It’s now a little more than thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which brought an end to the brutal division of a city, a country and a culture that had exemplified the Cold War in Europe for a generation.
It’s increasingly hard to imagine now, at that distance, what it might have felt like to be born and to grow up in a society that was an open-air prison, constantly yearning for an escape to a different life, but also constantly at risk of betrayal and punishment for thinking that way.
The Stasi’s network of informers, spies and undercover agents were on eternal alert to foil those who looked to the other side of the Wall, but still some managed to escape, even at the risk of death.
Escape was an extraordinary accomplishment, a triumph of the will, a sign of resistance.
Return journeys were unheard of.
An extraordinary ten-part podcast from the BBC tells the story of a man who managed to tunnel his way out of East Berlin – and then went back to bring 29 more people with him, right under the noses of the border guards, the collaborators and the Stasi, all with the improbable involvement of a US TV network.
It’s the radio equivalent of a John Le Carre novel, expertly told by The Inquiry presenter Helena Merriman, enhanced by immersive and claustrophobic sound design that draws you deep down into the murky depths of a water-filled tunnel, breathless and fatigued, nervously awaiting the next tunnel collapse or the approach of an ill-timed border patrol.
At the last count, I am subscribed to 31 podcasts, so I am always loathe to add another one to an ever-growing list of unlistened-to content, but I’m so glad that I listened to Helena Merriman tell me this story.
You will be too.