Two men exit a tunnel from East to West Berlin in 1962. Some men in West Berlin who had earlier escaped the East dug tunnels to help their loved ones get out, too. (Picture-Alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Hope M. Harrison is an associate professor of history and international affairs, at the Elliott School, George Washington University

As tens of thousands of refugees continue to flee Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, hoping to make it to Europe and especially to Germany, a new book reminds us that 55 years ago, Germany itself erected a wall to stop refugees. In the summer of 1961, as more than 1,000 East Germans were escaping to West Berlin every day, the East German communist regime built the Berlin Wall to stem the exodus.

What began with barbed wire developed into a fortified “death strip” with outer and inner walls, guard towers and dogs, armed guards with a shoot-to-kill order, tripwires and antitank obstacles. The Berlin Wall snaked its way for 96 miles around West Berlin, separating it from East Berlin and the surrounding East German territory. A similarly brutal barrier, with the addition of land mines, was established along the nearly 900-mile border between East and West Germany from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Czech border in the south.

H "The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill," by Greg Mitchell (Crown)

Yet East German citizens did not stop trying to escape to democratic West Berlin and West Germany. Some were shot and killed in the process, or caught and imprisoned. The successful ones scaled the wall, swam or boated across waterways, rigged up small submarines, hid in secret compartments of cars crossing the border, floated over the wall in hot air balloons, or dug tunnels under the wall. It is this last method that is the subject of Greg Mitchell’s engaging book, “The Tunnels.”

The book vividly describes the harrowing conditions under which strong young men based in West Berlin dug the tunnels; some had fled the East and now wanted to help their loved ones left behind. Mitchell shows how would-be escapees made their way to secret entrances and then crawled through the cramped, damp tunnels, all the while trying to make sure — not always successfully — that they eluded the dreaded Stasi, the East German secret police.

Mitchell’s interviews with the tunnelers, couriers and escapees put a human face on this dramatic experience. The airless heat inside the tunnels is palpable; so, too, are the tunnelers’ dismay, exhaustion and fear as they hear border guards above them and cope with flooding along their routes. These are heart-racing tales, and Mitchell — author of several books on U.S. politics and history — narrates them with emotion and evocative detail. “Dig, dump, and repeat. It was like grave digging, except you had to excavate horizontally, for days, and survive in the musty chill long after light and air began to disappear,” he writes.

But the book also has a secondary, less compelling component — about the role of the American media and government in tunneling efforts. In the early ’60s, two groups of diggers built tunnels that were filmed and financed by TV networks, one by CBS and another by NBC. But President John Kennedy and the CIA intervened to suppress the films, fearing that they would jeopardize relations with the Soviet Union. (Only the NBC show aired, after much pushback from the government, and it won three Emmys.) Kennedy believed that the Russians had installed missiles in Cuba to press the United States to relinquish West Berlin, and he did not want to give the Soviets an excuse to seize an isolated outpost of Western democracy and capitalism.

Furthermore, news that the American media was paying some of the tunnelers for the scoop would feed into East German propaganda about the capitalist West “trafficking in human beings” and might demonstrate a lack of regard for the risks the East and West Germans involved in the tunnels were taking. West German officials agreed and were further concerned that U.S. money for escapes could drive up the price they were secretly negotiating with the East German regime to buy out some East German political prisoners.

Many of these tunnelers were in it for personal and moral reasons and needed help to buy supplies and to make up for lost income while tunneling, but some were in it simply to make money. Public knowledge of U.S. funding might cast all of those helping East Germans as mercenaries. One look at pictures of the bodies of refugees washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean today — after they paid middle men to assure them safe passage — makes clear what most of the Berlin Wall tunnelers worked carefully to avoid.

The political and media angles in “The Tunnels” are indeed intriguing, but the tension between rival journalists pales in comparison to what the refugees and their helpers were risking. Moreover, much of Mitchell’s narrative rotates among a broad array of characters: the tunnelers, the would-be escapees, a Stasi infiltrator and his bosses, journalists and media executives, and top officials in the U.S. government. This complex account involves too many characters to keep track of or feel emotionally attached to.

One key figure in Mitchell’s story is Harry Seidel, a famous East German cyclist who escaped to West Berlin, got his wife and son out through poorly guarded areas of the barbed-wire border in 1961, and then oversaw several tunnel projects in 1962. “Strong and fit from cycling,” Seidel worked like a demon in the tunnels, “sometimes for twelve hours straight, displaying few ill effects.” Desperate to free his mother, who had been imprisoned after his escape, Seidel was caught by the Stasi when he exited a tunnel into the East in November 1962. He was put on trial and sentenced to life in prison. In 1966, the West German government paid for his release.

The intense drama and risks involved for the tunnelers and the escapees offer a compelling context for today’s refu­gee crisis. Some of the very people who left East Germany decades ago have been moved to help those who have been streaming into Germany since the summer of 2015. Remembering how fearful they were in risking life and limb to escape, and how grateful they were to the West Germans who welcomed and helped them, they have sought to “pay it forward” by helping Syrian, Iraqi and other refugees who have fled even more brutal regimes.

the tunnels
Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill

By Greg Mitchell

Crown. 382 pp. $28