In the summer of 1962 Joachim Rudolph and a team of diggers had an idea. Having previously escaped to the West of Berlin, Rudolph was now heading back to East, only this time, he was going underneath the Berlin Wall in order to help others escape. What followed was a 135-metre tunnel that ran between a factory building in the west and a tenement block cellar in the east. It would be one of the most spectacular escape plans devised. It had been attempted before but many attempts had either failed or were foiled by the infamous Stasi. It would become known as Tunnel 29 after the 29 people who managed to escape using it.
If like me, you tuned into Helena Merriman's excellent podcast then you will already know what to expect from Tunnel 29: The True Story of an Extraordinary Escape Beneath the Berlin Wall. Merriman excels in producing podcasts but can this be translated into book form?
In short, the answer is, of course. Much of that is due to how Merriman chooses to retell the story. Short, sharp chapters give the narrative the element of the same level of urgency felt by those recalling their stories. It gives it a similar feel to the award-winning podcast at the pace of an extremely frantic thriller complete with twists and turns that will keep the reader gripped.
Ever since Anna Funder's Stasiland, writers have gone in search of more stories and interviews that help to form this new history of the GDR (German Democratic Republic). Whilst the story of Tunnel 29 is nothing new, Merriman reminds us that it is how you tell the story that really counts.
The first time this story was told was back in 1962 as Joachim Rudolph and his team were tunnelling back into the GDR as dozens of men, women and children; were willing to risk everything to escape. Back then, of course, the television cameras were on them capturing the whole event in real-time.
Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews with the survivors, and thousands of pages of Stasi documents, Helena Merriman has plenty to work with which adds even more to the already excellent podcast. In many ways, you could consider this to be the director's cut version of the podcast and Merriman does not disappoint.
Tunnel 29 has the feel of classic cold war fiction yet as we know, the truth is often stranger and if anything, more riveting. As the group is infiltrated by the Stasi the pressure is on, not only for the group of diggers but also those waiting in the GDR to make their escape. The tension of the situation is palpable, we feel every centimetre dug and every drop of sweat that hits the floor. This is where Tunnel 29 excels. In many respects, Merriman is a storyteller first and at times it really shows.
The context of the situation in the GDR is dealt with swiftly but concisely. For those expecting more than this then don't expect much. Merriman after all is not a historian. Instead the main focus is Joachim Rudolph, the other diggers, and those who escaped. As a journalist, she favours their stories and rightly so. This after all, is their story.
For fans of the podcast this is a must-read giving you much more detail to its predecessor. With over 6 million downloads, the podcast produced by Merriman is a hit and this book deserves similar praise.
For those that haven't heard the podcast (something you should certainly do) then fear not as this book covers everything and more.