from loved ones and a better life.” — Christian Science Monitor

“A story with so much inherent drama it sounds far-fetched even for a Hollywood thriller….Mitchell tells a kaleidoscopic cold war story from 1962, recreating a world seemingly on the edge of a third world war. ” —The Guardian.

 

March 10, 2017

Leonard Cohen: First He Took Manhattan, Then He Took Berlin

leonard-cohen-456-310111

Leonard Cohen, one of the greatest writers of our time (poet, novelist, songwriter) has died at the age of 82….but let’s recall one theme in his music…

“Give me back the Berlin Wall.” Of course, Leonard Cohen, who at the age of 82 has just released one of his greatest and most popular albums, didn’t really mean that, a quarter-century ago.   He sang in the guise of the unreliable narrator in his classic, and scary, song “The Future.”   Other Cohen lyrics from that little ditty, written just after the 1989 fall of the Wall, call for the return of Stalin, more people to torture, and another Hiroshima, among other horrors.  “I have seen the future,” Cohen croaked, in warning, “it is murder.”

That’s not the only Berlin and/or Wall lyric from Cohen. Another famous song, “First We Take Manhattan” promised, “then we take Berlin.”  Cohen over the years has offered various explanations for that line, some tied to the city’s divided and troubled history, some not; some claiming it is about terrorism, others that it reflects an artist’s wish to break out.  One time he claimed, “It’s just the voice of enlightened bitterness. [it] is a demented, menacing, geopolitical manifesto in which I really do offer to take over the world with any like spirits who want to go on this adventure with me.”

But let’s consider this, thinking of Herr Trump, especially with the alt-right neo-Nazis on his side:

Ah you loved me as a loser, but now you’re worried that I just might win
You know the way to stop me, but you don’t have the discipline
How many nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

Then there’s one of his most famous lines and images, not necessarily about the Berlin Wall but evoking it, from “Anthem”–and it profoundly captures the designs of the escape heroes (who dug under the brutal barrier in the 1960s) of my new book The Tunnels:   “There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.”

Finally, there’s “Democracy,” from the same era.  While that, he hopes, is “coming to the USA,” he clearly has global ambitions for it, and he explicitly mentions  “a crack in the wall”–or is it the Wall?  In any case, Germans made use of the song in a moving video depicting the night the Wall fell, 27 yeara ago this week, and also covered in my book.

Cohen, however, told an interviewer, that when he wrote that song, “This was when the Berlin Wall came down and everyone was saying democracy is coming to the east. And I was like that gloomy fellow who always turns up at a party to ruin the orgy or something. And I said, “I don’t think it’s going to happen that way. I don’t think this is such a good idea. I think a lot of suffering will be the consequence of this wall coming down.’….So while everyone was rejoicing, I thought it wasn’t going to be like that, euphoric, the honeymoon. So it was these world events that occasioned the song.”

U2 may be most associated with the fall of the Wall because of the 1992 video for their song “One” set in Berlin and including images of that brutal barrier and the reunification of Germany.   But, a few years earlier, as I show in my book, David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen helped bring down the Wall.  Bowie’s performance at the border in the West in 1987, when he sang his “Heroes” (inspired by the Wall), was witnessed by a huge audience across the border.  The following year Springsteen starred in with one of the first concerts by a Western rock star permitted in the East, drawing his biggest crowd ever.    A German historian, Gerd Dietrich would comment: “Springsteen’s concert and speech certainly contributed in a large sense to the events leading up to the fall of the wall.”

Leonard Cohen never played East Germany but he seems to carry his experiences in West Berlin with him to this day.  Since he is a world-class poet he no longer mentions the city or the Cold War by name.  But consider the lines from “Different Sides,”    off one of his recent albums:   “We find ourselves on different sides/ of a line nobody drew/ Though it may be one in the higher eye / Down here where we live it is two.”  And:  “Both of us say there are laws to obey / But frankly I don’t like your tone.”  He never did, contemplating leaders who kept citizens enslaved.  He also may have anticipated the Trump victory with his famous line: “I have seen the future, brother / It is murder.”

Greg Mitchell’s latest book is The Tunnels:  Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill (Crown).  Click on links or on book’s cover at upper right to learn more or order.

February 1, 2017

About That Movie Based on The Tunnels

paul-greengrass-directing-the-tunnels

Almost three years ago, in a fairly unusual move, film rights for my new non-fiction book The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Killed,  were purchased based on the (lengthy) proposal for the book, with Paul Greengrass attached to direct.   It was just then being circulated to publishers and the  coverage of the film deal in “the trades”  (Variety, Hollywood Reporter) noted this.  Soon the book found a fine home at Crown.

You might ask, since the book is now out (as of two weeks ago), what’s happening with the film?  No surprise, for Hollywood, it is moving along slowly–but moving along.

As you may know, Greengrass had to film his latest Bourne saga and a screenwriter had to be picked and then he had to get to work.  The screenplay is now in its final stages of revisions.

So we’ll see how things go from here and I’ll keep you posted.

 

January 9, 2017

Documents Reveal JFK Attempts to Kill CBS and NBC Specials

rusk kennedy

While much has been written about this key aspect of my book The Tunnels, I have never put the highlights of the evidence–and the recently declassified cables themselves–in one place until now:  On how the Kennedy White House and State Department in 1962 attempted to kill two landmark network news programs on escape tunnels under the Berlin Wall (and partly succeeded).    Here at last is the link to the declassified cables on the CBS/Schorr tunnel.  If interest warrants, I can supply some of the cables and memos on the NBC tunnel.  More on the book here.

*

President John F. Kennedy in 1962 approved attempts by his State Department to suppress NBC and CBS television coverage of escape tunnels under the Berlin Wall, declassified official documents and other files reveal in a new book, The Tunnels.   The Kennedy administration pressure, led by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, induced CBS to kill a special report by correspondent Daniel Schorr, and forced NBC to postpone a groundbreaking 90-minute primetime special.  When the latter finally aired, it drew wide acclaim and is now considered a landmark in the history of television.

The revelations  are based on recently declassified State Department and CIA files, thousands of pages of cables and other documents obtained from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, and interviews.   The book has been hailed by leading historians and by journalist Bill Moyers, who was deputy director of  JFK’s Peace Corps at that time.

Cables to and from the State Department, the White House, and the U.S. Mission in West Berlin, detail the sustained efforts to suppress the two programs,  over many days in the summer and autumn of 1962.  This included Rusk’s face-to-face showdowns with network executives in his office at the State Department, and between U.S. diplomats and an angry Daniel Schorr in Germany.  Schorr would remain bitter about the episode until his death.

Cables reveal that JFK and Rusk feared that the two programs would suggest U.S. support for escapes from East Berlin which might exacerbate conflict with the Soviets in the world’s most dangerous Cold War hotspot.   The White House, while publicly expressing support for freedom attempts by citizens in communist East Berlin, had decided to focus entirely on maintaining the survival of West Berlin, which meant not provoking the Soviets.  “We don’t care about East Berlin,” Kennedy told one of his top aides, McGeorge Bundy.

U.S. diplomats, tipped off by American magazine writer close to the tunnelers, repeatedly tried convince Schorr to drop his project in early August on grounds that it would “raise tensions.”  The chief of Berlin Mission’s politics desk advised a superior, “If Schorr does not agree, we may recommend CBS in US be approached by department.” Documents reveal the bullying of Schorr, who remained unshaken, although he said he might stay away from the tunnel on the day of the actual escape.

Rusk (with the approval of the White House) summoned the correspondent’s CBS boss, Blair Clark–a longtime friend of the President– to his office just before midnight on the eve of the tunnel escape.  Three CIA officials were also present.  Rusk convinced Clark to call the correspondent at that late hour and order him to desist.  His coverage would amount to a “provocation,” Clark told Schorr.  Rusk, at midnight, would cable an official in Berlin: “I saw Clark tonight and he agreed scrub CBS participation in tunnel project.”  To make sure, Rusk met with Clark again the next morning. Diplomats in Germany would soon warn Schorr to never try this again, but complained that he did not appear “contrite.”

Rusk informed his diplomats and the White House: “US officials have no apology for prompt actions taken with CBS and Schorr.  Schorr involved himself in a matter which was far beyond his private or journalistic responsibilities…”   The head of the U.S. Mission in Berlin urged Rusk to consider “high-level intervention with NBC along general lines taken with CBS” to forestall any tunnel coverage by that network.  And soon one of Rusk’s tops aides met with the NBC news chief to issue this demand.

Two months later, after learning that NBC had filmed the digging of a second tunnel, and the dramatic escape of 29 East Germans, and now planned a primetime special, the State Department blasted the project.  Documents reveal that CBS, having axed its own program, was now boasting about shutting down its own coverage and lobbying the State Department to shut down NBC’s scoop.   George Ball, an undersecretary of defense, informed the State Department that Blair Clark “has justifiably asked whether his excellent cooperation in suppressing CBS effort on earlier tunnel project has in effect left CBS out in the cold. Department feels obliged give him all available information” relating to the NBC film.

The head of the Berlin Mission then cabled Rusk that U.S. journalists were not heeding State’s warnings and continued to show interest in covering escapes.  Officials would continue to try to “prevent” such reports but suggest that “most effective contact” might be with the media headquarters in the U.S.

NBC claimed that it had not aided the escape at all, but documents show that they rented an apartment where refugees and couriers received signals on escape night.  Rusk suggested that NBC should “abandon” its film.  His chief spokesman labeled the program “irresponsible” and “not in the national interest.”

When this did not get an immediate response, Rusk called NBC execs and producer Reuven Frank (later president of NBC News) to his office, again with the support of the White House.   NBC soon called off its airing that month.  Fearing the program would be cancelled, Frank wrote out his resignation.   He believed that NBC’s corporate chiefs feared they might lose lucrative military contracts for subsidiary RCA if they did not go along with the White House on this.

Six weeks later, NBC went ahead with airing, and it would end up winning three Emmys, and became the only documentary to ever win the top “Program of the Year” award.

The tunnels under the Wall were dug by daring young West Germans attempting to free friends, lovers, family members and strangers from the East.   Hundreds were brought to the West in this way, but hundreds of others were arrested in the process, and some tunnelers were shot and killed.  The Tunnels tells the full story for the first time, based on dozens of exclusive interviews and hundreds of pages of never before seen documents from the files of the Stasi secret police.  More on the book here.

 

 

 

December 29, 2016

The Stasi Saboteur

FRANZKE-3 4

One of my favorite films of the past decade, and an Oscar winner, The Lives of Others, met with some criticism in its native Germany, including from Anna Funder, author of the terrific book, Stasiland.  The reason?  It depicted an officer in the notorious Stasi secret police committing one act that showed that such a man could show some form or conscience and moral scruples.  These critics claimed that this was farfetched–they knew of no Stasi officer ever acting in such a humane way.

In The Tunnels, however, we meet such an individual, though we can’t be sure exactly who he is, although an investigation pointed to one man.   His act was even more off the grid–sabotaging a Stasi bomb plot aimed at killing tunnelers from West Berlin (one of them is pictured above), at the last minute.  Here is an excerpt from the book (go here for more on The Tunnels or order):

Hoping for more arrests, the Stasi had set up a virtual armed camp at the Schaller residence on Wolfswerder. Explosives chief Richard Schmeing, 53, an MfS veteran of more than a decade, took charge of more lethal preparations. Blowing up the tunnel at Wolfswerder, especially with Harry Seidel on the scene, was such a high priority that Stasi director Eric Mielke had personally approved the plan. Even if they didn’t exterminate Seidel and the Franzkes, they would destroy the chamber and claim that the “terrorist” tunnelers had set off the charge in a barbaric attempt to destroy lives and property in the East.

The day after the first arrests, Schmeing’s team dug a hole between two houses across the street from the Schaller house, right at the border, directly over what they surmised was the path of the tunnel. They inserted two packs of explosives and covered them with autumn leaves. The explosives—2.5 kilograms of TNT, the same amount of RDX—were powerful enough to destroy many yards of property, so their location didn’t need to be exact. When there was no escape action that night, November 12, Schmeing removed the charge. This was repeated the next day, again covering the pit with leaves.

On November 14, explosives expert Schmeing determined via listening devices that the diggers were moving equipment to the front of the tunnel, indicating an impending breakthrough. He adjusted the placement of the explosives and ran the copper wire 200 feet into the basement of the Schaller house, linking it to a 12-volt dry battery attached to the detonator he would likely, that night, finally push to destroy the tunnel and everyone in it.

By 8 p.m. darkness had fallen. The temperature was barely above freezing. A few more clueless refugees had just been seized and either hauled away or kept under guard in the Schaller house. (Harry’s mother and Boris Franzke’s fiancee had, fortunately, not yet arrived). Stasi agents were stationed around the property.. Lt. Schmeing stood at the basement windows facing West, watching and waiting, as his Stasi comrades flashed one of the all-safe signals to the tunnelers.

Inside the tunnel, just yards away, the diggers debated. They had left until the last moment the question of who would actually climb through the hole into the front yard and dash to the side door of the Schaller house to notify the refugees that their saviors had come. The Franzkes argued, and to Seidel it seemed neither particularly wanted the assignment. As was his wont, Harry took charge. He had promised his friends and wife that he would never be first out of a tunnel ever again, but now declared, “I’ll do it.” Harry wrapped his pistol in plastic to protect it from the sandy soil, climbed on the shoulders of big, strong “Bibi” Zobel, and was out the hole.

When Harry exited, Boris Franzke mounted Bibi’s shoulders and stuck his head just above the earth, keeping watch, with his old Wehrmacht gun drawn in case Harry started taking fire. He saw Seidel approach the house and disappear behind it. Out of sight, Harry climbed the steps to a terrace and rapped on the door with his weapon. When someone opened the door, Harry saw not an anxious escapee but a squad of heavily-armed Stasi in civilian clothes and soldiers in uniforms.

Faced with machine guns, Harry dropped the pistol. He was shoved to the floor, kicked, and pummeled. His hands were secured behind his back with a steel wire and then a lengthy clothes line. Stasi agents frog-marched him out to the tunnel exit and stood a few feet behind him in the dark, holding the cord, weapons aimed at the jagged hole in the ground.

The Franzkes, just inside the tunnel, heard a familiar voice exclaim, “Come, we need to help a sick person!” Boris was about to climb out of the hole but his brother held him back. The tunnel team had conversed in nothing but whispers all night. Now here was Harry speaking in a suspiciously loud and deep voice, totally inappropriate with East German guards stationed nearby. They heard him repeat the request, again in that odd tone. Was Harry trying to warn them?

Seidel, hearing a stir inside the tunnel, suddenly shouted, “Go away! The tunnel is betrayed, soldiers will shoot you in the head!” The Franzkes took the hint, and immediately began a mad scramble to the West. Harry was knocked on the skull with a pistol and roughly hauled to the Schaller house, where he suffered another beating.

Inside the laundry room in the basement, it was time to blow up the tunnel. The Stasi commander on the scene, Lt. Col. Siegfried Leibholz, ordered explosives expert Lt. Schmeing: Sprengen! “Ignite!” There was just one problem: Two teenagers from the neighborhood were talking and maybe kissing in the dark no more than a dozen yards from where the powerful explosives had been planted. They had returned from seeing a movie, and seemed unaware of the noisy activity across the street. It didn’t look like they were in any hurry to go home.

“Look! The young lovers!” Schmeing protested.

Leibholz was insistent: “Ignite!”

Schmeing, his back to Leibholz, hesitated. The explosives expert had survived two Nazi death camps, and was slated to be part of a deadly typhus experiment at Buchenwald when the war ended. He may have had more moral qualms than many knew. Finally he pressed the detonator.

Nothing happened. He tried again—same result.

Near the tunnel’s exit hole, Bibi heard the frantic cry of “Ignite!” and a moment later, from the same direction: “The pigs are escaping.” With that, he hastened to join the panicked crawl back to the West.

[Note:  Lt. Schmeing was sent out that night to investigate and reported that someone had cut the wire out in the front yard.  A massive Stasi probe followed but despite their usual strong arm tactics, they never did find out for certain what had happened.  After the fall of the Wall, files on that probe were released.  A leading expert on the history of the wall, Burkhart Veigel, told me that he is virtually certain that Schmeing himself was the hero–that he fiddled with the detonator so it would not work, and then, when sent out to investigate,  cut the wire himself to make others thing that was the reason for the failure.]

December 24, 2016

Celebrating the Fall of the Wall–With Beethoven

Not long ago, I co-produced a documentary, Following the Ninth, which explored how Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has been used in recent decades around the globe for humanistic, even political, purposes.  It drew much acclaim (you can watch it via iTunes) and I later co-authored a book on the subject with the director.    One of the highlights of the film, and book, was showing how Germany celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall at Christmas in 1989 in the most public way possible:  with a pair of performances of the Ninth conducted by Leonard Bernstein and performed/sung by hundreds from around the world–and beamed over live TV to all of Germany and much of Europe.   Below: Here’s how Bill Moyers covered the film, and aired the entire trailer, and then the actual performance of the Ninth. Let me add that another amazing angle of all this: In our film, we featured a young German woman who had lived in the East when the Wall still existed–and she went on to be a key researcher for The Tunnels, Emely von Oest, now living in L.A.

 

December 19, 2016

When JFK Misled the Soviets About Spy Plane

JFK LeMay

When should a President lie to foreign powers–and to the press and American people?  The issue is raised a good deal in my book The Tunnels in relation to the Cuban Missile Crisis and JFK’s pressure on U.S. networks to kill coverage of escapes under the Berlin Wall.  But as anyone who saw the recent movie Bridge of Sighs know, there was also a great number of lies relating to the Soviet shoot down of a U2 spy plane.  The following excerpt from the book captures a later, more minor, U2 incident in September 1962,  and President Kennedy’s own plan, almost comical in spots, to obscure the truth…

The question of whether Soviet missiles were heading for Cuba had rapidly become critical to President Kennedy—and, in his mind, critically linked to Berlin. But in the early days of September another crisis demanded his attention, causing him to cut short a Newport vacation.

An American spy plane had briefly entered Soviet air space over the tip of Sakhalin Island, breaking the ban on overflights the White House accepted after the infamous U-2 shoot down of 1960, which led to the capture of pilot Francis Gary Powers. This time the Soviets didn’t fire at the high-flying jet, but they had spotted it on radar and protested loudly. Another high-flying U-2 was still taking photos over Cuba, so the White House didn’t want a new spy plane crisis to erupt.

As the late-morning meeting on the straying U-2 commenced, Dean Rusk said, “It’s very clear indeed that the Soviets have got us right on the hip on this one.” The plane had simply drifted off course for about nine minutes at night. Still, the U.S. didn’t want to get Khrushchev excited—he might do something rash regarding Berlin. So Rusk read a draft statement falsely calling the U-2 a “weather reconnaissance and air-sampling aircraft” that had “unintentionally” been victimized by Mother Nature.

“It undoubtedly did some air sampling, didn’t it?” Rush asked, hopefully. “Don’t all our flights do some of this?” Others around the table indicated: no way.

“Well, I don’t know…” Kennedy replied, “we don’t owe him [Khrushchev] the whole truth….” He argued that mentioning “night time” would indicate no photography. “That seems to me—that gets away from the U-2 idea.”

“But it is a U-2,” Bundy reminded him. Kennedy nevertheless decided that calling it a “weather reconnaissance aircraft” without the “air-sampling” detail might be enough.  This was what the U.S. had claimed for weeks after the enemy shot down Gary Powers’ spy plane—until the Soviets produced the pilot.

December 13, 2016

Full Chapter Excerpt from “The Tunnels”

gigi, wolf, mimmo

In recent weeks on this site I have offered excerpts from The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill (Crown), but they were all quite brief.  Now, for the first time, here is an entire chapter.

It happens to be chapter two in the book, finding us in late-winter and early spring 1962, when the era of tunnel digging under the Wall has just begun.  We meet the three creators of the main tunnel explored in the book (in photo above, see Gigi, Mimmo and Wolf); the NBC correspondent at the center of their, and my, story; along with the greatest threat to the project–a certain young Stasi informer.   More on the book, early reviews and to order, here.

News of Harry Seidel’s tunnel project rocked the insular fluchthelfer community, provoking both fear and hope. The shooting death of Heinz Jercha was chilling, to be sure, but it had come after several nights of incident-free escapes, with dozens rescued. Since the Wall had risen there had only been two wholly successful tunnels, each with a risky entrance or exit above ground.  The Heidelberger Strasse tunnel showed it could be done basement to basement.

Among those taking heart were two students from Italy rooming together in a dorm at the Technical University, or TU, a hotbed of escape activities located near the Berlin Zoo. They were Luigi “Gigi” Spina and Domenico “Mimmo” Sesta. Physically they made an unlikely pair—Spina tall and dark with a bit of a belly; Sesta short and fair, with muscles built for labor. The two had known each other since high school in Gorizia, not far from Venice, and shared wide-ranging interests: philosophy, literature, politics, economics. Gigi, after completing military service in Italy, had enrolled in an arts college, Hochshule der Kunste, in West Berlin and urged Mimmo to try the engineering program at TU next door.

Re-united in Berlin, they made friends with a 24-year-old arts student named Peter Schmidt, who had grown up partly in Italy and spoke Italian. He lived in the East with his wife, Eveline, and new baby. When the border was sealed on August 13, 1961, Peter could no longer commute to the West. One week later, Gigi and Mimmo visited Peter (entering the East courtesy of their Italian passports) and urged him to consider fleeing with his family while the new barrier was still fairly porous. Peter declined. He thought the Wall would never last—East Berliners were so against it.

Of the two Italians, Mimmo Sesta  was closer to Peter Schmidt. Both were orphans. Schmidt’s father, from Spain, had competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he met and later married a German woman. Her family never recognized the match and was scandalized when she bore a child. They forced her to give up the baby, Peter, for adoption. Sesta’s father had died in the Spanish Civil War, his mother only a few years later. The two young men developed a profound, familial bond. In the months after the Wall rose, Mimmo often visited Peter at his modest country home on the outskirts of Berlin, talking up the need for an escape plan. Mimmo would play with the baby while Peter strummed his guitar.

Until the morning the Wall went up, it seemed to Peter and Eveline that they would be able to build a comfortable enough life for themselves in East Berlin, in spite of the scarcities and hardship. Peter was a freelance graphic artist. Eveline liked her job in the library at Humboldt University. Once a year she bought a new pair of shoes in West Berlin from money she had saved. Their small wooden cottage had an outdoor toilet, but the two felt fortunate to have a house at all, as well as jobs involving little political pressure, as they waited for inevitable dismantling of the Wall. But as the barbed wire tangle morphed into a concrete barrier in more and more places in the autumn of 1961, the sense of imprisonment grew oppressive. At Christmas that year, Peter said, “I can’t take it anymore!” The search for a way out began in earnest.

After discussing various methods in the following weeks, including stealing a helicopter, Spina and Sesta decided that only a tunnel would suffice. A strong young man might squeeze under barbed wire, jump from a train, even scale the Wall—he might find an open sewer pipe, swim the Spree or hide under the back seat of a car—but what about a woman and child?  Peter’s adoptive mother also wanted to escape. Unlike Harry Seidel, Peter had no desire to flee to the West ahead of his family. They would exit together or not at all.  Adding to the urgency: Schmidt was scheduled to enlist in the East German army before the end of the year.

Despite its thin track record, tunneling was coming into vogue. Mimmo and Gigi were inspired that winter by a nervy project that hadn’t achieved even partial success. A group of West Berlin students had started a tunnel under a remote section of the Wollank S-Bahn station, more sophisticated than earlier efforts in its use of tons of wood and iron for supports. Unfortunately, passing trains loosened the earth. A small depression in a platform was spotted by police, who exposed the tunnel, producing wide media coverage on both sides of the Wall. But the students’ steady progress to that point—nearly 100 feet of burrowing—and knack for fundraising suggested that success elsewhere was plausible.

Now, in March, and united in purpose, Sesta and Spina set out to find a site to launch their own tunnel. They would follow the Harry Seidel model at Heidelberger—basement to basement. Looking ahead, they knew they would need additional help. Neither was fluent in German and they expected that negotiations with local police, city officials and maybe intelligence operatives would arise. Also, Sesta was far from ready to handle the engineering duties.

A neighbor in the dorm, a twenty-one-year-old advanced engineering student from Wittenberg named Wolfhardt “Wolf” Schrodter, seemed a perfect fit. They felt Schrodter could be trusted. He had fled East Germany for political reasons four years earlier—something always deserving respect in escape circles. Schrodter was also friendly with an organizer of the now-defunct fake passport scheme. Dozens of students in the West who had risked their freedom in that endeavor were now looking for other ways to extract friends and families from the East. They might be ready to roll up their sleeves and wield a shovel.

===

Even before the Heidelberger tunnel drama, Piers Anderton had issued a call for tips on any digging under the Wall. Anderton, NBC’s Berlin correspondent, had covered all the escape methods favored in the first months after August 13, 1961—cutting wires, wading through sewage, swimming across rivers, using fake IDs–and knew that each method was  becoming ever more difficult to pull off. He needed to stay on top of the latest escape options.

Encouraging Anderton was his boss back at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, Reuven Frank. He had helped create, and now produced, the Huntley-Brinkley Report (the top-rated evening newscast). Frank had come up with one of the most famous tag lines in the history of the medium, a sign-off for Chet Huntley, who was based in New York, and David Brinkley, in Washington, D.C., for their nightly report: “Good night, Chet…And good night, David.” He had also picked their much-admired theme music, an excerpt from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Born in Montreal to Eastern European parents, Frank had attended college in Toronto, arriving at NBC in 1950 after a stint with a Newark newspaper. Within a decade he helped create a model for political convention and election night coverage, marked by quick shifts between an anchorman and correspondents. He was among the new breed of television producers who, having never worked in radio, placed a higher priority on moving images than on the simple act of reading or reporting the news on camera. One of his pet quips: “That’s why they call it tele-vision.”

Frank happened to be in Berlin with Brinkley on August 13, 1961. A few days later he instructed Anderton to follow the public mood in East Berlin closely, knowing that this could be the story of the decade. “Give us anything you find on refugees trying to get out under this new repression,” he told Anderton. “Don’t worry about getting permission. Go ahead and do it. I’ll pay the bill.” It was more a demand than a request—Anderton would liken it to an ukase.

Piers Anderton embraced the challenge. He was, in an era of less-than-photogenic TV correspondents, one of the most unusual looking. His black hair, swept back, was turning grey in broad strokes and only in front. He had unusually sad eyes and thick lips, and was one of the rare network faces with a moustache (a bit curled at the ends) and beard. He looked like an aging beatnik, minus the poetry, the pot and the bongos.

A native of San Francisco, Anderton was, at forty-three, a year older than Reuven Frank. His middle name, Barron, reflecting his lineage back to Edward Barron, who had made a fortune in California’s legendary Comstock Lode silver mine in the 19th century, and other investments. After graduating from Princeton, Anderton had served in the Navy during World War II, then worked for the San Francisco Chronicle and Collier’s magazine and attended Harvard as a Nieman Fellow. At NBC he drew Reuven Frank’s notice while writing scripts for Chet Huntley specials, then became a foreign correspondent. Frank felt he displayed an unusual combination of versatility and competence. He was also aware of Anderton’s temper, which had once (briefly) caused him to resign over network meddling in one of his reports from Spain.

Anderton didn’t suffer fools gladly. He had even challenged President Kennedy at the White House back in January when, as part of a delegation of NBC reporters, he was granted an off-the-record meeting with the President. When Kennedy criticized some of Anderton’s reporting, the correspondent defended his work. Then he took the President to task for his first-strike nuclear policy in Europe. “Would you really start a nuclear war over Berlin?” he asked, impertinently. Kennedy said he would, if necessary.

His work in Berlin was more than competent, though he had not yet won any awards. There were maybe a dozen full-time English-speaking journalists in Berlin, but NBC boasted that it had the only fully staffed bureau.  For one Frank-produced program, The S-Bahn Stops at Freedom, Anderton covered the flight of East Berlin professionals to the West via the elevated train line. For another he narrated a report from inside a sewage tunnel through which East Germans had escaped, evoking the ending of the classic film The Third Man

On at least one occasion, Anderton had directly aided an escape plot himself.

Two fluchthelfer had shown up at the NBC office and asked Anderton to lend them a pair of Japanese-made walkie-talkies. Anderton obliged, but insisted on accompanying them on their mission. This would be quite a scoop. One foggy evening, Anderton was driven to an out-of-the-way border zone divided only by barbed wire. Across the barren “death strip,” refugees were supposedly waiting in bombed-out buildings. An escape helper would cut a path (or “river,” as he called it) through the wires, creep to the building, and lead the refugees to the West. Anderton watched as one of the men, named Klaus, grasped a walkie-talkie and wire clippers and crawled out to the border. Klaus disappeared into the darkness but sent back scratchy updates via the NBC radio: “I’m through the wire….Going down the slope…Hut on the left…Lying in a trench until the patrol passes.” Then: nothing. The other man whispered into his device: “Klaus, speak…Klaus, come in…We cannot hear…KLAUS SPEAK.” For half an hour they waited for a response but, except for periodic static, silence endured. Anderton never did learn the fate of “Klaus.”

By the spring of 1962, Anderton and other Berlin correspondents had heard that tunneling—the only escape method that kept both helpers and refugees out of sight—was gaining favor, but as yet no journalist had gotten in on the (muddy) ground floor. Anderton knew that Reuven Frank would love to sink budget resources into one. Now, in March, he asked a part-time NBC staffer named Abraham “Abe” Ashkenasi to see if any of his student friends knew anything about a tunnel, or plans for one.

===

When the final March edition of Der Spiegel hit the newsstands it was clear the shadowy fluchthelfer community of West Berlin would never be the same. The cover line read Flucht Durch Die Mauer (“Escape Through the Wall”) against a black-and-white image of a stern VoPo studying the West through strands of barbed wire. The article opened:

In adventurous ways, partly above and partly under ground, since August 13 have fled around 5,000 East German citizens past Ulbricht’s wall border to West Berlin. One in eight made it into freedom only by means of a West Berlin student group that selflessly devoted itself to this. Der Spiegel reveals first details on the escape routes and the functioning of the western smugglers who dug tunnels after August 13, opened sewers, and forged passports in order to perforate the wall.

Students from almost every country in the West had taken part, with 146 arrested so far, including two Americans.

The architect of all this was West Berlin’s leading escape organization, known as the Girrmann Group or Unternehmen Reisebüro (“Business Travel Agency’) in Spiegel’s wry christening. The Girrmann Group revolved around three activists/administrators at the Free University (FU), a West Berlin institution founded in 1948 by GDR defectors. Two were law students, Detlef Girrmann and Dieter Thieme, and one a theology student, Bodo Kohler. All were in their early thirties and each had escaped the East as a political fugitive years before. Aided by, among others, two American students from Stanford, they focused on FU students trapped in the East before broadening their scope.

The group had operated mainly out of sight since its founding just days after the Wall went up. And no wonder. It was hard enough to carry off hundreds of escapes via checkpoints and sewers, in rafts or by way of Scandinavia, without the press blowing your cover. Until now most in the media recognized this and held back what they knew about the Girrmann operations, encouraged by city officials who demanded discretion.

After six months of secrecy, however, the organizers decided to go public. One reason: They had less to hide, since their early initiatives were now defunct, blocked by East German counter-measures. More urgent, however, was that after months of rescue operations they had run up huge debts. Der Spiegel was happy to pay Girrmann, Thieme and Kohler for information leading to the first inside story on escape work. The trio had expected a fee of 10,000 Deutsche Mark (at the time four DM = one U.S. dollar) but received only 6000 DM because the editors found their cooperation less than complete. That payment  would at least keep the group going for awhile.

In a front-page story, The New York Times covered the Spiegel bombshell under the headline, “Foreign Students Aided Escape of 600 East Berliners to West.” It referred to “Scarlet Pimpernel raids” and a kind of “underground railroad.” No names were revealed in either Der Spiegel or the Times, but it seemed that everyone in West Berlin knew how and where to contact the organizers. Their headquarters, a villa in Berlin’s Zehlendorf district that looked like a miniature castle, even had a catchy name: Haus der Zukunft (“House of the Future”).   Besides providing office space, it served as hostel for students from abroad, many of whom were then recruited as escape helpers. Admiration for these fluchthelfer was strong following the Spiegel piece, but not universal. On March 31, the rector at the Free University dismissed Detlef Girrmann as a director of the Student Union, charging that his escape work put the school in a sensitive political position. Even in the West.

===

One of those newly interested in chatting with Girrmann organizers was a young West German who had left the East four years earlier. His name: Siegfried Uhse. Barely twenty-one, he was a hairdresser by trade. He had a thin face and build, light-colored hair, and he dressed neatly. Slick from head to toe.

Uhse first visited the House of the Future just as the Der Spiegel piece appeared and managed to speak with the man in charge there, Bodo Kohler. He told Kohler that he wanted to get his mother and girlfriend out of East Berlin, a common request. The next day Uhse described the visit to an associate  in detail: “I noticed that I was speaking to the right person. The manager told me they were not working at the moment because their last business blew off in February. Kohler wanted to know if I was West German and I said yes. We had a small chat about escape routes and I offered him my help if he needed it. He wrote down my name and address, as well as a description of my girlfriend and her address. He said he would contact me if there was anything new, but he also wanted me to tell him when I would get a new passport.” Kohler, he added,  “looks like the eternal student. He wears glasses with black rims. His hair is dark blond.”

In the same conversation Uhse remarked that he had spotted a help wanted ad for a hairdresser in the PX barbershop at McNair, a major U.S. Army base in Berlin. “I will try and get a job there,” he added.

The person he told about all this? His handler at the Ministry for State Security (MfS) in East Berlin. And that story about his mother and girlfriend? A lie.

Uhse had served as a paid informer for the Stasi since the previous fall after he was arrested trying to smuggle 112 cigarettes to the West at the Friedrich Strasse checkpoint. An official report claimed that Uhse planned to deliver them for a weekly “homosexual and lesbian orgy.” The Stasi had been tailing him, probably aware that he had been arrested and sentenced to probation across the border in Baden-Baden on suspicion of being homosexual, which was against the law even in West Germany. They also discovered that he had plied an East Berlin woman with cigarettes and wine from the West so that she would let him spend evenings in a room she rented to one of his male lovers. (Black market cigarettes from the West were practically hard currency at the time.)

The young man, who had once hoped to work as a librarian, was not much interested in politics. Uhse had left East Berlin for Baden-Baden in 1958 to join his widowed mother, who worked as a kitchen aide at a sanitorium, before moving to West Berlin in 1960. He now lived in a well-furnished apartment and spent nights at lounges and jazz clubs with names like the Dandy Club, Eden Saloon (favored by American tourists) and Big Apple, where he drank liberally and cultivated friends from a higher social class. He spent money beyond his means, often offering to pick up the check to impress others.

Detained by the Stasi, Uhse was a prime candidate for undercover work on several levels. He probably still resented the West Germans for his arrest in Baden- Baden, while fearing further exposure by the MfS. Temporarily unemployed, he remained attached to a costly lifestyle. Now he faced a smuggling charge in the East. The Stasi felt that, in recounting his adventures, Uhse showed promise as a spinner of false tales. After two days of detention, a tasty breakfast, and the promise of a regular stipend, he agreed to work as a low-level informer based in the West.

Like other Stasi recruits, Uhse had to submit a “letter of commitment” for the files. On September 30, 1961, the day after his arrest, he wrote by hand:

I, Siegfried Uhse, voluntarily consent to actively support the security forces of the GDR in their righteous fight. Furthermore, I pledge to maintain absolute silence to everyone about my cooperation with the forces of the Ministry of State Security and all related problems. I was informed that if I break this commitment I can be punished according to the current laws of the GDR. For my cooperation with the MfS, I choose the code name: “Fred.”

Uhse, listed in Stasi records as “blonde” and 1.69 meters tall (or a little over 5’6”), immediately started monitoring the West Berlin homosexual scene, but he was slow to crack fluchthelfer circles. It was true that a Stasi informer had wrecked Harry Seidel’s tunnel, but that had been pure luck—he just happened to live above its entrance. Uhse would have to go hunting for trouble. His big break came one night at a club when he chatted with a man who told him that a student hangout called Berliner Wingolf was a center for human smuggling. Uhse visited that club, where he was referred to the House of the Future, inspiring that fateful first meeting with Bodo Kohler.

Now, after Uhse’s latest debriefing in March, his Stasi handler ordered him to grab that job at the U.S. base, adding in his report: “Uhse is sure that the manager of Haus der Zukunft is working with a bigger group in trying to get GDR citizens out of the country. The manager would be interested in Uhse because he has a West German passport.”

===

They didn’t yet have funding or supplies, but the three students—Spina, Sesta and Schrodter—were anxious to break ground. First they had to settle on a site for their tunnel to begin in the West and a target point across the border. The crucial considerations: Would the entrance and exit be well hidden? How distant were these two points? Was the soil loose and sandy (easier to shovel but requiring ceiling support) or hard clay? How deep was the water table?

Proceeding carefully in their dorm, the three plotters pored over the detailed Berlin maps obtained from sympathetic city workers, with each building numbered and underground pipes outlined. They checked out the area around the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag—the Stasi might not believe anyone would dare dig near the busiest tourist spots—and three other sites. Each had advantages and drawbacks relating to distance and security. There would have to be enough room in a basement to store tons of extracted soil, or well-concealed courtyard in case they had to dump it outside or load it in trucks. From another municipal office they secured maps showing the varying water table in Berlin and learned that the area around Bernauer Strasse offered more room for error.  But under which building to open a tunnel?

To their surprise, the trio pinpointed a breakthrough site in the East before they found a home in the West.

It happened by pure chance. One of Spina’s friends knew someone who knew an engineer from Bulgaria now living on Rheinsberger Strasse. This was the second street just across the Wall in the East, parallel to Bernauer. The two Italians visited the Bulgarian to say hello and managed to wrangle an invitation to his birthday party a couple of weeks later. On that day, while Spina distracted the host, Sesta lifted off a hook a key to the basement. Exploring the cellar, he found it suited their purposes. Mimmo recalled American crime movies where keys were stolen and impressions made in soap or modeling clay. He found a store nearby that sold plasticine, pressed this key in the sample, and returned to the apartment. The ploy worked. A locksmith in the West soon produced a working key.

With the target chosen, the options for an entry site in the West were narrowed to the stretch of Bernauer directly across the border. One site jumped out: a hulking five-story factory at Wolgaster Strasse, half of which had been bombed in World War II and neither restored nor leveled since. Behind it was a courtyard  out of sight of both Western passersby and the VoPos.

Entering the factory, Schrodter and Spina discovered that a small section upstairs was still being utilized to make swizzle sticks, the thin, plastic cocktail straws. They located the owner, a heavy-set, middle-aged man named Muller. Schrodter did all the talking because Spina’s German was limited. Could they use the first floor and basement as rehearsal space for their jazz band? “Do not tell me such stories,” Muller scoffed, before granting them permission to use his building for their tunnel so long as they cleaned up afterward. “I come from Dresden,” Muller told them, by way of explanation. “My small family porcelain business was seized by Communists. What you see here in the factory I had to start from scratch.” He would not charge rent, and they could tap into the structure’s electrical grid for free.

As Schrodter and Spina explored the space they got even more excited. There were rooms where they could sleep, hang up dirty clothes, or drink a beer, and large corners of the basement where dirt could be dumped.

There was just one problem. The factory was set back from Bernauer and the Wall, requiring the longest dig of any they had considered. They would need to excavate at least 100 feet under the factory grounds and Bernauer—which was closer to a busy boulevard than a mere strasse—before they even reached the boarded-up apartment buildings at the border. Then they would have to toil under the block-wide “death strip” before finally, they hoped, breaking into that basement on Rheinsberger. The students calculated this would require digging over 400 feet—four times longer than any previous escape tunnel. And about three-quarters of it would be in the East. They figured it would take at least two months, during which they would have to curtail or quit their university studies.

While they recognized the added risk of water leaks and cave-ins at that length, they rarely talked about that. They were young and blessed with the corresponding bravado and sense of indestructibility. A tunnel seemed the only way to retrieve entire families such as the Schmidts. Avoiding VoPos and soldiers by burrowing under them like moles felt safer than trying to trick them at a checkpoint or hiding in a truck, or cutting through wire with armed guards and attack dogs nearby.

Now all they needed were a few more devil-may-care diggers to join them. Ample supplies, including a large amount of lumber. A van to transport them. And a healthy chunk of funding (they only had 1500 DM, or about $375, among them). Plus, a few firearms. Because: You never know.


 

December 8, 2016

How the Diggers Reacted When the Wall Finally Fell

Berlin-Wall-Freedom

My new book The Tunnels follows the digging of escape caverns under the Berlin Wall in 1962, the attempts by NBC and CBS to film landmark specials about–and how President Kennedy and Secretary of State Rusk tried to halt that coverage.  I interviewed many of the men who, as students, dug those tunnels from West to East (reversing the usual slavery-to-freedom route).   Here, from the book’s epilogue, is how three of them reacted to the fall of the Wall in 1989.  Of course, much more in the book.

On that night, Hasso Herschel was cooking a meal in his kitchen, with the television on in the living room, when he heard the first reports. He initially could not believe them—he felt it was like a Hollywood movie unfolding. He called a few friends. “And twenty of us, thirty, even old diggers, we went to all the checkpoints and drank champagne and spent money until 11 o’clock in the morning,” he would recall. “I couldn’t imagine the Wall would stay open. I thought they would close it in another day or two and it would stay closed. But when that didn’t happen we felt it was maybe even the end of the Cold War, and all other wars, it was our hope, our dream.”

The same night, Burkhart Veigel, then an orthopedist living in Stuttgart, cried for hours in front of his TV, terribly moved. This was exactly what he had dreamed about for decades: “I wanted freedom for the people. Suddenly, they were free. It was the most important experience of my life.” The next day, when his children asked him why he was still crying, he told them for the first time “what I had done back then.”

A friend of Joachim Rudolph in the East had a brother living in West Berlin. The day after the Wall opened, Rudolph offered to drive him and his wife to the West to see his brother. At the border on both sides thousands of people continued to gather so it was very difficult to pass by car. Rudolph told the couple they should press their East German passports against the window and display them to people outside. When the celebrants in the streets saw this they burst into cheers, and knocked on the car roof in approval– “an amazing situation,” Rudolph later said.

During the following days and then weeks, police on both sides began to remove parts of the wall to build more border crossing points, at Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz, and elsewhere. “Very often I was there to watch it,” Rudolph said. “Many cars with satellite dishes and reporters were there, and many Berliners came to watch. I remember in that time this terrible weather, but I was there at night many hours with an umbrella—and next morning I had to go to work. In my life I never will forget that exciting time.”

Crowds of East Berliners ransacked Stasi headquarters, then secured rooms with files holding hundreds of millions of pages. Countless other documents had been shredded by Stasi staffers in their final days there, until the shredders burned out from overuse. Over 170,000 Stasi informers would be found identified by name in the files—about 10,000 of them under the age of eighteen–but estimates of the actual number of informers went as high as half a million, and even much higher if occasional collaborators were included.

December 6, 2016

A TV Star for the Stasi

stasi room

My new book, The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill, relies on exclusive interviews with key participants and thousands of primary documents, many never seen before by scholars or writers.  Among them are those found in the dozens of secret files in the files of the Stasi secret police in Berlin.  They offer what I feel is the best and fullest picture yet of Stasi infiltration of escape groups, spying on average East Germans and what went on in often brutal interrogation of those detained.

Just one example in the book features a young West German named Manfred Meier who acted as a courier in the major escape action that Daniel Schorr attempted to film in August 1962 for CBS (but was halted after Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk intervened).   He was arrested at the scene and interrogated over and over but would not give up the names of his colleagues.   Here is an excerpt from the book which finds him forced to appear on an East German propaganda TV broadcast.  He later was tried by a state-run court and served two years in prison.   My photo above of recreated Stasi interrogation room.  You can order the book here.

Manfred Meier, also imprisoned at Hohenschonhausen, continued to be questioned by the Stasi, sometimes for hours at a stretch. The focus was on getting him to admit that West German commandos had been planning to shoot up Kiefholz Strasse on escape day. He said he knew nothing about that.

Nevertheless, he was about to become a TV star. One day a Stasi agent informed him, “Good news! You may be here wrongfully. You have a chance to defend yourself!” The Stasi planned to put him on state-controlled TV where “you can tell your story.”

What the MfS wanted was confirmation about plans for violence, and they were leaving nothing to chance. On August 20, the day before the broadcast, a Stasi staffer at the wonderfully named Department of Agitation/Propaganda composed a detailed scenario, in fact a partial script, for the show. “Target of TV talk should be to prove” that on August 7 a “violent border provocation” was prevented only by “the intervention of security organs of the GDR,” the script writer urged. The program would open with the GDR-employed commentator declaring that the Girrmann group was behind this tunnel and used the “firearms and terroristic” tactics they inevitably favored. The TV host should display maps and photos of the crime scene. Then Meier, one of the tunnel’s “organizers,” would be interviewed in depth about his meetings with Sternheimer to discuss the operation and his “reconnaissance” of the Sendler property. Meier would not be asked about any weapons, since it appeared likely he would deny it—the last thing the Stasi wanted to happen.

The script continued with what Edith Sendler was to say in explaining what had happened on escape day, including why she had delayed informing the Stasi about the loud noises she had heard (in this fantasy she thought a worker was “repairing the roof”). She was to express “indignation” over this uninvited invasion of her home, after which the commentator would display photos of the gaping hole in her living room floor. He would hail the Stasi agents for halting the invaders, leaving unsaid that they had let them all escape. After that, in the script, two Westerners who had allegedly worked with the Girrmann Group were to testify about the purchase of American machine guns and possible use of explosives in “border provocations.”

The next morning Meier was given his civilian clothes. Three Stasi agents blindfolded him and marched him to a limousine with darkened windows for the drive to the TV station. (Before covering Meier’s eyes, one of the Stasi men hoisted up his jacket and displayed a pistol, saying “Just so you don’t get any stupid ideas.”) When they got to the studio, Meier declined a cup of coffee, fearing he might be drugged or poisoned. “You can drink the coffee!” an agent assured him. “Only real Cuban beans!”

Then he was interviewed by the GDR’s chief press officer as well as infamous radio propagandist Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler. This was a taping for airing later that day, as the Stasi would never trust the uncertainty of a live broadcast. Meier admitted he had taken part in aiding refugees (he could hardly do otherwise) but that wasn’t enough. Over and over the co-hosts tried to get Meier to admit that many escape helpers were heavily armed on August 7 and had planned to spark a bloodbath. He denied it, saying that he would never be a party to violence, and that he had seen no weapons that day. When the interview was over, Meier reflected that, since the session was taped, it would no doubt be edited to twist his answers.

That’s just what happened. His fear of a bloodbath was edited to suggest this was because he knew the Wesst German “ultras” and “gangsters” planned to initiate one. The next day, the East Berlin newspaper Neues Deutschland covered the interview, with a large photo of Meier (“member of the notorious terrorist Girrmann Group”), in horn-rimmed black glasses, at the studio. The headline declared, “Instigators in Bonn and USA Prepared Bloody Actions and Murder.”

Load More