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.]