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


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.”

November 26, 2016

White House Lies During Cuban Missile Crisis Drew Media Criticism


We will be reading a lot in the coming days about the Cuban Missile Crisis, in the wake of the death of Fidel Castro.  My new book, The Tunnels  has lengthy (and quite revealing and surprising)  sections on that episode,  based on JFK’S tapes and recently declassified documents,  as it partly overlapped with–and had an influence on–the main focus of the book, the historic NBC film on escapes under the Berlin Wall  that JFK tried to kill.   Most people today probably believe that the media of that day hailed Kennedy’s handling of secrecy during that crisis as it enabled him to help push the two superpowers off the brink of nuclear war. Actually, as my book discloses, there was a great deal of push back from the press.

During the missile crisis, Kennedy and his spokesmen misled or lied to the press on numerous occasions during the many days of top-secret discussions, even claiming at one point that he was ill and this caused a changed in his travel plans.   JFK, contrary to his media friendly image, actually distrusted or hated the press as much as nearly any previous president.   When the crisis ended peacefully, some in the media accepted the need for misleading the press, given the potential for nuclear conflict, but in the days that followed more criticism was expressed.   Many resented JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger’s repeated requests–really, demands–for self-censorship during the crisis.

Pentagon spokesman Arthur Sylvester set off a firestorm when he admitted that the administration’s control of information was even tighter than during World War II, yet defended it, due to “the kind of world we live in.” It was important for the nation to speak with “one voice to your adversary.” He used a loaded new term in speaking favorably of government “management” of the news.

The New York Times declared in an editorial that “management” or “control” of the news “is censorship described by a sweeter term.” The Times’  legendary Arthur Krock opined that “direct and deliberate action has been enforced more cynically and boldly” by this White House “than by any previous administration when the U.S. was not at war.” The Washington Star called Sylvester’s comments, “truly sinister.”  And many others joined in.

Sylvester’s views were largely shared at the White House, and one can easily imagine President Trump’s support today in a similar atmosphere.  Kennedy himself had used the phrase “news management,” and Salinger believed that disinformation and even lies were justifiable measures in a conflict in which the enemy had the advantage of operating in secret. Privately, JFK admitted to his friend Ben Bradlee, now editing Newsweek, that the U.S. had indeed “lied” to the press during the Cuba crisis.

The White House asked Sylvester to walk back his comments–but just a bit.  There was no real backtracking or apology.   Just weeks earlier JFK had managed to kill Daniel Schorr’s CBS special on the Berlin tunnels, and got NBC to postpone, perhaps axe, its own special.  For much more:  see The Tunnels.


November 26, 2016

How the Bay of Pigs Fostered JFK’s Moves Against Media

jfk cuba

With the death of Fidel Castro, we will be flooded with reflections on his long reign, including a good deal on Cuban Missile Crisis, when a nuclear war nearly broke out.   Allow me to humbly brag that my new book The Tunnels has what I believe to be one of the most surprising, revealing and up-close views of the crisis, based on JFK’s secret White House tapes and recently declassified documents.   For one thing, we learn that the crisis had almost as much to do with Berlin as it did Castro, Cuba and the Soviets.

But Cuba played another role in the book in that President Kennedy’s botched CIA-backed invasion of Cuba in 1961 fed his anti-press feelings that in turn surely influenced his controversial decision the following year to try to suppress CBS and NBC coverage of escape tunnels under the Berlin Wall–the focus on my book.  Here’s just a small part of the JFK/Cuba material in the book.

Kennedy, despite his glossy image in the press,  had a low opinion of many reporters and resented critical media coverage and commentary. Privately, he called the press “the most privileged group” who regard any restrictions on national security coverage as “a limitation on their civil rights.  And they are not very used to it.”  To his friend Ben Bradlee, Washington bureau chief for Newsweek, he complained, “When we don’t have to go through you bastards we can really get our story to the American people.”

While his televised press conferences promoted his popularity, Kennedy’s honeymoon with much of the press had not survived his first spring in office. First he fenced with the media in April 1961 after asking them to keep secret the (misguided) plans for the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles. Just one outlet, The New York Times, published a vague report, but that was enough to get JFK’s blood boiling.

Two weeks later, he delivered a speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Association that one can easily imagine Trump offering in the future, substituting terrorism for Communism.  He boldly asked “every publisher, every editor, and every newsman” to “reexamine his own standards, and to recognize the nature of our country’s peril.” The U.S. was threatened around the globe by the Communist menace and “in time of war, the government and the press have customarily joined in an effort, largely based on self-discipline, to prevent unauthorized disclosures to the enemy.” At such a time, “the courts have held that even the privileged rights of the First Amendment must yield to the public’s need for national security.”

The Communist threat required an unprecedented change in outlook and “missions” not just by the government but by every newspaper. Each democracy, he said, recognizes the necessary restraints of national security—and the question in the U.S. was “whether those restraints need to be more strictly observed.” He railed against leaks published by the press that might tip off enemy powers. These leaks might have passed the test for journalism but not for national security, and Kennedy wondered aloud whether additional tests “should not now be adopted.” He urged his audience to give it “thoughtful consideration” and reexamine their “responsibilities.”

When details of the speech were published, media commentators—with or without thoughtful consideration—rejected what many considered thinly veiled threats to impose new controls if the call for “self-restraint” was not heeded. Time magazine, under a headline announcing “The Press: No Self Censorship,” called the speech “ill conceived.” Even many Kennedy aides, such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., felt he had gone too far.

The President backed off, but his views on press irresponsibility festered.  Informing his decision to try to kill those CBS and NBC specials–to tap the phone of a famed New York Times reporter–and lie to the press (perhaps with good cause, although many in the media complained for weeks) during the thirteen days of the missile crisis in October 1962.

November 20, 2016

The Man in the Cap


A lot of commenters over on Twitter and Facebook are focusing this weekend on one of the closing lines in the fine New York Times Book Review of my book, The Tunnels.   So I thought you might like to read more about the tragic incident, directly from the book.  It happened in early September, 1962, even as digging on one of the tunnels featured in the book (funded and filmed by NBC) went on.  That’s Mundt, in his cap, above.


At 2:55 on the afternoon of September 4 this entry was made in the U.S. Army’s Berlin Brigade intelligence log: “At Berg Strasse, corner of Bernauer Strasse, 5 m within cemetery, E Germ civilian shot, appeared fatally. Removed on a stretcher by VoPos.” The victim was Ernst Mundt, a 40-year-old former construction worker on a disability pension. When the Wall had separated him from his relatives in the West, he had grumbled about this from the start. Finally he decided to do something about it.

That afternoon Mundt rode his bicycle from his apartment in Prenzlauer Berg to the highly restricted Sophien Cemetery at the Wall just off Bernauer Strasse. Wearing a dark cap on his head, he climbed atop the cemetery wall perpendicular to the Wall. It was covered with sharp glass to discourage just such a move. Then he ran toward the border, shrugging off pleas by onlookers. “I won’t get down,” he shouted. As he was about to reach the Wall where a good leap might carry him over, two transport police officers about 100 yards away took notice. One of them fired a warning shot, and then took deadly aim. A bullet passed through Mundt’s head and he toppled over, just feet from freedom. His cap flew over the Wall. West Berliners found it, with a bullet hole through it. Mundt quickly became known to them as “The Man With the Cap.”

The following day the policeman who shot him was awarded bonus pay and the Medal for Exemplary Service at the Border. He had “handled his weapon superbly and put it to use masterfully.” The troop leader in the area was also commended for removing the injured criminal before the West Berlin police, press and camera crews could arrive. This was in the wake of new orders, following the Fechter incident, that bodies be hustled away immediately to prevent protests and news coverage in the West. Nevertheless, hundreds of angry protestors vented their fury across the border that evening, erecting a cross decorated with flowers near where Mundt’s cap had landed.

November 14, 2016

Tunnels, Arcade Fire Version

Always one of my favorite songs, even before The Tunnels book, from early Arcade Fire.  Building a tunnel “from my window to yours.”  This, speaking broadly, basically occurred in the tunnels under the Berlin Wall in 1962 that I cover in my book.  The goal for many of the West German students who dug them was to get out lovers and wives, not to mention friends and family members.

November 12, 2016

When U2 Confronted the Legacy of the Wall

Update:  Cool new article just posted on 25th anniversary of Achtung Baby and U2 coming to Berlin (and see my  take below).

One of U2’s most popular and, I’d say, greatest songs remains “One.” When it was released, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was widely viewed, thanks to the celebrated (but quickly pulled) video below, as referring, at least partly, to reconciliation in Germany, although other interpretations have always existed, such as a response to the band’s near crack-up and the AIDS crisis. One recalls that it exploded from an album titled Achtung, Baby, still their finest. In any event, the video was shot in Berlin, and includes scenes of the Wall and Trabants, the East German junkmobile, before closing at Hitler’s infamous Olympia Stadium, which I have now visited twice–for a soccer match and a Springsteen concert.  One of the heroes of my new The Tunnels book (see cover and click at upper right of this pate), who dug an escape cavern under the Berlin Wall, recently told me he’d seen this video for the first time and felt “goosebumps.”

Marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, U2 performed “One” at the Brandenburg Gate (you can find it on You Tube). Here’s the classic video.

November 8, 2016

The Final Deaths at the Wall


The Berlin Wall began to crack on its way to falling twenty-seven years ago tomorrow.  In my new book The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill, I chart that history, while concentrating on 1962 and two tunnels covered and funded by CBS and NBC (and attempts by the Kennedy team to suppress those films).   Along the way I explore the many deaths at the Wall, particularly in the early years, with dozens, maybe one hundred or more, would-be refugees shot and killed at the barrier, or swimming in rivers and canals, by East German guards.  Among them: at least two tunnelers.

I will post a longer piece tomorrow on the night the Wall started to crumble and the aftermath, but for now, an excerpt from my book on the final two deaths along the cruel divide:

Twenty-eight years after the Wall went up, East Berliners were still dying in attempts to cross it.  Chris Gueffroy, age 20, was shot through the heart and killed one night in February, 1989.  As it had done from the beginning, the Stasi covered up the real cause of death and tried to ban his funeral.  When the truth leaked out, outrage on both sides of the Wall was so strong it forced the GDR to finally, after nearly three decades,  ban guards from shooting at escapees unless their own lives were in danger.

Six months later, an electrical engineer named Winfried Freudenberg fell to his death–in West Berlin–after he lost control of the hot air balloon that had carried him over the Wall.

These would be the final two deaths at the Wall.

The tide of history could not be resisted any longer. Neighboring countries had opened their borders, and tens of thousands of East Germans crossed into Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Mass protests swelled in the GDR, first in Leipzig and then Berlin.  Honecker was pushed out of his East German leadership position. Their rock concert ploy having failed, GDR officials decided to open another safety valve by making visas more easily available.

On the night of November 9, 1989, a government spokesman named Schabowski went on TV to preview the new policy but bungled the message, accidentally conveying that everyone was free to pass through checkpoints without any approval—and that they could do so “immediately.”  Naturally, thousands flocked to the checkpoints and, confused, some guards allowed many to pass to the East, even though this had not actually been approved….

More tomorrow.  But you can order my book by clicking here or on its cover at the upper right of this page.

Early reviews and praise for The Tunnels:

“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.

“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.

“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

“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

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.

October 26, 2016

When JFK Leaked (and a Manuscript Got Tossed in the Fire)

The Cuban Missile Crisis plays a key role in my new book The Tunnels (and JFK constantly links Berlin and Cuba in the realpolitik considerations.   I even explore the aftermath, when reporters who had gone along with unprecedented non-wartime press censorship finally were free to voice complaints about that.  This short section covering early December 1962 was cut from the final manuscript in the tightening process but has a pretty amazing revelation.

The Kennedy White House found itself at the center of yet another press controversy. Stewart Alsop and Charles Bartlett (a JFK friend) had written the first lengthy, inside story on the ExComm debates during the Cuban missile crisis for the Saturday Evening Post. They declared one comment by Dean Rusk to have a place among the “immortal” quotes of U.S. history: “We were eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other guy just blinked.” The President earned kudos, but the authors claimed that U.N. representative Adlai Stevenson—the Democrats’ candidate for President in 1952 and 1956— had opposed the quarantine of Cuba and called for trading U.S. missiles in Turkey for the Soviet weapons. (Kennedy still had not admitted publicly that he promised Khrushchev the U.S. would indeed remove the missiles.)

In an unusual move, the President insisted on reviewing the draft of the article before publication. When he returned it, the writers found that he had edited it heavily and even removed two quotes by a Stevenson spokesman defending his boss’s proposal. (Alsop wanted to save the marked-up draft for posterity but Bartlett, wishing to protect his friend, the President, tossed it in the fire.) When the article appeared in print, it cited an unnamed “non-admiring official” comparing Stevenson’s advice to another “Munich,” the failed appeasement of Hitler.

 The “non-admiring official” was Kennedy himself.

October 25, 2016

The Landmark TV Special That Kennedy Nearly Killed

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 their 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.  Plus:  the (amusing) filming by MGM of a Hollywood movie drama overhead.  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.

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.  But now you can also watch the entire NBC program, below:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy






October 23, 2016

Modern Walls

Hole in Wall

Hole in the Wall today, near Checkpoint Charlie

There’s a terrific three-part video/text series just concluding at the Washington Post that you really ought to see.

In fact, I wish they had published “Raising Barriers” a few months ago–there’s so much detailed information on walls-around-the-world that I could have cited in the Epilogue for my new book The Tunnels.   It’s really an eye opener on how countries, larger and small, are building border fences, walls and other barriers at a pace never seen before, even in places you’ve probably never heard of.

It opens:  A generation ago, globalization shrank the world. Nations linked by trade and technology began to erase old boundaries. But now barriers are rising again, driven by waves of migration, spillover from wars and the growing threat of terrorism.

Part I offers more of an overview, and you don’t get to a full look at the U.S.-Mexico border until Part III, so a lot of ground gets covered before that.  Don’t miss it.

October 22, 2016

Early Coverage of The Tunnels, Plus My Articles

NBC 4 on Bernauer

It’s been a wild two weeks of publicity around my new book, including the segment with NPR’s Scott Simon, now posted here with transcript and links.  Here’s a partial accounting of other news and views:

First review since pub date just out at the venerable Christian Science Monitor, very positive and good summary of book.

The first major interview with me about the book rolled out around the country on public radio stations via venerable “On the Media,” with Bob Garfield.   You can listen online now (nine minutes).   And here’s my segment with John Hockenberry on NPR’s “The Takeaway.”

Then a full piece on the book and interview  at The Guardian.  A terrific piece on same at the Washington Post, which includes calling the booka fascinating and complex picture of the interplay between politics and media in the Cold War era.”  My own cool photo essay at Medium.

Plus, many articles written by yours truly: My Mother Jones article on how Springsteen and Bowie helped bring down the Berlin Wall.  At CJR on JFK, even as he tried to shut down network coverage of the two tunnels featured in my book,  tapping phone of famed New York Times reporter.    A wild story at Daily Beast on MGM building its own Berlin Wall–and importing future Stasi agent to USA to promote it.   How the Berlin Wall inspired the writing of John le Carre’s great The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.   Why Trump’s wall, like all others, would fail.   This is how close we came to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

And here are earlier reviews and blurbs from other writers.

October 14, 2016

Tom Hayden and the Wall

Bau der Berliner Mauer am Postdamer Platz

Tom Hayden, one of the great 1960s left-wing political leaders and later a longtime California state legislator, died today.   I intersected with Tom over the years in several ways, see my post here.  But it’s interesting to note that as the originator of the famous “Port Huron Statement” that launched the Students for a Democratic Society in 1962 he included the following commentary on the coming of the Wall to Berlin.   My book The Tunnels explores (beyond its focus on the tunnels under the Wall and the controversy over JFK attempting to suppress the CBS and NBC coverage of them) the reasons President Kennedy quickly accepted the coming of the Wall to reduce tensions with the Soviets.   Hayden and others on the Left blasted East German leader Ulbricht but also hit West Germany chief Adenauer, as you will see in this excerpt.  See my new book for much, much more.

[We] should recognize that an authoritarian Germany’s insistence on reunification, while knowing the impossibility of achieving it with peaceful means, could only generate increasing frustrations among the population and nationalist sentiments which frighten its Eastern neighbors who have historical reasons to suspect Germanic intentions. President Kennedy himself told the editor of Izvestia that he fears an independent Germany with nuclear arms, but American policies have not demonstrated cognizance of the fact that Chancellor Adenauer too, is interested in continued East-West tensions over the Germany and Berlin problems and nuclear arms precisely because this is the rationale for extending his domestic power and his influence upon the NATO-Common Market alliance.

A world war over Berlin would be absurd. Anyone concurring with such a proposition should demand that the West cease its contradictory advocacy of “reunification of Germany through free elections” and “a rearmed Germany in NATO”. It is a dangerous illusion to assume that Russia will hand over East Germany to a rearmed re-united Germany which will enter the Western camp, although this Germany might have a Social Democratic majority which could prevent a reassertion of German nationalism. We have to recognize that the cold war and the incorporation of Germany into the two power blocs was a decision of both Moscow and Washington, of both Adenauer and Ulbricht.

The immediate responsibility for the Berlin wall is Ulbricht’s. But it had to be expected that a regime which was bad enough to make people flee is also bad enough to prevent them from fleeing. The inhumanity of the Berlin wall is an ironic symbol of the irrationality of the cold war, which keeps Adenauer and Ulbricht in power. A reduction of the tension over Berlin, if by internationalization or by recognition of the status quo and reducing provocations, is a necessary but equally temporary measure which could not ultimately reduce the basic cold war tension to which Berlin owes its precarious situation. The Berlin problem cannot be solved without reducing tensions in Europe, possibly by a bilateral military disengagement and creating a neutralized buffer zone. Even if Washington and Moscow were in favor disengagement, both Adenauer and Ulbricht would never agree to it because cold war keeps their parties in power.

Until their regimes’ departure from the scene of history, the Berlin status quo will have to be maintained while minimizing the tensions necessarily arising from it. Russia cannot expect the United States to tolerate its capture by the Ulbricht regime, but neither can America expect to be in a position to indefinitely use Berlin as a fortress within the communist world. As a fair and bilateral disengagement in Central Europe seems to be impossible for the time being, a mutual recognition of the Berlin status quo, that is, of West Berlin’s and East Germany’s security, is needed. And it seems to be possible, although the totalitarian regime of East Germany and the authoritarian leadership of West Germany until now succeeded in frustrating all attempts to minimize the dangerous tensions of cold war.

October 10, 2016

Music Playlist for The Tunnels


I’ve always been one of those music nerds who have put together playlists for parties and other events, going back to the 1970s–first on cassettes, then burning CDs, and now, at last, via Spotify.  For my book party this week for The Tunnels, I mixed in some songs closely or loosely related to the book, touching on Berlin, or walls, or Cold War, or quests for freedom, etc.  Here are some of the tunes that fit that category that I mixed in.  Update:  I am not adding suggestions from readers over at Twitter at the bottom, check them out.

“Chimes of Freedom” Live –Bruce Springsteen  Songs That Inspired Fahrenheit 9/11

“Another Brick in The Wall  Part  I”  and “Part III”  Pink Floyd    The Wall

“One”– U2     Achtung Baby

“First We Take Manhattan” and “Anthem” — Leonard Cohen, The Future

“All Along the Watchtower”–Bob Dylan,  John Wesley Harding

“Yes We Can”– Allen Toussaint,    Our New Orleans

“Different Sides”– Leonard Cohen,   Old Ideas

“Ghosts of the Berlin Wall” — Orchid House Project

“Heroes” single version 1998 remastered– David Bowie,    Platinum Collection   

“Intervention” — Arcade Fire    Neon Bible

“Rusty Cage”–Johnny Cash    American II

“You Want It Darker”–Leonard Cohen   new single

“Rocking in the Free World” — Crazy Horse,   The Purge

Note:  Of course, one can easily substitute Hendrix version of “Watchtower,”  Byrds and Dylan with “Chimes of Freedom,” and on and on.

Reader suggestions so far:  Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.”






October 7, 2016

The Tunnels: A Brief Intro

If you are a first-time visitor to this new site: Welcome. This post is for you. I have been blogging regularly for awhile here and I think you will find many of the posts interesting and/or provocative. They are derived from or inspired by material in my new book, The Tunnels, but none of them really summarize the book in any sort of helpful way. The brief trailer does that in part; so do the snippets of early rave reviews and flattering “blurbs” from others (such as Frederick Forsyth, Bill Moyers and Alan Furst) collected here. But for a quick look at the scope of the book, and why it matters, here’s the overview created by the publisher:

A thrilling Cold War narrative of superpower showdowns, media suppression, and two escape tunnels beneath the Berlin Wall

In the summer of 1962, the year after the rise of the Berlin Wall, a group of young West Germans risked prison, Stasi torture, and even death to liberate friends, lovers, and strangers in East Berlin by digging tunnels under the Wall. Then two U.S. television networks heard about the secret projects and raced to be first to document them from the inside. NBC and CBS (via Daniel Schorr) funded two separate tunnels in return for the right to film the escapes, planning spectacular prime-time specials.

President John F. Kennedy, however, was wary of anything that might spark a confrontation with the Soviets, having said, “A wall is better than a war,” and even confessing to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “We don’t care about East Berlin.” JFK approved unprecedented maneuvers to quash both documentaries, testing the limits of a free press in an era of escalating nuclear tensions.

As Greg Mitchell’s riveting narrative unfolds, we meet extraordinary characters: the legendary cyclist who became East Germany’s top target for arrest; the Stasi informer who betrays the “CBS tunnel”; the American student who aided the escapes; an engineer who would later help build the tunnel under the English channel; the young East Berliner who fled with her baby, then married one of the tunnelers. Capturing the chilling reach of the Stasi secret police, U.S. networks prepared to “pay for play” yet willing to cave to official pressure, a White House eager to suppress historic coverage, and the subversive power of ordinary people in dire circumstances, The Tunnels is breaking history, a propulsive read whose themes still reverberate.

October 2, 2016

Declassified: When U.S. Targeted Berlin With Dozens of Nukes

rusk kennedyA running sub-theme in my book The Tunnels is the nuclear terror context of the U.S.-Soviet conflict in divided Berlin and how that affected President Kennedy’s views of dramatic escapes–and media coverage–at the Wall and the potential they might spark a superpower confrontation.  So we explore U.S. nuclear policy at the time, including when to meet a Soviet challenge in Europe with a first-strike of nuclear weapons.   Here’s an excerpt, with reference to a startling target list declassified just in the past year:

Nuclear war continued to hover over every discussion of Berlin. When he came to office, Kennedy had discovered that his predecessor had not fully mapped out possible U.S. and NATO responses to a conventional Soviet attack in Germany short of what was labeled “massive nuclear retaliation.” He was also worried about the possibility of an accidental nuclear war sparked by misread signals, and was concerned that the line of command gave top generals the authority to launch missiles. When he asked top military aides, “I assume I can stop the strategic attack at anytime….Is that correct?” the answer was often unnervingly vague.

Some of the generals, he felt, spoke rather cavalierly about the effects of nuclear war. A top Strategic Air Command general, briefed on the longterm genetic effects of radioactive fallout, had quipped, “It’s not yet been proved to me that two heads aren’t better than one.” Unlike many of his advisers, Kennedy felt there was too much emphasis on who would win a nuclear war, too little on the survival of the human species.

Nevertheless, Kennedy had affirmed that it was U.S. policy to initiate the use of nuclear weapons if the Soviet Army invaded Western Europe. A U.S. target list, titled “Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959” and prepared by the Strategic Air Command, included not only thousands of targets within the Soviet Union but also ninety-one in and around East Berlin. Besides several Soviet air bases in the suburbs, dozens of sites within the city made the list as part of its “systematic destruction”: factories, railroad hubs, power stations, radio and TV transformers. One haunting entry, simply labeled “population,” took dead aim at the civilian center. There appeared to be little recognition that hitting even one or two sites in East Berlin would produce firestorms and radioactive fallout certain to reach West Berlin.  Striking many more than that could produce fallout that might kill millions in Western and Eastern Europe.

President Kennedy, still a young man and with two small children, often spoke privately of the dread he felt when contemplating nuclear attack. When his brother had met him in a White House bedroom after the unnerving summit with Khrushchev in Vienna, Robert Kennedy noticed tears on his face, the first time he had ever seen him cry over political stress. “Bobby, if a nuclear exchange comes,” the President confided, “it doesn’t matter about us….The thought, though, of women and children perishing in a nuclear exchange, I can’t adjust to that.”

October 1, 2016

When Daniel Schorr Dated….Shirley MacLaine?


As I’ve noted earlier, legendary CBS newsman (and Nixon Enemies List listee) Daniel Schorr occupies the center of my new book, The Tunnels, thanks to JFK and Dean Rusk suppressing what would have been historic coverage of particularly daring escape at the Berlin Wall in 1962.  Dan would be angry about that for the rest of his life.  But the self-described chubby and unglamorous Schorr had a few happier moments that year in Berlin.  So, an unlikely excerpt:

Dan Schorr was disappointed and increasingly anxious, still without a tunnel to document with little more than a month remaining before the Wall’s first anniversary. He needed a distraction. Luckily, he found one: Shirley MacLaine.

The young American actress, whose career was on the rise after appearing in “Can-Can” and “The Apartment,”  among others, had arrived in Berlin for the annual film festival. Attendance was down at this year’s event thanks to the absence of cinephiles from East Berlin. There was plenty of star power, however, with the arrival of James Stewart, James Mason, and Maximilian Schell, whose son had a role in MGM’s “Tunnel 28.”  Gossip mongers had a field day with the appearance of Tony Curtis, who was still carrying on with new flame (and co-star of Tunnel 28) Christine Kaufmann, hiding out in a secret apartment.

Schorr, who was single, ingratiated himself with MacLaine, who was married, when he supplied her with pronunciation of a key line in German for one of her festival speeches, a simple “Ich liebe dich.” He ended up as her date for the festival ball, where they were photographed together at a table (she also posed with Jimmy Stewart). Another night, when he picked her up at the Berlin Hilton for dinner, he was amused when a flock of fans surrounded her in the lobby, asking for autographs. This had never happened to him. Some of them followed the couple all the way to the restaurant. Schorr asked her if she ever got angry about this. “It will be a lot worse,” she replied, “when it stops.”

After dinner, the pair motored out to beautiful Lake Wannsee in Schorr’s Mercedes. Driving a bit too close to the water, they found the car sinking in wet sand up to its hubcaps. It took them half an hour of walking to hail a taxi. MacLaine had to leave for Rome the next day and invited Schorr to join her. He replied that this was one of the grandest offers he had ever received, to say the least, but that he could not abandon his CBS duties on such short notice. Shirley complained that he was—of all things—too “earthbound.”

October 1, 2016

When David Hasselhoff Brought In the New Year–at the Wall

Yes, odd as it may seem, the former heartthrob and TV star David Hasselhoff has dined out for years on his claim that he helped “bring down the Berlin Wall” when he sang a hit song at the barrier for New Year’s Day 1989 less than a year before it, indeed, fell.   Here’s an NPR story about it and clip that captured it.  Of course, my new book The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films JFK Tried to Kill closes with the fall of the Wall

September 28, 2016

When They Bombed the Berlin Wall

Lazai at wall

My new book covers escapes under the Berlin Wall during the key year of 1962 (and attempts by the Kennedy administration to shut down NBC and CBS television coverage).   Violence was always close at hand, and tunnelers, and East German guards, not mention many potential escapees, were occasionally shot and killed. But from time to time the violence was more explosive and the undermining of the Wall more obvious–in the form of periodic bomb blasts.

Here’s an excerpt from The Tunnels on one spectacular bombing attack with a surprising ringleader.

A violent breakthrough arrived slightly behind schedule, in the early morning hours of May 26, but the impact was, on more than one level, tremendous. The headline on The New York Times’ front-page story would declare, “Four Blasts in 15 Minutes Rip Reds’ Wall in Berlin.” It was the most dramatic attack on the barrier yet, scattering stone and rock for hundreds of feet along Bernauer Strasse. No one was hurt—and apparently no East Germans escaped through the gap—but the blast destroyed some GDR border facilities. A West German police official said it appeared there was now “an active movement to get down” the Wall.

The Times reported that officials “believed underground groups of East Berliners were responsible.” It published a large United Press photo of two concerned West Berlin policemen peering through a fifteen-foot hole in the Wall. Editors could not know, or possibly even imagine, that the cop on the right side of the picture was the man who had helped organize and set off the main blast—lighting it with a cigar, some claimed.

He was Hans-Joachim Lazai, 24, long assigned to the Bernauer area. The previous August he had watched from his patrol car as Ida Seikmann jumped from her apartment to her death, becoming the first Wall fatality. He was also at the scene when a young German leaped to his death a few weeks later, missing the fire patrol’s outstretched net (Lazai was among those who had encouraged him to try it). The deaths enraged him. On other occasions he felt sick when ordered to train fire hoses on young West Germans protesting the barrier. Some of his colleagues assisted escape helpers by lending them weapons or standing guard during a tunnel breakthrough. Lazai had aided several tunnel operations himself, but each had failed, and he wanted to do something even more provocative to undermine a structure he considered profoundly inhumane. To that end he had volunteered his training in explosives to the leading escape organizers, the Girrmann Group.

The leaders had agreed with Lazai to choose a blast site in a busy, highly visible area, but ordered that no one must be harmed. From a Girrmann associate, a Swiss mining student, Lazai obtained six kilos of malleable plastic explosives in twelve rolls that felt like marzipan. Fellow cops helped him unload forty-pound sandbags to be used to direct the blast eastward, through the Wall. A refugee escape plan never came to fruition—a symbolic blast would have to be enough.

Shortly after midnight on May 26, Lazai initiated the explosion at Bernauer and Schwedt. By the time it detonated sixty seconds later, he was hustling to his patrol car 700 feet away. Then he phoned in the report to headquarters from inside the dust-covered vehicle. Soon French and East Berlin police arrived at the scene. As the sun rose, photographers snapped pictures of West Berlin police, including an unabashed Lazai, at the site.  But Lazai was not done. The next day he flew to Frankfurt where he had arranged to pick up more explosives secretly stored at a U.S. base. Military police had been tipped off, and Lazai was arrested. West German police interrogators told him, “We don’t like what you did—but we understand.” He wasn’t detained for long and was never charged in connection with his sabotage, merely transferred to a post in Lower Saxony.


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