Nonfiction Centered in Germany: Tunneling the Wall, Reading Stasi Files, and the Enigmatic Chancellor

In preparation for (a little Vorfreude – something like the joy in anticipating something) and during my time in Germany this summer, I was reading more German nonfiction than usual, two of which are new/upcoming releases and absolutely stellar. Los geht’s!

Tunnel 29: The True Story of an Extraordinary Escape Beneath the Berlin Wall, by Helena Merriman, published August 24 by PublicAffairs

One of my most anticipated of the year turned out to be easily one of the best things I’ve read all year. This book, which initially made me hesitate because it’s based on a BBC Radio 4 podcast, was simply outstanding. Journalist Helena Merriman tells the story of German student Joachim Rudolph, who, in the summer of 1962, excavated an escape tunnel between East and West Berlin.

Rudolph had bravely escaped to West Berlin before dedicating himself to the rather terrifying goal of helping dozens of people, ranging in age from babies to grandparents, also make the harrowing escape against the most dangerous of odds. This includes the infiltration of the diggers by a Stasi spy, who fed details of their plan back to his handlers.

I can’t even write about this without getting chills. The story is so remarkable, and so unlikely in its outcome that it defies belief, and yet. It’s an incredible example of the people who dared to defy authoritarian regimes and help free others at unimaginable risk to themselves.

Merriman interviews Rudolph himself and the other still-living survivors of the escape plot, as this was far from a lone man’s endeavor. She also draws on declassified Stasi files to piece it together, which are especially revealing around the spy/mole, who was a gay man caught smuggling goods and thus recruited, providing a lot of insight into the culture of the times.

She also breaks down very clearly so much of how things operated during this time, which I’ve found really confusing in other readings, perhaps because laws changed so frequently. Merriman’s detailing of this history and politics is the best I’ve ever read.

And to use the cliche, it reads exactly like a novel, a totally gripping thriller. I could not wait to pick this up every evening — the level of detail, the poignant moments or bits of recollection the storytellers have held onto over the years, and the high stakes and constant twists — show me any spy novel that could do this better. It’s just all the better because it’s true.

I read this around the time of the anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s building on August 13, and German TV was showing nonstop documentaries and interviews around the topic. It was a testament to Merriman’s storytelling abilities and gift for detail that when events she’d described in the narrative were depicted in these shows, they played out and looked exactly as I’d imagined them from her writing. Footage of an elderly woman who got halfway out of an apartment window ready to jump, with West Berliners pulling on her from below and East Berlin policemen trying to pull her back in, was a powerful example.

Pitch-perfect narrative nonfiction.

Speaking of Stasi files, British historian Timothy Garton Ash’s The File: A Personal History (1998, Vintage) calls them a better gift to memory than Proust’s madeleine. Ash worked as a researcher in East Berlin beginning in the late 1970s, initially focusing on Nazism but quickly becoming interested in the current political culture.

You can imagine how the Stasi felt about that, and they quickly began keeping tabs on this suspicious westerner.

After the Wall fell, Germany attempted transparency, which included allowing people to apply to read their secret police files. Ash did, and was shocked to see who some of the informers in his life had been. He’d also kept his own diaries at the time, and it becomes a fascinating exercise in comparison, as he follows the Stasi’s recordkeeping against his own.

And, interestingly, to see what each side got wrong: the Stasi were wrong a surprising amount! But so was he — as he reads his file and discovers the friends and acquaintances who reported on him, he actually confronts those who are still living, asking about their reasoning, their time working as informants, and what their lives and work entailed during this period. Many are defensive, some are regretful, and sometimes he’d misunderstood entirely, and an episode wasn’t what it had seemed. Others were just willing to sell out friends for a vacation.

I love stories like this, that examine memory and reality from multiple perspectives, and overlay this with the history and culture of a scary, oppressive time. It provides some interesting commentary on the culture of East Germany and the efforts towards transparency after the Wende – the German term for the post-Wall world. Ash also offers beautiful meditations on memory and how the very act of calling it up and digging through ephemera changes the memory itself.

How a file opens the door to a vast sunken labyrinth of the forgotten past, but how, too, the very act of opening the door itself changes the buried artifacts, like an archaeologist leading in fresh air to a sealed Egyptian tomb.

For these are not simply past experiences rediscovered in their original state. Even without the fresh light from a new document or another’s recollection — the open door – our memories decay or sharpen, mellow or sour, with the passage of time and the change of circumstances […] But with the fresh light the memory changes irrevocably. A door opens, but another closes. There is no way back now to your own earlier memory of that person, that event. It is like a revelation made, years later, to a loved one. Or like a bad divorce where today’s bitterness transforms all the shared past, completely, miserably, seemingly forever. Except that this bitter memory, too, will fade and change with the further passage of time.

The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel, by Kati Marton, published October 26 by Simon & Schuster

As German chancellor Angela Merkel’s 16 years in office come to an end (today was election day!) we’re left knowing surprisingly little about the woman who was “a complete outsider—a research chemist and pastor’s daughter raised in Soviet-controlled East Germany—who rose to become the unofficial leader of the West.”

In the US, this kind of class-breaking might not be as shocking, but societal structure tends to be a bit more rigid in Germany and other European countries. Especially when the East of the country still lags behind the West in so many measurable objectives.

This was outstanding. I don’t know why but I didn’t expect it to be so well written – maybe because I’m not a big biography reader and they usually have way too much contextual filler for me. But this was perfectly done – Marton breaks down complex politics, culture, and international relations so well that I better understood things I thought I already knew. (Marton’s background is Hungarian, and she knows exactly when to insert a telling, emphasizing personal anecdote about Iron Curtain history and culture without making someone else’s story all about her — other authors, take note.)

Merkel is such a fascinating figure, still enigmatic despite being in power for so long and having accomplished so much, and for being so central on the world stage during this time. She’s a former East German who helped turn a country responsible for the 20th century’s worst atrocities into the world’s moral center. And she helped bridge divides between east and west in her own land while she was at it. I respected and admired her for so much already but there’s even more to understand about her accomplishments, her mindset, and her decision making.

Marton also examines her missteps, lest this seem like propaganda or only gushing praise. But as Angela herself wants to be remembered: “She tried.” Even if you don’t agree with every decision or political policy, I found this to be a fascinating glimpse at a politician whose role will probably be more valued by history than it perhaps was in the moment.

Because of her intense desire for privacy she didn’t really “cooperate” per se, but she allowed Marton to observe her at work and interview aides, associates, and even friends. The result is an extraordinarily formed portrait, drawing on information about her childhood and what she’s said herself in speeches or to friends, set against Marton’s clear analysis of how life behind the Wall shaped her thinking, policies, and worldview. It’s so insightful and truly, there’s not a dull page, which surprised me.

Apparently Merkel also does a hilarious Putin impression (and they speak German together and are on du terms!). This is full of such surprising and fun tidbits, it is such a delight.

I received advance copies of Tunnel 29 and The Chancellor from their respective publishers for unbiased review.

16 thoughts on “Nonfiction Centered in Germany: Tunneling the Wall, Reading Stasi Files, and the Enigmatic Chancellor

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  1. Oh, every one of these sounds fantastic! I was particularly interested to read your review of The Chancellor – the others I might have picked up anyway, but I don’t tend to read biography so wouldn’t have picked it up without your review.

    (I don’t suppose any of these were originally published in German? I’m trying to find some translated nonfiction as a crossover for both Nonfiction November and German Literature Month this year, but it’s quite slim pickings…)

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    1. I so wish I had the brainpower at the moment to really do The Chancellor justice with a full review because it was just exceptional – truly never a dull page and I learned so much. I can’t recommend it enough! It’s a whole little education in and of itself, very respectful of someone who fiercely guards her privacy, and extremely well written.

      All of these were originally written in English, but I feel you on the slim pickings in this genre… I feel like I’m screaming all the time about how little attention translated nonfiction gets. And in German it’s almost always WWII-related, which of course I like reading but there are so many other topics!

      Anyway, at least a few I can recommend you:

      Underground in Berlin by Marie Jalowicz Simon, about her experience hiding in plain sight as a Jew in wartime Berlin – it did feel above and beyond for me even in this crowded genre, it was written at the end of her life and is very blunt, detailed, sometimes shocking and unapologetically so!

      The Zookeepers’ War, by J.W. Mohnhaupt – This is about the competition between zoos in East and West Berlin during the Cold War and how it became a sort of proxy for the Cold War itself. I didn’t completely adore it, but it did have a lot of very interesting information and stories, and was generally a topic I didn’t know much about, so I really enjoyed it for that.

      Behind Putin’s Curtain, by Stephan Orth – A German journalist couchsurfed through Russia and gave his impressions on the people’s relationships to government and some current events from this personal level. That was really interesting, and of course just the little portraits of people he encounters and their interactions. It was a fun travel memoir with a good political angle and I liked getting a perspective from a non-Anglo in this area!

      A Woman in Berlin – this might be my favorite German nonfiction in translation, but actually I think you and I have already discussed it before. It’s a memoir of a woman living through the early days of Soviet occupation of Berlin and keeping a diary. It’s harrowing but really a fantastic book and historical document.

      Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich, by Volker Ullrich is on my list, it seems like a good microhistory of the tail end of the war. And the one that gets constantly recommended to me is Blitzed by Norman Ohler, about drug use by the Nazis. (Again, it’s all WWII-related!)

      Hope that might help. If you find anything good in this genre, do please let me know!!

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      1. Thank you so much for so many recommendations! You’re right, we’ve talked about A Woman in Berlin before but it had fallen off my radar – I’ve just bought it along with Behind Putin’s Curtain (given that I’m always on the lookout for Russia books)! And I’ve reserved Tunnel 29 at the library – it must be very popular because I am behind several other people in the queue, which almost never happens with nonfiction.

        I know there’s lots of interesting health research that comes out of Germany – almost the only time I use my rusty German now is reading the occasional study that doesn’t get published in an English-language – so I might have a look and see if there’s any good health and medical nonfiction that’s been translated!

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      2. Yay, so glad I could point you to those two! Excited to hear your thoughts, I know you love the Russian-set books as well 🙂

        It’s funny because a huge amount of my work is translating or reviewing translations of German medical and pharmaceutical texts, especially clinical trial-related but when I get lucky also journal articles and the like. It really is fascinating and I would love to read more analyzed or narrative-structured reportage on it — often what I’m working on is very much raw data without a lot of context. You’ll have to let me know if you find anything, and when I’m back to Berlin in late November I’ll visit some bookstores as well, there was no time over the summer. They’re often much better about acquiring and featuring translated literature on a wider range of topics than what tends to cross our radars outside of the German-speaking region, I think.

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  2. In Berlin they call The Wall the city’s biggest invisible attraction since only a few remnants here and there are still standing. The East Side and Checkpoint Charly of course being the most notorious.

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    1. I’m so glad I could put that one on your radar, wasn’t it excellent?? Must go find your review now. Hope you enjoy The File as well! Stasiland by Anna Funder is another great one in this genre, if you haven’t come across it already.

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  3. Did not think these books would appeal to me but because of your reviews I now want to read them. Even the one about Merkel. Does it touch on health concerns? The footage that did the rounds of her trembling uncontrollably during some ceremony? Or was it just our evil anti-EU press here that made a thing of it??

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    1. Oh no, the trembling was a big deal everywhere! She does address it here, and did a really admirable job, in my opinion, of doing it in a non-tabloidy way. She was so respectful of Merkel’s desire for privacy while still trying to help readers better understand her. She more puts it into context of why the press went nuts and what it says about how Merkel was always treated.

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  4. Wow, these all sound so good! I’m excited for you that Tunnel 29 lived up to your expectations. That’s always so nice 🙂 I’ve also really enjoyed some books about that time period because it’s recent enough for pictures; the fact that the author was even able to do interviews with survivors is pretty incredible.

    The File has a fascinating premise and I share your interest in the ideas of how our memories change or differ. And Merkel seems like an incredible female leader. I’d love to learn more about her.

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