Tunnel 29: The True Story of an Extraordinary Escape Beneath the Berlin Wall is one of those books that conveniently encapsulates its main story in its title, thus saving the reviewer the job of summing it up. It evolved out of a BBC podcast of the same name hosted by the author, investigative journalist Helena Merriman. It’s very well-written and doesn’t have a “podcast book” feel at all, except that the chapters are very short. Because I was listening to this, it was rather annoying to have the pause and chapter title every ten minutes; I imagine that with a physical book I would quickly have got into the habit of skimming over the titles so it wouldn’t have interrupted my reading. At the centre of the story is Joachim Rudolph, a former East Berliner who escaped to West Berlin as a young man shortly after the Berlin Wall went up. After a few months living in West Germany, he became involved in an attempt to dig a tunnel from West to East Berlin in order to help people leave. As an engineering student, he had expertise in structural integrity, managing leaks, and other essential qualities, along with being one of the primary diggers. This book is in part about why – having risked everything to escape East Germany – he then risked being recaptured in order to help other people escape.

At times, if it hadn’t been for the foreword clueing me into the fact that Joachim outlived the Cold War and was able to tell his story directly to Merriman, I might have abandoned the book just because the content is just so difficult. It begins with the end of WWII, when Joachim was six. Merriman details the atrocities committed by the Red Army after they captured Berlin – some of what happened to Joachim at this time he was still unable to talk about about when telling the story in his late seventies – and then moves on to the attempts to convince East Berliners to adopt a soviet way of life. Attempts to manage this democratically and via propaganda are unsuccessful, so at length more and more force is used to impose communism on the population. Of course, the fact that Joachim survives does not in any way mean that everyone else we are introduced to survives. This is real life, so things go badly as often as they go well – but knowing that Joachim makes it to a happy old age is the little bit of hope necessary to make it through the story.

The difference between fiction and non-fiction, as the old saying goes, is that fiction has to be believable. This is every bit as gripping as an action thriller, and much less plausible. In particular, contemporary fiction tries to give its villains reasons, ideologies, motivations. Reality has no such constraints. Although Merriman makes a valiant attempt to unpick the psychology of Siegfried Uhse, the West Berliner Stasi informant who infiltrates a group of West Berlin rescuers, there doesn’t really seem to be any underlying reason for his behaviour. He’s blackmailed into co-operating in the first place – but as Merriman herself points out, many people who were blackmailed into collaborating tried to resist in their own ways. The most common way to resist was to find out only information that the Stasi couldn’t use. Uhse, on the other hand, seems to get a taste for it; he goes above and beyond what he is required to do, and seems to derive pleasure from it. He’s not a committed communist, it isn’t for the money, and they aren’t threatening his loved ones. He seems to be motivated primarily by malevolence. It’s very difficult to read, and it’s baffling. If I were reviewing a novel with someone who behaved like that, I would complain that real people don’t behave so much like cartoon villains. Apparently I would be wrong.

I’ve taken this photo of Tunnel 29 off of Merriman’s twitter, where there are lots of other photos relevant to the story (but be warned because this thread includes spoilers for some of the happy bits at the end of the book!)

Whenever I read about something like this, I am struck by the fact that you see all the best and all the worst of humanity. Along with the Siegfried Uhses of the world, there are so many ordinary, kind people in this book. So many people helped the rescuers, often not because they had someone who needed rescuing but simply because they knew it needed doing. There were several foreign students in Berlin when the Wall went up who chose to stay in West Berlin rather than going home. They used their foreign passports as a way to carry messages between West and East Berliners. A wealthy woman in West Berlin gave the group power of attorney over her substantial savings in East Berlin so that they could use her money to fund their mission. A group of men sprang up in Brandenburg Prison, born from the prison choir, who ensured that men returning from solitary got extra food or blankets. All this is only scratching the surface of all the kindness and humanity in the book. I cried when a man who’d been waiting for his wife and children to come through the tunnel got to hold his newborn son for the first time. (This was quite embarrassing as I was in a charity shop looking at sofas when it happened, and I had to duck behind a large wardrobe and compose myself). This really is a story of very high highs and very low lows.

The short length of the tunnel was one of the things that most struck me – one of the women who is rescued takes twelve minutes to wriggle along it. The idea of a twelve-minute wriggle being the difference between freedom and authoritarianism is a gut-wrenching one. Although I learnt a bit about the reunification of Germany during my German A-level, I’ve never understood how two such different worlds could exist within one city. This book makes the level of authoritarianism and force required to maintain the division much clearer. More than anything, Tunnel 29 demonstrates the huge and appalling range of the Stasi information network. Merriman tells us there’s an old East Berlin joke: “Why do the Stasi make such good taxi drivers? Because by the time you get in, they already know your name and where you live.” At one point, if part-time and casual informants were included, it’s estimated that there was one Stasi agent for every six citizens in East Germany. This really increases the stakes as the escape attempts play out – because, unlike the rescuers, we know who the Stasi agents are, what they’d noticed and reported, where the dangers for the escapees were. Again, this made it difficult to read, and I am glad I already knew the attempt was successful! I suppose it’s testament to Merriman’s storytelling skill that I still felt the tension throughout, even knowing how the story was going to end.

Normally, I can listen to an audiobook for about two hours a day, tops: usually forty minutes each way on my commute, and sometimes another forty minutes while pottering about in the evening. I listened to half of this in a single burst. I don’t think anything else I’ve read or watched has come close to explaining the impact that the Wall had, not just on those living behind it, but everywhere. I work with a lot of colleagues in their sixties, so for a long time I was treated like an unusually precocious toddler. (Thankfully we’ve had a couple of other younger colleagues join recently, so I am not staring down the barrel of doing five people’s work when they all retire at once). When I first joined, they asked me what year I was born (1990), and two colleagues said in simultaneous astonishment “but that’s after the Berlin Wall came down!” I’ve had this reaction a couple of other times as well at church. Having read this, it’s much easier to understand why pre- and post-Wall is such a stark dividing line for people who lived through that period, even for those who were never personally affected.

I can’t recommend this highly enough. I’ve read so many great books this year already that I can already see it’s going to be tough to pick a favourite – but this will definitely be a contender!