How the Berlin Wall Inspired John le Carré’s Critical 3rd Novel

Detail from cover of The Tunnels

Editor's Note:

Greg Mitchell has written a dozen non-fiction books, including The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill, his most recent work. He joins Signature to discuss the first-ever novel written about the Berlin Wall, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré.

It’s quite telling that while many can name a famous rock ‘n roll song inspired by the Berlin Wall (David Bowie’s “Heroes” or U2’s “One,” for example), very few, I would guess, can name a work of fiction. The first novel remains the greatest — “the best spy story I have ever read,” as Graham Greene declared — and it launched one of the most important literary careers of the past century.

When the East German Communists started erecting the Wall dividing Berlin in August, 1961, John le Carré was still David Cornwell, a thirty-year-old working for the British M16 foreign intelligence service out of Bonn, then the capital of West Germany. He had written two little-noticed novels and was unhappy in both his personal and professional life. On visits to Berlin he felt nothing but “disgust and horror” for the brutal concrete-and-barbed wire barrier, which he considered, as he later wrote, “a perfect symbol of the monstrosity of ideology gone mad.”

He did take heart, however, that occasionally “someone climbed over it or crashed through it or dug under it.” Indeed, my book The Tunnels explores the most daring of these escape attempts in the year following the arrival of the Wall, when le Carré was close at hand.

It was the Wall “that got me going” on his critical third novel, he would testify. Le Carré wrote The Spy Who Came In From the Cold over the course of five weeks in the wee hours of the morning in his apartment, at his desk at the British embassy (which provided his “cover”), on a ferry crossing the Rhine. He wanted to capture what the Wall meant, not so much in the German political conflict but how it changed the East-West intelligence game that had reached full flower before August, 1961.

Until then, operatives could cross the border to nose around or talk to informers, but now the intel-gathering would have to be arranged via secret radio transmissions, coded letters, and the testimony of defectors. Intrigue surrounding a high-level defector would play a central role in le Carré’s breakthrough story.

His novel, published in 1963 to worldwide acclaim (and soon to be a fine movie starring Richard Burton), would portray this, and a divided Berlin, with all the drama and terror it deserved. Those who attempted to escape from the East, in real life, continued to draw his favor, as they were, he would write, “heroes, perhaps because they were so few, certainly because they were so brave.” His novel would climax with its protagonist, agent Alec Leamas, shot at the Wall attempting to help a young woman, Liz Gold, escape. I would bet that le Carré, like so many, was affected by one of the key episodes in my book from August, 1962: An East German youth, Peter Fechter, was shot by guards as he was about to climb the Wall, then left — by both the East Germans and the American military — to bleed to death for nearly an hour before he was hauled to a hospital. Fechter was one of several dozen escapees (and tunnelers) who died at the Wall during those first, ugly, months.

When the Wall finally fell in 1989, le Carré observed that the escapees had served as the “vanguard” for the popular uprising in East Germany that led to the end of Communist control. Now it was clear that the hatred so many there felt for their government was not merely Western “propaganda.” This, le Carré, observed then, “makes my novel,” referring to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, “the more chilling.”